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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com
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.
Stern and bow
Edwin Thacher – Yard No. 14. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific to support operations there against the Japanese.
Robert Whitman Lesley – Yard No. 13. Served first as an army training ship then as a store ship in the South Pacific.
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.
Leonard Chase Wason – Yard No. 7. Used in the South Pacific. After the war steamed between Morotai and Manila.
Richard Kidder Meade – Yard No. 5. Used as an army training ship.
John Grant – Yard No. 10. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific.
William Foster Cowham – Yard No. 21. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific.
Willard A. Pollard – Yard No. 20. Used as a store ship in the South Pacific.
Kiptopeke post- and pre-ferry pier. Courtesy of the Cape Charles Historical Society
Arthur Newell Talbot, one of few active service pictures of a concrete ship. Courtesy of Dr. Mary Talbot Westergaard Barnes, State College, PA
Exposed stern of the Willis A. Slater