Five World War I-era ships were found in a southeast Texas river this month as ongoing drought conditions push water levels to new lows, officials said.
A 70-year-old retiree-turned-amateur shipwreck hunter discovered the wooden vessels, each 80 to 100 feet long, in the Neches River on Aug. 16, according to the Ice House Museum in Silsbee, Texas.
Bill Milner said a friend, the museum's curator, urged him to keep an eye out for sunken ships on his regular trips to the river, between Jasper and Hardin counties.
"She said if you got time, go ahead and look for it," Milner said Wednesday. “It was an accident [finding the shipwrecks], but it wasn't an accident. I wasn’t just playing around on a jet ski.”
With the drought-battered river as low as he has ever seen it, Milner said he was confident he would find a ship in the seemingly needle-in-a-haystack search.
"Fifty-50, I really thought in my mind that if I was ever going to find anything, this would be the best time to do it," said Milner, a resident of nearby Buna. "I was that enthusiastic and optimistic about it."
Milner, who made the discovery after about six weeks of searching, said he used a jet ski because it was the only tool that could navigate the vanishing Neches.
"The water is so low that's about the only thing you can get up and down on certain portions of our river right now," he said.
Southeast Texas used to be a shipbuilding hub, and the region was particularly active during World War I as America pressed to produce as many craft as possible to sustain the war effort.
But when the conflict known as "the war to end all wars" concluded in 1918, many of those newly built wooden ships had no use and were simply abandoned in places like the Neches River, the museum said.
Milner said that older residents know about the area's shipbuilding-and-dumping history but that younger locals are largely unaware.
Even in the decades after World War I, putting ships out to pasture on the Neches was common practice, the man said.
"You will see old sunken barges that 50, 60 years were parked out there, and they let them sink," he said. "It wasn't a big deal back then."
As historians and museum curators rush to learn more about the sunken ships, the plan is to leave them alone in the water with hope that river visitors don't disturb the wrecks or scavenge for souvenirs.
The museum pointed out that taking anything from a shipwreck is illegal under Texas law and urged curiosity seekers to look at and photograph the sunken vessels but do nothing more.
“It blew my mind,” Ice House Museum curator Susan Kilcrease told NBC affiliate KBMT of Beaumont.
“We could tell almost immediately that it was wood ... which put it at a certain time period of the early 20th century at a minimum,” she said.