Rio History: No Whining

Death of a Queen

Special to the PRESS

1927: The Absecon, an Army Corps of Engineers dredge, with its thousand horsepower pumps, was busily dredging up hundreds of yards of black mud off the floor of the pass.  The monotonous chugging sound of the pumps suddenly changed pitch as the 36 inch hoses struck something more solid than sand. Divers investigated and were amazed at their find.

The dredge had torn off the roof of the cabin but the holds had not been breached. Incredibly, the cargo was virtually intact! In today’s market, such a treasure would fetch a fortune, certainly many times more than was paid out at the time of loss. What a fantastic find you say. Well, yes it was. But it would have been better if the ship had remained undisturbed for another few years………

November 15, 1875: The dawning day had revealed the sails of a ship, heeled over more than would be expected considering the light breeze blowing in off the Gulf. Atop the Point Isabel Lighthouse, the light keeper squinted one eye and muttered to himself as he focused the powerful glass. A five-masted schooner, the La Reine Des Mers, (Queen of the Seas) could be seen making its way through the heavy swells. The captain of the vessel steered his course towards the center of the pass hoping to reach safety in the bay.

The next few minutes would decide the fate of the Frenchman and his crew.

The ship was listing at about 40 degrees now, and waves were beginning to wash over her gunwales. Through experience and sheer determination, the captain maneuvered the craft through the Pass and into the Bay. But his luck played out as the Queen of the Seas struck a giant anchor that had been lost by some ship many years before. Almost immediately the craft began to fill with water.

Life boats were run out and the crew abandoned ship. They weren’t safe yet. The next few hours were filled with anxiety as the sodden sailors rowed towards the Point where the wharves stretched out into the waters of the Laguna Madre. The sky had taken on a sort of muddy green color as the storm drew near. The winds were picking up steadily as the men came ashore. The people of Point Isabel opened their doors to the sailors and everyone found shelter as best as they could. The light house, built in 1852, held many of them and the overflow sought shelter in the more substantial houses in town. The storm blew itself out after a few days and the dazed townspeople came out of , their shelters to see that their town had been all but flattened. The sailors huddled together in small groups. About a quarter of a mile seaward the five masts of their ship, now buried in the sands of the Laguna Madre could be seen thrusting some fifteen to twenty feet above the now quiet pass.

The Frenchmen told their story to the townspeople. They had been running in front of the storm for a week before they had been forced ashore. The bell rang at Lloyds of London at the news. $200,000 worth of fine French wines had been lost.

Half hearted attempts were made to salvage the cargo but eventually it was forgotten and the dark green bottles rested comfortably in their watery grave under the sandy floor of the pass.

Fifty-two years passed and progress came to the valley. Monies were appropriated and construction of a deep channel began. A port, complete with a turning basin was built on the mudflats. Point Isabel was on its way to becoming a center of maritime traffic.

In 1927, prohibition was in full force. The law stated clearly that the cargo of wine would have to be destroyed. No time was wasted and explosive experts were summoned from Camp Bullis Texas. Heavy charges were strategically placed and the wait began. The best time to blow the ship would be around 11 am. The tide would be rushing out then and the waters would carry off the wreckage. The Absecon hove to about a half mile off the wreck. Men made some final adjustments and calculations….the moment had arrived. At first it was thought that the explosives had been a dud, then the water rose and rose some more. The delicate bouquet of a fine claret could be could be smelled upon the breeze. The water settled and the clinking of glass could be heard as the shards of broken bottles settled back into their comfortable watery grave.

The Queen of the Seas was no more.

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