By Bob Davidsson
For more than a century, one of the most popular diving sites along coastal Palm Beach County is the so-called "Delray Wreck," the final undersea resting place of the storm-tossed freighter "SS Inchulva," which sank during a hurricane on Sept.11, 1903.
The Delray Wreck is located less than 150 yards offshore of the southern end of Delray's public beach, in just 25 feet of water. Divers can view the ship's boilers, and occasionally a debris field scattered over a 70-foot area whenever the waves and tides choose to uncover the ship's burial shroud of sand.
A "Delray Wreck Historical Marker" was posted along highway A1A on May 22, 1990. The "Friends of the Delray Wreck" collected $1,500 to pay for the permanent tribute. Today, the official memorial is co-sponsored by the Palm Beach County Historic Preservation Board and the Florida Department of State.
While the historic marker gives a brief summary of the Delray Wreck, there is much more to learn from the saga of the "SS Inchulva" - the ship's origin, final voyage and the impact of the "Florida Hurricane of 1903" on the history of the fledgling coastal communities of what later became Palm Beach County.
The Palm Beaches in 1903
In the summer of 1903, Dade County extended from Cape Florida north to the mouth of the St. Lucie River. The Palm Beaches were not granted a county charter by the Florida Legislature until the year 1909.
The only incorporated cities in the Palm Beaches were West Palm Beach and Juno. Juno served as the county seat of Dade County in the 1890s as the result of a referendum passed by a majority of voters who wanted a more geographically accessible government center. However, once Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad linked the scattered communities by rail, the county seat was moved back to Miami.
South of Palm Beach were the unincorporated rural settlements and postal centers of Figulus, Jewell (Lake Worth), Hypoluxo, Lantana, Boynton, Delray, Wyman and "Bocaratone". In 1903 the two landmark buildings on Delray Beach were the Chapman House, which served as a hotel, and the "Orange Grove House of Refuge No. 3."
Delray's House of Refuge, dedicated in April 1876, was one of five built and staffed by the U.S. Treasury Department's Life Saving Service between Cape Canaveral and Cape Florida. The mission of the Houses of Refuge was to "rescue and provide sustenance" to survivors of the many shipwrecks along thinly populated eastern coast of Florida.
The 1879 "Annual Report of the Life Saving Service" stated the House of Refuge "contemplates no other life saving operations than affording succor to shipwrecked persons who may be cast ashore, and who, in absence of means of relief, would be liable to perish from hunger and thirst in that desolate region."
The House of Refuge keepers and members of their families were required to "go along the beach, in both directions, in search of castaways immediately after a storm."
The two-story building consisted of four rooms in its lower level with an upper floor dormitory. It received the tropical moniker of "Orange Grove House of Refuge" from a small grove of sour oranges adjacent to the station. The House of Refuge also served as the site of the "Zion" community post office on Delray Beach between 1888-92.
The U.S. Life Saving Service operated the House of Refuge for 19 years. It ceased operation in 1896. The station had a variety of public and private uses until the building burned to the ground on March 2, 1927.
The Chapman House, also known as the Chapman Inn and Delray's "Grand Hotel," was a three-story Bahamian-style building completed in 1902. It served as both a guest house and home for Frank and Lucy Chapman, the owners and innkeepers.
After the closing of the House of Refuge, the Chapman Inn was often used as a shelter for local residents during hurricanes. It also provided refuge to waterlogged survivors of shipwrecks, including the crew of the "SS Inchulva" during the hurricane of 1903.
Ironically, the Chapman House - Delray's first "Grand Hotel" - also was damaged by fire in 1927, the same year as the Orange Grove House of Refuge.
The Florida Hurricane of 1903
Between 1900 and 1929, Florida was hit or impacted by 23 hurricanes. The Palm Beaches experienced tropical storm winds in 1888, 1894, 1903, 1904 and 1906. The cluster of storms tested both the determination of pioneers and the pace of coastal development at the turn of the 20th century.
The Florida Hurricane of 1903 was not the strongest storm to hit the Palm Beaches. The maximum winds hitting West Palm Beach were estimated at 84 miles per hour. However, there were no hurricane building codes and the sustained winds on the north side of eye wall caused widespread destruction from Jupiter Inlet south to Boca Raton.
The 1903 hurricane formed over the central Bahamas on Sept. 9 and moved northwest toward the southeast coast of Florida. Residents of Dade County were given about a 24-hour notice of the storm's approach by government officials in Miami, but its exact landfall was unknown in these early days of hurricane forecasting.
The eye of the storm hit the coast north of Fort Lauderdale the afternoon of Sept. 11 with maximum winds of 90 miles per hour. It continued on a northwest path across the peninsula, entering the Gulf of Mexico south of Tampa. Three days later, it hit Florida a second time at Panama City as a category one storm.
The hurricane cut power lines and newswire services south of Tampa for more than two days. This caused a news blackout and the outside world was unaware of the devastation in South Florida until the Associated Press forwarded a report from Jacksonville on Sept. 15.
The news report stated, "At Palm Beach, damage was serious. Grunber's Opera House was partly unroofed, as were eight other business blocks, which were also damaged in other ways. All the boats on the Lake Worth waterfront, excepting three, were wrecked and sank. The Royal Poinciana Hotel was slightly damaged."
An eight-foot storm surge was reported at the Jupiter Inlet. The schooner "Martha Jones" was blown ashore nine miles south of the inlet. Three cottages were blown into the Lake Worth Lagoon at Munyon Island, and the island's hotel was damaged.
Rough seas forced a Standard Oil barge onto a shallow reef offshore of Boynton Beach. The crew of 11 had to swim to shore as the barge began to break up in the surf.
The "Lake Worth News" building was severely damaged, as was the home of "The Tropical Sun" newspaper. The interruption of local news services added to the confusion after the storm.
Local tourism in the Palm Beaches was impacted by damages sustained at the Seminole Hotel, Palm Hotel and Schmidt's Commercial Hotel. Three of four churches in downtown West Palm Beach also were destroyed and had to be rebuilt.
Half of the orange crop along Florida's west coast, and about one-forth of the southeast coast harvest, was ruined by the hurricane. The storm-related damages are estimated at $500,000 in 1903 gold-backed dollars.
The 1903 Florida Hurricane killed a total of 16 persons. Nine of the deaths were crewmen of the "SS Inchulva" which sank off Delray Beach at 5 p.m. Sept. 11 at the peak of the storm.
The Last Voyage of the 'SS Inchulva'
In 1892, a 386-foot-long, steam-powered freighter was built at the West Hartlepool, England, Harbor and Docks shipyard by the W. Gray & Co. Ltd. The ship was christened and launched as the single-stack steamer "Alberta," powered by one screw-driven triple expansion engine.
She was listed by the Lloyds Register of Shipping as a steel vessel of 4,823 tons gross. The ship was designed with a 48-foot-wide beam and thus capable of carrying a variety of cargos. By British standards, it was a state of the art merchant vessel, with many of its sister ships sailing long after World War I.
The "Alberta" was purchased by the Hamilton, Fraser & Company of Liverpool in 1898, and assigned to a fleet of ships operated by its American subsidiary, the Inch Shipping Company, based in Galveston, Texas.
The "Alberta" was renamed the "SS Inchulva" to promote the Inch Shipping Company. It became the sixth of the fleet's "Inch" ships. Its sister cargo ships were the "Inchura," "Inchmona," "Inchmarlo," "Inchmaree" and "Inchdune."
The "SS Inchulva" set sail from England in July 1903, bound for Galveston to receive a shipment of agricultural products. In what became its final voyage, the ship left Galveston Sept. 6 with a cargo of wheat, lumber and cotton. Its destination was Newport News, Virginia.
It is not known if the ship was aware of a hurricane forming in the Bahamas. The "Inchulva" sailed directly into the path of the tropical storm. Capt. G.W. Davis and his crew of 27 were soon fighting for their lives against the wind and huge waves, with nearly zero visibility along he coast.
In the "Inchulva's" ship log, Captain Davis wrote, "At 2 a.m. (Sept. 11) I was 15 miles off Fowey Rocks (southeast of Miami near Key Biscayne) by bearings, and gale increasing. By noon the hurricane was fearful."
The Sept. 15 newswire report stated, "The ship's steering gear broke and she floated at will, striking the beach at great force and breaking into three pieces. The captain, mates and 14 of the crew were saved. Nine were drowned, among them the engineer. A small boat with five men was battered to pieces by waves and its occupants drowned."
The text of the "Delray Wreck" historic marker adds, "The storm struck at 5 p.m., tossing the ship and causing the cargo to shift. Steering became impossible, so Captain Davis put out both anchors, but to no avail. The anchors parted, and the "Inchulva" grounded and was torn apart (by the waves)."
The Orange Grove House of Refuge rescue station closed six years prior to the shipwreck, so the surviving "Inchulva" crew were escorted to the Chapman House, where several local residents were taking shelter from the hurricane. They were reported to have received hot food, dry clothing and "every kindness and attention at the hands of Mrs. Chapman."
While "Inchulva" officers and sailors recovered at the hotel, the Inch Shipping Company forwarded the wages earned by the surviving crew members of the ill-starred voyage. After a week of recuperation, they were sent to New York by the company.
The nine dead sailors were tersely identified in a Lloyd's report and British newspapers as seamen Smith (the engineer), Magill, Weatherill, Taylor, Gaeting, P. Whitley, Shaw, Whitney and cabin steward Allen. They were buried by local residents on the Delray Beach dune.
Captain Davis, his chief officer, second officer and a seaman on watch during the hurricane were brought before a hastily called naval court of inquiry held Sept. 19 at the British Vice Consulate building in Jacksonville. The court exonerated the captain and crew of all blame for the destruction of the "SS Inchulva". It was deemed an act of nature's fury.
Today, the Delray Wreck is home to schools of tropical fish, and visited by hundreds of divers who swim from the beach to view the final resting place of the "SS Inchulva".
(c.) Davidsson. 2016.
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A Rich Historical Heritage
The "Origins & History of the Palm Beaches" information site is a retrospective look at the history of Palm Beach County, and how its past has influenced the present. This blog is a companion site to "Palm Beach County Issues & Views." Both sites are edited by Robert I. Davidsson, retired manager of the Palm Beach County Library System's Government Research Service (GRS), and author of the book "Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida" and related articles about Florida's past.