East Texas-built steamship
War Mystery qualifies as one of the least-aptly named vessels in
That’s because there wasn’t a darn thing mysterious – and certainly
nothing secret – about this giant World
War One-era, yellow pine steamship built in Orange
in 1917-1918. To learn virtually everything there was to know about
the ship, all any self-respecting German spy had to do was visit
any library in the U.S. that subscribed to any of several trade
magazines that published feature articles on the new ship. That
intelligence gathering done, a simple coded telegram to the home
land would have alerted the Kaiser’s navy of a fat new U-boat target.
“No vessel that has been launched anywhere in the world within recent
years has been watched with keener interest by ship-builders and
sea-faring people than the ‘War Mystery,’” The Chicago Lumberman
wrote following the ship’s slid down the ways at 5 p.m., Feb. 27,
While plenty of information could be found about the ship at the
time, that’s not the case today. In fact, the War Mystery and her
sister ships have been all but forgotten. But at the time, she was
a big deal, both literally and figuratively.
When she went down the ways into the Sabine
River that winter afternoon as war pitting the United Kingdom,
France and the U.S. against Germany raged in Europe, the War Mystery
was the largest wooden ship ever built.
“World’s largest vessel was launched in Orange, christened ‘War
Mystery,’” Pearl Joiner of Orange
wrote in her diary that day. “Took five months to build. More than
2,500,000 feet of lumber used to complete it for Cunard in Liverpool,
Mrs. Joiner didn’t qualify her superlative, but the big ship was
even larger in terms of the impact she and other locally made vessels
had on the Orange
economy. The city had five shipyards in operation during the war
and the coastal community boomed.
War Mystery extended 330 feet from stem to stern (by way of comparison
the 1914-vintage battleship
Texas is 573 feet long) and 49 feet across. With three 1,450-horsepower
engines powering a propeller 15 feet in diameter and a two-and-a-half
feet thick, she had the capacity to carry 4,700 tons of cargo. Her
claim to fame size-wise did not last long. Five other larger wooden
ships were under construction when she was launched, but for a while
she reigned as queen in the wooden ship category.
Designed by A.A. Daughtery of the Orange-based
National Shipbuilding Corporation, a nautical engineer who had come
to Texas from New York, the War Mystery
enjoyed an A-1 rating from Lloyd’s of London. The Chicago Lumberman
article said that recognition from Lloyd’s was particularly significant
in the face of “criticism and doubt of ships built of wood.”
Along with her sister ship, the War Marvel, the War Mystery operated
under the British flag. Her purpose was to carry freight to Britain,
and at that, she succeeded. How many trips across the Atlantic she
made is likely buried in United Kingdom maritime records in London,
but being wooden, she did not last long.
After the war, England unloaded her to France. Under that nation’s
flag, in the port of Oran, Algeria she burned to the waterline on
February 27, 1919 – exactly one year to the day following her launch.
The War Marvel had lasted for even a shorter time, sinking west
of Gibraltar on January 5, 1918.
America was building wooden ships nearly two decades into the 20th
century also is something of a mystery, at least in terms of figuring
the logic behind it. The likely reasoning is a combination of the
ready availability of raw material – nearly a third of Texas was
covered with pine trees – and political leverage on the part of
Texas and Louisiana Congressmen.
Certainly, a wooden vessel made no sense in terms of being fire-resistant
or safe from modern naval weaponry, which ranged from torpedoes
and submarine deck guns to battleship guns capable of firing cow-sized
explosive shells well beyond the line of sight. But the giant freighters
could be built fast and they got the job done.
By war’s end in November 1918, 16 wooden ships remained in Orange’s
yards in various stages of completion. And nationwide, 462 non-military
ships built in support of the war effort were considered surplus.
Though the Texas vessels had cost about $10 million each, they went
on the market at $75,000 but could be had for as little as $21,000.
Obviously, no post-war market existed for wooden steamships.
of the Orange
wooden ship fleet were stripped of anything useful and towed to
a point along the Sabine
River where they were burned and allowed to sink. Since some
of the timber used in the vessels was oak and cypress, remnants
of the World War One-era
fleet remain visible. And it’s no mystery to local saltwater anglers
that the marine graveyard is a great spot to fish.
© Mike Cox
- July 3, 2015 Column
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