One of the problems with the LoC archive is the erratic key wording and classification. Some pictures are done well, some poorly, some not at all. So it can be pot luck what a search comes back with, and when you are looking for something else a picture may turn up by chance that is of interest.
Such was the case with these. I think I was doing a search for ‘salvage’ and as these were titled Western Marine & Salvage (but totally bereft of keywords) up they came.
The pictures were of passing interest, but it was only when I pixel peeped at 100% did I notice something odd – planked construction, like a wooden sailing vessel. Hang on, steamships are made of riveted steel plate, aren’t they? Sure, the first ever steamboats were wooden, but the weight of the machinery and the subsequent advances in first wrought iron and then steel manufacture, meant that wood started to be superseded as a construction material for larger vessels from the 1840’s.
Or so I thought.
When America entered World War 1 in 1917, an urgent need was identified for a fleet of merchant ships to be built quickly and cheaply to support the allied war effort. It was decided to build a fleet of 1000 wooden cargo ships, using old technology reciprocating steam engines. This policy was adopted so that a more diverse selection of manufacturing sites could be used and allow the steel shipyards to concentrate on warships.
The Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) was set up, and a standard set of ship designs was prepared by maritime architect Theodore Ferris, after which the ‘Ferris Ships‘ took their name.
While there are clear parallels with the liberty ships of World War 2, including the use of prefabrication, the project was beset with problems and by the time the war ended in November 1918, only 134 had been completed, and none had yet crossed the Atlantic. In addition, there were another 263 under construction. But despite the end of hostilities, construction continued and by September 1919 263 were in use. But in 1920, the fleet was laid up and at the end of that year, the government looked to dispose of 285 ships.
Western Marine and Salvage of Alexandria, Virginia bought 233 ships for $750000 and got permission to tow them from to where they were laid up on the James River to a site on the Potomac, where they would be moored until being towed individually to Alexandria to have the machinery removed. They would then be returned to the anchorage, burnt, and any additional metal released from the bring would be recovered before the remains would be dragged into a nearby marsh and buried beneath dredging material.
And so the story should have ended, but it didn’t. There followed a long sorry story which rather than me re-write, can be best read on one of the following websites.
Some more detailed history can be found here and here.
The remains of the fleet can be seen on Google Earth, here’s a couple of screenshots: