The Ghost Fleet on the Tensaw River
by Brittany Clay
University of South Alabama
Creak, swish, creakyyy….
That’s the sound you might hear if you travel the Mobile-Tensaw Delta early in the morning, or when the sun is setting for the day. It is known as “Ghost Fleet,” yet there are no boats or any water vessels in sight. Bay Minette locals, however, claim they can hear the banging of these “Ghost Ships” in the still of the night. These ships can be found just south of the railroad tracks and north of Gravine Island where the Tensaw River has narrowed. What was once part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to recondition cargo ships, tugboats and tankers so that the merchant marines would be ready for war is now a prime fishing spot for outdoorsmen.
The Delta has been traveled for ages, mostly by trappers looking for an alligator, or some other creature native to South Alabama. During the Creek War and before the attack on Fort Mims in 1813, President Andrew Jackson traveled the murky waters of the Tensaw River to stay out of sight of Indian tribes. The river has been known as a hotbed for moonshine. Although making this liquor was a dangerous and illegal process, it is said that on balmy nights when fog rolled in, the voices of merchants and locals could be heard exclaiming: “This is the best white lightening south of the Mason Dixon line” as they put their feet up for the night.
The name “Ghost Fleet” hearkens back to the time during the Creek War and to the American Civil War that was fought at the site of Blakeley State Park. The Battle of Blakely was spelled without the second “e.” The park, today, has the slightly different spelling.
The fact that Mobile made a port for the Tensaw River meant it was an open “water highway” for merchant seamen to bring in supplies, slaves, and whatever the armies needed. Originally known as the National Defense Reserve Fleet, the “Mothball Fleet’ or “Baldwin’s Barnacle Battle,” the Ghost Fleet was created by an act of Congress in 1946. It was situated at Lower Hall Landing on the Tensaw River off Highway 225 and was one of eight fleets that were brought into the Mobile River following World War II. A 1947 man-made canal enabled the ships to be moved into the Tensaw River. The fleet consisted of around 450 ships that were used to transport cargo to Korea and Vietnam. They were, however, returned to the Delta in 1957.
Parked for more than fifty years, the ships have value today as scrap metal but the creaking and swish of these looming ships adds a flair of mystery and romance to the oral history of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
by Patrick Miller
This essay is part of a special cooperative writing project between the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative and several English courses being taught this semester by Dr. Sue Brannan Walker at the University of South Alabama. Dr. Walker, a former poet laureate of Alabama, is challenging her creative nonfiction and poetry classes to compose works inspired by real tourism attractions and places. SELTI is providing a place for the public to access and read those assignments with photos and tourism links. Please check back on SELTI for new works and updates published over the next two months by the students. Dr. Walker and her students will be special guests at the upcoming 2014 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award Presentation at the Mobile Carnival Museum October 15. The award will be presented to Mary S. Palmer by Congressman Bradley Byrne.
The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is a very unique tourism destination filled with both history and scenic natural wonders. To visit the former site of the Ghost Fleet, a good place to start would be the geocaching site here. The Blakeley State Park mentioned in the essay not only offers scenic and historical attractions but also an eco boat tour (by reservation) of the delta by way of the Delta Explorer. Visit the park’s website here for more information.