Kiptopeke’s Concrete Ships; A Long Journey to Obscurity

Concrete floats. Well, a concrete hull does, anyway. Form the material to make a vessel that displaces water and–voila–just like steel, concrete is buoyant. Go figure.

I knew writing a book about the Chesapeake Bay’s abandoned history would lead me to Kiptopeke State Park‘s concrete ships, which I’ve held in curious esteem since I first saw them. That was after taking up kayak fishing years ago. But the pursuit of monster striped bass, which can reach 50 pounds or more in this part of the bay, dulled my senses, stifled my appreciation for the many virtues that make Kiptopeke such a special place–the concrete ships included.

I wrote a short piece on the concrete ships for Virginia Living magazine‘s website, but researching that post I barely scratched the surface. It turns out that these World War II relics still held secrets, and with a little effort, I’d help tease out traces of this hidden history.

The southern bay is a wide expanse and, on the surface, fairly featureless, so the concrete ships offer a good excuse to put in and head due west. Granted, you’ll not paddle all that far; the ships are several hundred yards offshore. In fact, you can explore them nearly as well from land, standing on an old ferry pier–the reason those concrete ships landed here in the first place.

Years ago drivers and passengers wanting to cross the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay boarded a ferry. There was no bridge-tunnel. In the late 1940s, the Virginia Ferry Corporation moved their terminal from the relatively safe harbor at Cape Charles to Kiptopeke. Officials needed some way to shield a new pier they were preparing to build on the exposed Eastern Shore of the bay from the fickle Virginia weather.

Kiptopeke Concrete Ships

Kiptopeke Concrete Ships 1

Two views of the old ferry at Kiptopeke. Courtesy of the Cape Charles Historical Society

The U.S. government, flush with ships from World War II, offered the perfect solution, and in 1949, officials partially sunk nine concrete ships–the lower half of the hulls below the surface, resting on the bay, the top half exposed above the waterline–in two neat rows roughly parallel to the shore.

There’s another, similar breakwater in Powell River, British Columbia, Canada. John Campbell chronicled the history of those ships in his 2003 book Hulks; The Breakwater Ships of Powell River, available from the Powell River Historical Museum.

Why were there concrete vessels in the first place? A wartime shortage of plate steel. Allied shipyards constructed several dozen barges, tankers and freighters to supplement the steel fleets. The vessels at Kiptopeke were among two dozen built by McCloskey and Co. in Tampa to haul commodities–sugar, coffee and sulfur, for example–from Caribbean and South American ports.

Kiptopeke Concrete Ships 2

Kiptopeke Concrete Ships 3

Top: Concrete ship construction, laying rebar. McCloskey and Co., Tampa, Florida. Courtesy of the United States National Archives and Records Administration

Bottom: Concrete ship launch, McCloskey and Co., Tampa, Florida. Courtesy of the United States National Archives and Records Administration

I learned from Ted Boelt, Kiptopeke’s storekeeper and unofficial resident historian of the concrete ships, that the McCloskey ships weren’t destined only for the mundane commodity trade, though. The army used several in the South Pacific as floating storage space for the supplies necessary to fight the Japanese. The Allies sunk a couple off the coast of Normandy, France as a breakwater ahead of the D-Day invasion.

Real estate broker and local historian Bill Parr said the ships’ colorful history continued after ferry officials brought them to Kiptopeke for the terminal. One ferry director used the ships for a private drinks-and-poker club. Adventurous young locals would board the ships, walking among the cabins, fully furnished when they arrived at Kiptopeke, that had sheltered each ship’s 48 crew members. There were even plans at one point, as part of an adjacent campground and resort that never materialized, to build interpretive platforms over some of the vessels that would allow visitors to stand above them.

Kiptopoeke Concrete Ships 4

Kiptopeke’s concrete ships shortly after their partial sinking. Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA.

People still find the ships useful, some as a historical curiosity, others as submerged structure that attracts big fish. Indeed, plants and animals long ago found the ships suitable habitat for scratching out a respectable living on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Dense mats of shoreline plants sprout from the ships’ poop decks. Pelicans, gulls and pigeons are more-or-less permanent residents. Migratory birds stop by, too, on their way down the Atlantic Flyway. The submerged part of the hulls are encrusted with thick colonies of oysters and barnacles that hiss when they’re exposed at low tide.

On a recent visit to Kiptopeke I met Ted Boelt, and we talked some about the history of the ships. As I edged my kayak into the choppy water, Boelt asked me to look for a hull number or name, anything to identify the ships, as I paddled around them. It turns out that records indicate which ships were brought here, but not each vessel’s individual identity. No name to a face, so to speak.

While the ships’ hull numbers and names are long gone–erased by flaking concrete and rust that bleeds from rebar–I did notice odd numbers on the bows, most beginning with “H” and single or double digits. Not a name and too short for a hull number. A bit of research turned up that McCloskey and Co. gave the ships so-called yard numbers in Tampa. These numbers synced perfectly with the ships towed to Kiptopeke.

Although this is admittedly not a major breakthrough, these ships’ identity is hopefully a sort of posthumous salute to their brief careers serving the country, their travels that took them farther than most of us have ever been. Sure, it makes no difference to the flora and fauna that now reside on these old skeletons–or for many of the fishermen who circle them in search of a trophy fish. But for those who like a good story, who can appreciate sacrifice, it means, I hope, at least a little something.

Did you or a loved one serve on board a McCloskey concrete ship? I’d like to chat. E-mail me: benswenson@cox.net

Here are modern photos of the concrete ships. For all but the first (Arthur Newell Talbot) there is a picture of the hull and the yard number, which can hard to make out, and a brief statement about the ship’s wartime service. Arthur Newell Talbot’s yard number has fallen into the water.

From north to south, Kiptopeke’s concrete ships are:

Arthur Newell Talbot – Yard No. 3. The first of three McCloskey ships to be completed simultaneously. Used as a training ship on the west coast.

 Arthur Newell Talbot Stern       Arthur Newell Talbot Bow

Stern and bow

Edwin Thacher – Yard No. 14. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific to support operations there against the Japanese.

 Edwin Thatcher      Edwin Thatcher Yard Number

Robert Whitman Lesley – Yard No. 13. Served first as an army training ship then as a store ship in the South Pacific.

 Robert Whitman Lesley      Robert Whitman Lesley Yard Number

Willis A. Slater – Yard No. 6. Hauled sulfur. Collided with the concrete steamer Vitruvius and was laid up in Bermuda for repairs. Used as a training ship on the west coast.

 Willis A. Slater Yard Number      Willis A. Slater

Leonard Chase Wason – Yard No. 7. Used in the South Pacific. After the war steamed between Morotai and Manila.

 Leonard Chase Wason      Leonard Chase Wason Yard Number

Richard Kidder Meade – Yard No. 5. Used as an army training ship.

 Richard Kidder Meade Yard Number      Richard Kidder Meade

John Grant – Yard No. 10. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific.

 John Grant Yard Number      John Grant

William Foster Cowham – Yard No. 21. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific.

 William Foster Cowham Kiptopeke      William Foster Cowham Yard Number

Willard A. Pollard – Yard No. 20. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific.

 Willard A. Pollard      Willard A. Pollard Yard Number

Kiptopeke Concrete Ships 7      Kiptopeke Concrete Ships 6

Kiptopeke post- and pre-ferry pier. Courtesy of the Cape Charles Historical Society

SS_Arthur_N_Talbot

Arthur Newell Talbot, one of few active service pictures of a concrete ship.  Courtesy of Dr. Mary Talbot Westergaard Barnes, State College, PA

Kiptopeke Concrete Ships 8      Kiptopeke Concrete Ships 9

Exposed stern of the Willis A. Slater

 

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Boat Graveyards, Military. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Kiptopeke’s Concrete Ships; A Long Journey to Obscurity

  1. Pingback: Baltimore’s Curtis Creek, A Motley Assemblage of Ruined Vessels | Abandoned Country

  2. I just left there yesterday, and like you wondered about the men who served on the ships, and if any were still alive. If you get to interview any, please let me know what they had to say. I kayaked out, and fished around the ships. It is a bit tricky, and rough, the currents runs fast and if to close you have to be careful not to be slammed into the ships. It is an eerie feeling to look inside the ships and out the other side. Wondering, how did they sink the ships.

  3. adam williams says:

    it is a blast fishing around the concrete ships an jus the view of the concrete ships

  4. adam williams says:

    awesome view and reat fishing around the concrete ships

  5. Sandy Wason says:

    I am the great granddaughter of the concrete ship named Leonard Chase Wason. He was a pioneer in developing the formula for reinforced concrete for these ships and many other structures. In the Wason history that I have at home I see no mention anywhere of McClouskey building these ships. The VA Pilot did an article a few years ago. I also have an article from 1937 for the Am. Society of Civil Engineers, with a Memoir (755) of my grt. grandfathers death.

    • bart e walker says:

      This is so cool, i would love to see the formula for this, I had know idea that they even had these ships in wwi or wwii so this is very interesting to me.

  6. Kenneth Leake says:

    Excellent history on these ships. I discovered these by accident while using Google maps just before a trip we were taking to the Virginia Beach area and I had to go see them. Here is a video tour of them I created using my quadcopter. https://youtu.be/QjssbXnfu58

  7. anonymous says:

    I have recently come into posession of a helm wheel of one of these ships and would like to know more about it. If you have any info olease contact me.

    • Sandy Wason says:

      I just ran across and read an article this week from an old newspaper article on the ships. It said they were designed w/ a “1 pin wheel” if that is of any help. I’m the great-granddaughter of Leonard Chase Wason, ship 07.

  8. Pingback: Virginia Bucket List - Hip Mama's Place

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *