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The SS Sue Lykes

Digitization, Houston & Texas History

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin – his control
Stops with the shore; – upon the watery plain

Lord Byron, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, canto II

In our youth, the world we inhabit is too large, too grand in our vision to fathom.  As we grow older, we are amazed to find it shrinking and shedding some of its grandeur.  We begin to find it more manageable, we devour it piecemeal, and dismiss the notion that anything was ever too large for us.

Occasionally, however, we are reminded.

The spectacles of nature remind us.  The mysteries unlocked about ourselves remind us.  Or, regardless of age, surveying a vast expanse of ocean and marveling at the unfathomable that envelops our little, blue rock, reminds us.

The SS Sue Lykes, May 18, 1950

The SS Sue Lykes, May 18, 1950

One of the joys of working with primary sources and artifacts of our past is that these seemingly small things still have the capacity to take us back there, remind us of how large and unwieldy the world is and how small but, at the same time, how significant and vital we each are.  Recently the University of Houston Libraries received a communication from a patron conducting research in the Ship Channel Collection of our Digital Library.  Upon discovering a photograph of an old friend, the SS Sue Lykes, she writes:

We can’t believe our luck at finding a photograph of the SS Sue Lykes in your collection.  In 1954 the same vessel pictured unloading barbed wire on May 18th 1950 brought our family – Mother and three young girls – from London to Galveston (Dad had come over six months before on the Thompson Lykes and docked in the port of Houston. He had only just managed to earn the fare for us to come and wired it just in time to sail.  We remember two other children on the ship, the Russian captain and several other passengers and crew.  Lykes had very little, if any, cargo on board. The open expanded metal stairs were terrifying to climb and grandmother had to come behind us encouraging us up to the deck. We left London down the Thames, under the Tower Bridge and out to the sea – riding very high in a thick fog with the fog horn blasting – very exciting and  frightening.  It took us a month (approx. 15th November? to 16th December, 1954) to reach Galveston as we encountered an exceedingly violent North Atlantic storm, if not a hurricane. Bunk beds fell from the walls and my 6 year old mind wondered why the ship’s bow was going underwater.  We upended a card table and slid across the cabin with the roll of the ship.  I think there was some damage to the ship as repairs were made during the storm to something the first mate (who we liked because he gave us chocolate) had to scale.  Veering southward towards the Azores to avoid any more difficulty, the ship crossed the Atlantic much further south than expected.  Mom said she saw fires on the beach.  We arrived in Galveston and saw that our Father was beside himself with worry. The ship had been out of contact. We know she has been scuppered and two or three have had her name by now, but we are so fond of that ship that brought us safely here.

With her recollection, an unassuming snapshot from the past is irreversibly altered.  It becomes a reminder of the peril, wonder, and joy of youth — as well as the richness and warmth that comes through age and experience.  As tiny as we can be, at times, we are still significant enough to bring about that sort of meaning and understanding to one another.

We thank our patron for sharing her story and take this opportunity to encourage you to do some exploration of your own — online or off.  You never know what old friends you might find.

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