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Fascinating History: WW1, Prohibition, Nightclub, the Wreckage of SS Sapona cargo steamer

Darko Nanevski

Near Bimini Island in the Bahamas, something quite remarkable and at the same time bizarre still floats on the water.

Labeled as the “Ghost Ship”, the remains of the SS Sapona cargo steamer is one of the most unusual attractions in the world. And it didn’t get the name because it is haunted or anything like that. It got it strictly due to its uncanny appearance and grim look.

Panoramic photo of the SS Sapona shipwreck off the coast of Bimini, The Bahamas. Taken Aug 19, 2009. Author: Compsciscubadive CC BY-SA 3.0

Panoramic photo of the SS Sapona shipwreck off the coast of Bimini, The Bahamas. Taken Aug 19, 2009. Author: Compsciscubadive CC BY-SA 3.0

Totally corroded and left to decay, The Sapona now appears to be just a memory of a ship, a ghost from the distant past, struggling for its existence. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see that is still here, surviving after all these years. And the ship’s long and riveting history is a testament to his endurance and stubborn longevity.

The starboard side, as it looked in June 2010. Author: ForrestVoight CC BY-SA 3.0

The starboard side, as it looked in June 2010. Author: ForrestVoight CC BY-SA 3.0

The Story of the SS Sapona starts all the way back to World War I when President Woodrow Wilson commissioned  24 ships to be built for the Emergency Fleet Program to assist in the war effort.

And because steel was in short supply during the war, it was decided that reinforced concrete would be used instead.  Only 12 of the 24 ships were finished, and SS Sapona was one of them. Built by the Liberty Ship Building Company, the Sapona never got the chance to experience combat, because, after her 1920 launch, the war was already over.

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

 

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

And while her other sister ships ended up being re-purposed as breakwaters and barges, Sapona’s path was headed in a different direction. Her long and complicated voyage was just getting started.

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

After no longer being of use for the military, without even getting a chance to sail, it was sold for scrap to the well-known South Florida developer, Carl Fisher. His plan was to transform the steamer into a private floating club in the Florida Keys. But when that idea never materialized, for a brief period the ship was used for oil storage.

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

In 1924, the SS Sapona ended up with a new owner, Bruce Bethel, a one-armed man with a great plan. Finally, the ship got its chance to shine. Bruce sailed the boat to the Bahamas and used it as a storage place for booze during the prohibition.

He quickly became a big time player in the illegal rum-running trade.And as the business was booming, so were his ambitions. He had an idea for expanding his operations by turning the Sapona into a big floating nightclub and a  massive liquor warehouse to supply rum and whiskey for the entire US Eastern seaboard.

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

 

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

But fate had different plans for the SS Sapona. In 1926, a devastating hurricane hit the Bahamas, and the ship was totally destroyed by it, splitting the stern apart and sinking it in about 15 feet of water atop a reef. Bethel dreams were crushed in an instant. He lost everything: his money, his liquor, and his ship. And for the Sapona? Well, the hurricane gave the ship its final resting place, where it sits till this day.

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

 

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

When World War II began, the SS Sapona found herself yet again, in a strange position. The US Army Air Force used the wreckage of the ship as a firing range. Day after day, fighter planes, and bombers had their target practice, blasting their 50mm machine gun rounds and bombs directly at the ship, completely destroying what little was left of it. And the history of the SS Sapona has come back full circle, from where it started.

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Author: miamism CC BY 2.0

Today, the Sapona is nothing but a hulking ruin, just barely floating above the water. But, somehow, yet again it has come across with a new purpose. Hugely popular among with divers and thrill seekers, the SS Sapona never feels entirely abandoned. It is still a major playground and a great addition to the vibrant marine life of the Bahamas. And the creepy factor that it once had is totally gone.