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Mystery of Shipwreck Uncovered by Hurricane Isaac Solved

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Hurricane Isaac has uncovered the remains of an old sailing ship on an Alabama beach, prompting questions about when the ship wrecked and where it came from.

The remains of the large wooden ship have been seen before: The wreckage is normally covered by sand, but the beach erosion caused by big storms has periodically given glimpses of what is left of the ship's hull.

The wreckage was first exposed after Hurricane Camille in 1969, then again in 2004 after Hurricane Ivan, and again in 2008 after Hurricane Ike.

But Isaac unearthed more of the ship than has been seen before, bringing droves of people out to see the bit of historical mystery on the shore.

Local historians say there really is no mystery about the ship's origins. According to Mike Bailey, historian with the Fort Morgan, Ala., Historical Society, the ship is the Rachel, a schooner built in Pascagoula, Miss., during World War I.  At that time, the government was using most steam ships for the war effort, but the region still needed trade ships, so the Rachel was built to carry cargo in the gulf.

The Rachel was built at the De Angelo Shipyard in Moss Point, Miss., for the purpose of carrying lumber.  When she was completed in 1918, she was the largest ship built in the yard at more than 150 feet long with three masts.  However, with the conclusion of WWI, she wasn't in high demand, sitting unused for several years, Bailey told ABC News.

In 1923, the ship was carrying a small amount of cargo and a crew of about eight men on her first voyage, when she ran into a damaging storm.

"The crew tried to save her by dropping an anchor, but she ran aground and was destroyed," Bailey told ABC News. "What little cargo she was carrying was salvaged, and the ship was burned."

Bailey said the real mystery is what the ship was carrying.  The Rachel was built as a lumber schooner, but ran aground during the Prohibition years when alcohol was illegal.

"The legend is that she was carrying illegal liquor," Bailey told ABC. "That's unconfirmed -- and nobody who might know what cargo she was carrying seems to want to say -- so that's the mystery."

Despite rumors that the ship pre-dates the Civil War, Bailey said he's sure it's the World War I-era Rachel.

"It's her.  We have the pictures, the stories from families who have been in the area for 150 years whose parents or grandparents remember the wreck," Bailey said.  "We have news reports from the time of the wreck, the blueprints -- it's the Rachel."

The ship is largely on private land, and there aren't any plans to attempt to move the ship, because such an undertaking would be incredibly expensive, according to the Alabama Historical Society.

So for now, the ship is a bit of history that washes ashore every few years.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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