During World War I, steel for building ships was in short supply. While American President Woodrow Wilson was determined to keep the U.S. out of the war, he didn’t want America’s Merchant Marine to be left unbuilt. So he approved the construction of 24 ships made from concrete to the tune of $50 million ($11.4 billion adjusted for inflation) to help build American shipping capacity.
Concrete, while cheap and readily available, is expensive to build and operate when it comes to ships. They need thick hulls, which means less room for cargo. Only 12 were ever built and by the time they were ready, the Great War was over.
A website dedicated to this “experiment in ship building,” ConcreteShips.org, keeps track of what happened to these 12 innovations.
Here are the 12 concrete ships built for World War I
The Atlantus was a steamer that was sold as a ferry landing ship. Before she could ever be used for that, she broke free during a storm and grounded near Cape May, New Jersey, in 1926.
She’s been falling apart ever since but what’s left can still be seen from shore.
SS Cape Fear
A good example of the drawbacks of using concrete for shipbuilding, the Cape Fear ran into a cargo ship in Rhode Island, shattered, and then sank with 19 crewmen lost.
The Cuyamaca was stripped down in New Orleans after she was built. She was then converted into an oil barge. Like other concrete ships hauling oil in the Gulf of Mexico, not much is known about her final resting place.
Artificial structures sunk in coastal areas protect the coasts from negative effects due to weather and the spread of sediment. The Dinsmore is living on in this regard. She was sunk to be a breakwater in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Latham also became an oil barge, storing oil pumped in the Gulf of Mexico. While transporting oil pipes, she hit a jetty and nearly sank. She’s now floating around the Gulf somewhere, storing oil.
Moffitt is another oil barge off the coast of New Orleans.
SS Palo Alto
This ship was turned into a dance club and restaurant in California. It featured an arcade and a swimming pool before the company that ran the place collapsed in the Great Depression.
When a storm cracked her across the middle, the Palo Alto became a fishing pier.
Now in British Columbia, Canada, the Peralta spent time as a floating fish cannery and is now a floating breakwater. She’s the only one of the 12 still afloat.
The Peralta is also the largest concrete ship still afloat anywhere in the world. She protects the log storage pond of a Canadian paper company.
After hitting an underwater ledge, Polias shattered and sank off the coast of Maine. Fourteen crewmen died trying to abandon ship.
A 1924 hurricane further shattered her wreck. What remains is off the coast of Port Clyde, Maine.
SS San Pasqual
When the San Pasqual ran aground off Cuba, no one was inclined to dig her out. She stayed there and became a depot ship and then a prison. Now, she’s a 10 room hotel.
Originally sold for scrap, Sapona was converted into an offshore liquor warehouse during Prohibition. She was grounded off the coast of Bimini, an island of the Bahamas, during a hurricane. The stern broke off, destroying the rum running owner’s stock and leaving him penniless.
The Army Air Forces and Navy used Sapona for target practice during WWII.
Called the “Flagship of Texas,” the Selma was an oil tanker that hit a jetty off the coast of Tampico, Florida. The government sent Selma to Galveston for repairs, but the shipwrights had no experience with concrete. She was taken to Pelican Island, Texa in 1922, where she sits today.
The Texas Army named her its flagship 70 years later.