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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Vanishing of
Marine Sulphur Queen

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Mrs. Adam Martin kissed her husband goodbye and watched him walk up the gangway of the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen.

She could have left Beaumont then for their home in Austin, but Mrs. Martin stayed on the wharf as the molten sulphur-laden tanker moved down the Neches River for the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the ship’s assistant engineers, her husband would be gone less than two weeks. Leaving Beaumont Feb. 2, 1963, the Sulphur Queen would reach Norfolk, Va. in five days, off-load its cargo of hot yellow liquid and return to Beaumont.

So far as is known, the Texas woman was the last person to see the 504-foot, 7,240-ton tanker and her 39-man crew.

Built for Esso Oil in 1944, her original name had been the New Haven. After World War II, she continued to carry oil, but that would change as the chemical industry began to produce new products and seek additional markets.

The Texas Gulf Sulphur Co. built a large plant near Beaumont to extract sulphur from the Spindletop salt dome, site of the state’s first gusher in 1901. The company injected high-pressure steam into the dome to melt the sulphur below, and then pumped the molten element into heated tanks.

In 1960, the New York-based Marine Transport Co. purchased the tanker and had her refitted to carry liquid sulphur heated to 255 degrees, the first vessel of her kind. Renamed the Sulphur Queen, she got more than a new coat of paint. Her bowels underwent extensive surgery to make room for a 306-foot welded steel tank capable of holding 15,211 long tons of molten sulphur.

The Sulphur Queen had made 63 trips from Texas to various ports on the Eastern seaboard carrying a substance that could be converted to everything from matches to fertilizer to sulfuric acid.

At 6:30 p.m. that February 2, the ship cleared the Sabine sea buoy. After dropping off the pilot who had been on board, the tanker moved into the open Gulf. As she steamed southeast, a cold front that had roared through Beaumont as Mrs. Martin left the dock picked up speed over the shallow water. Now the north wind gusted well above gale force.

From the bridge, Capt. James V. Fanning of Beaumont, an experienced master, watched the spray as his ship’s 7,200-horsepower, turbo-electric power plant pushed her through the increasingly high waves. He knew his ship was equal to the job, but the falling barometer told him it would be a rough trip, at least until the front dissipated.

Five days later, Mrs. Martin’s brother called.

“Mart’s ship is missing,” he said.

At first, she waited confidently for a reassuring telephone call that never came. Surely, the ship’s communication system had failed or her captain had changed course to avoid the heavy weather.

Six days after the ship left Beaumont, the families of those on board received this telegram:

“Marine Sulphur Queen Scheduled Arrive Norfolk Afternoon 7th Unreported And Overdue Stop Coast Guard And Ships Endeavoring Communicate With And Locate Vessel Stop We Also Doing Everything Possible And We Will Keep You Closely Advised Marine Transport Lines Inc.”

The ship had not been heard from since 1:25 a.m. February 4 when she reported her position roughly 200 miles off Key West.

At 8 a.m. February 8, the Coast Guard, with assistance from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, launched an aerial search of the ship’s route from Beaumont to Norfolk.

Mrs. Fanning, the captain’s wife, remembered the page-one story in the Beaumont Enterprise three days after her husband left port. The brutal winter storm that had swept across the Gulf had played havoc with shipping along Florida’s east coast. Winds gusting to 46 knots churned up 20-foot waves.

The search, 30 miles each side of the ship’s estimated course, continued through February 13. The government’s effort included 83 sorties and covered 348,400 square miles with no results.

On Valentine’s Day, Sulphur Queen families received another telegram. The Coast Guard had called off its search and “present indications indicate probable loss” of the vessel.

Five days later, that loss seemed more certain. A small U.S. Navy vessel sighted debris bobbing in the water about 12 miles southwest of Key West. Moving in for a closer look, the vessel’s skipper saw a collection of life jackets and orange life rings.

The first ring fished from the water bore the stenciled letters “Marine Sulphur Queen.” Before the Naval vessel made for Miami, it retrieved eight life jackets, five life rings, two name boards, a shirt, a piece of oar, an oil can, a gasoline can, a cone buoy, and a fog horn.

The Coast Guard shipped the material to Washington, where government experts came to two conclusions: Slash marks in two of the life jackets indicated an “attack by predatory fish” such as sharks, and the material bore no signs of explosion or fire.

Based on the flotsam’s discovery, the Coast Guard mounted a second search from just west of the Dry Tortugas to the Bahamas and up the Florida coast as far as Cape Canaveral. Seven ships and 48 aircraft covered some 60,000 square miles, finding nothing. Navy dive teams searched unsuccessfully for the ship’s hulk.

On March 14, the government again called off its search for the missing Texas-based tanker.

The Coast Guard convened a board of inquiry in Beaumont on February 20. After taking testimony from Texas Gulf personnel and the ship’s owners, the proceedings continued in New York for additional testimony.

A year later, Argosy magazine added a new landmark to the geography of world imagination, the “Bermuda Triangle.” Writer Vincent Gaddis described a mysterious triangle whose apexes were Bermuda, Miami, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Inside it, he wrote, an unusually high number of boats, ships, and airplanes had disappeared over the years. The most recent being the Sulphur Queen.

“The Coast Guard is not impressed with supernatural explanations of disasters at sea,” it says on its web site. “It has been [its] experience that the combined forces of nature and unpredictability of mankind outdo even the most far-fetched science fiction…”

In January 2001, scuba divers investigated a large hulk resting upside-down in 423 feet of water about 140 miles out in the Gulf from Ft. Myers, Fla. Though divers found no conclusive evidence, they could not rule out it being the Sulphur Queen.

“In view of the absence of any survivors and the physical remains of the vessel,” the Coast Guard concluded, “the exact cause for the disappearance of the…Sulphur Queen could not be ascertained.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
June 26, 2014 column

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