Used to be you had no problem seeing the Ghost Fleet. After all, there were 850 idle ships lashed together in neat rows of two dozen or more stretching five miles. Today, though, that vast armada is a dying flame. There are fewer than twenty vessels, and the James River’s role as a vault for ships that once proudly served the needs of the world is coming to an end.
For decades the United States Maritime Administration, or MARAD, has maintained the National Defense Reserve Fleet, a collection of decommissioned ships the government keeps around on a just-in-case-of-a-national-emergency basis. Some are warships, but most aren’t. There are merchant ships, research vessels and buoy tenders, among others.
MARAD once had anchorages for the Reserve Fleet all over the country. Now there are just three, in California, Texas and the James River, and even these hangers-on are shrinking.
To look at the ships in the James River Reserve Fleet, known to locals as the Ghost Fleet, you’d not think the government would have much use for them now. Rust spills from portholes like teardrops. The vessels’ exteriors are timeworn and weathered. No doubt their interiors have cosmetic and mechanical issues. But ten of those still anchored in the James are classified for retention, meaning Uncle Sam wants to keep them around. The rest are slated for removal, which, in most cases, means scrapping.
Pulling ships out of the Reserve Fleet was common, especially in all the U.S.’s major late-20th century conflicts through the Persian Gulf War. In their retirement, vessels in the Ghost Fleet have been used for all sorts of military and civilian endeavors, from demolition practice to grain storage.
The Ghost Fleet has been a point of contention ever since MARAD starting storing ships there in the 1940s. Exposure has taken a toll on the ships themselves, and there’s a constant threat that the ships will shed harmful chemicals into the river as nature works on them.
They’re expensive to keep around. A spokeswoman told me that MARAD has a regular maintenance and inspection plan. Workers board the vessels, check for holes and leaks, and keep an eye out for chipping paint and invasive species. And when a ship needs attention, it’s usually not a cheap fix. The United States Coast Guard likewise patrols the ships, making sure, among other things, that boaters stay the required 500 feet away from the aging vessels. The Ghost Fleet is a danger on many fronts.
So it’s easy to see why the general sentiment leans toward reducing or eliminating surplus ships altogether. In an age where modern vessels can efficiently do more, few see the need to keep the aging predecessors of modern ships around. Still, that practical move can’t change the traces of history that slip through our fingers each time a vessel leaves the fleet.
The James River, for instance, was once home to the NS Savannah, the country’s first nuclear-powered civilian ship and one of just four that were ever built. In 2006 she left the Ghost Fleet and is now moored in Baltimore. Supporters want her opened as a museum ship, but the funding to make that possible is tough to come by.
Other vessels in the Ghost Fleet might be less well known, but nevertheless bore witness to history’s defining episodes and, until their last days, preserved physical proof of their involvement. The General Nelson M. Walker, for instance, was a 5,000-man capacity troop transport that ferried American troops to World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Prior to her scrapping in 2005, volunteers collected graffitied canvas bunks from the ship, launching the Vietnam Graffiti Project and offering a poignant glimpse into the musings of war-bound young men, some of whom never returned alive to American soil.
Courtesy of the Vietnam Graffiti Project
Each of the hundreds of ships once moored in the James River held memories like these to varying degrees, and as the fleet dwindles, so does the history the vessels’ hulls sheltered.
Oddly enough, one of the best places to see the Ghost Fleet is from another treasure that had been long forgotten and was only recently rediscovered. Fort Huger, constructed by enslaved and free African Americans in 1861, once guarded southern Virginia from Union gunboats making forays deep into Confederate territory via the James River. The bastion was grown over and inaccessible until a local effort a few years ago sought to reverse that neglect. Now those parapets are witnessing the destruction of another fleet, one that, regrettably, has to move downriver, out to sea and into the memory of the nation they served.
You can see both the Ghost Fleet and Fort Huger on this link to Google Maps.