The James River Reserve Fleet; The Last of an Armada that Served the World

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.

James River Ghost Fleet

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.

James River Ghost Fleet 2      James River Ghost Fleet 1

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.

James River Ghost Fleet 3      James River Ghost Fleet 4

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.

Vietnam Graffiti

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.

Fort Huger      Fort Huger 1

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, Ghost towns, Industry, Military. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The James River Reserve Fleet; The Last of an Armada that Served the World

  1. Jeffrey Bowman says:

    Ben,

    I’m really enjoying your work and post it forward to my Facebook friends.

    I have one modest suggestion: it would be great if you’d incorporate some form of map information – embedded Google/Bing map or a link to the same.

    Thanks again,

    Jeffrey

  2. dorothy fay says:

    I had a copy about a book of boats on the James River, must have been about the 50th., or 1960 tys. I have missed owning it all these years. Do you know of such a book? I also had one about those liners that brought many an immigrant here. I am pretty sure I ordered all these books from a Museum in Virginia.The book about the Liners had views of their mostly fine salons.

  3. Ben – What ship was just towed out of the JRRF this last Thursday? – Albert 613-6183

  4. Ben Swenson says:

    According to MARAD, the Savannah left on 11/20/14 for Brownsville, TX to be scrapped.

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  6. James O says:

    I recall boating down the James River in 1987 and seeing the Ghost Fleet for the very first time. Did not know that it existed or why all these ships were anchored and tethered together in the middle of the James River.

    It was an interesting by eery sight. A bit spooky, but also a bit interesting.

    Sad to hear that the majority of these ships have since been moved to scrapyards because as mentioned there was probably quite a bit of history among the fleet.

    If I was to take my son down the same route today, there would be far less historical reflection and impact with so few ships still remaining.

    Thanks for documenting some of this history. Too bad there were no aerial photos of the mass storage in the heyday or peak time of storage.

  7. Renee Culver says:

    I am From Newport and was actually on the fleet in the Sixties. It was locally known as the Idle Fleet, I never heard the term Ghost Fleet prior to this visit on the internet.

  8. Richard L (QM1 (s/w) USN Ret. says:

    20 years in the US nave, mostly out of Norfolk and saw so many old girls “heading up/out the river, it made me cry.
    granted we cant save them all, but at a min, would it be too much to ask to save one of every class ship for prosperity purposes ?
    Uss Stump (DD-978) (my first ship) and all the other Sprucans, are gone forever… with the one exception of DD-964 (?)…the Ranger, Saratoga, Forrestal etc.. all historic ships… gone…
    so sad.

  9. Richard L (QM1 (s/w) USN Ret. says:

    20 years in the US navy, mostly out of Norfolk and saw so many old girls “heading up/out the river, it made me cry.
    granted we cant save them all, but at a min, would it be too much to ask to save one of every class ship for prosperity purposes ?
    Uss Stump (DD-978) (my first ship) and all the other Sprucans, are gone forever… with the one exception of DD-964 (?)…the Ranger, Saratoga, Forrestal etc.. all historic ships… gone…
    so sad.

  10. R Little says:

    These old ships may be the answer to many over crowded prisons and Jails that plague our county. Seems like there would be way more pros than cons with the idea. But than again this idea may be too simple and less money needed making it harder for extortion to take place. The idea is even curtailing the crime of extortion.

  11. JAMES LEBLANC says:

    are you allowed to go near or on the ships?

    • Carrie says:

      No, as we found out on a recent fishing trip, if you get too close a guard boat will come out and advise you to stay 500+ feet away.

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