Concrete River Steamers of World War I, ca. 1921

Source: John B. Green Collection #380.2.b
Staff Person: Jonathan Dembo
Description: Seen in the photograph above are four, unnamed, concrete-hulled river steamers at the Newport Shipping Corporation shipyard, in New Bern, North Carolina. They are obviously incomplete and unnamed. Built to solve the desperate shortage of steel for shipping during World War I, they were just one of the many innovations, from flame-throwers to tanks to aerial warfare, inspired by the “War to End All Wars”. During the first World War, steel had become so scarce that the U. S. Shipping Corporation which controlled all American shipping during the war, recommended that President Woodrow Wilson approve the construction of 24 such concrete ships. Of the 24, only 12 were built, at a total cost of $50 million. The Newport Shipbuilding Corporation of New Bern, NC was one of the companies selected to build the ships. Not one of the ships was finished in time to contribute to the war effort and were launched only in 1921, just when a huge surplus of now-unneeded shipping was beginning to flood the market. By the time the ships were completed, the war was already long over and the nation was still mired in a deep postwar recession. Just what happened to the ships built in New Bern is a matter of some conjecture. Most of the others sank or were converted to other purposes such as breakwaters, hotels, and fishing piers. It is unclear what happened to some of them. Please contact the author if you know the present location of any of the New Bern built concrete ships.

3 thoughts on “Concrete River Steamers of World War I, ca. 1921

  1. Hey Jonathan,

    One of the ships lies half submerged in Charleston harbor where it has been since 1929. It was written up in todays Post and Courier (8/21/12) having just had a historical marker placed at Patriots Point.

    • Dear Mr. Johnson: Thank you for your interest and comment. Actually it was a request from an individual in Charleston who wanted to place the marker that led me to find the photo of the concrete ships in the first place. Having found the photo, it seemed a shame to put it back in the collection without making it more widely available. I am glad that you found it interesting. Best wishes, Prof. Jonathan Dembo

  2. Dear Xin: Thank you for your interest and comment. The concrete ships in the photo were indeed intended to play a part in World War I and they certainly look seaworthy. Had they had a chance to prove themselves during wartime, there might be many such ships sailing today. However, the war was over before they were ready for sea. During the war, there was a terrible shortage of steel for shipbuilding since most of the steel was going to build guns and shells, and other weapons. There was plenty of concrete during the war. After the war, suddenly, there was surplus ships; there was too much steel; and nobody wanted concrete ships anymore. Thus, when the ships were finally launched in 1921, they found few buyers. Someday, when steel is in short supply again, we may see concrete ships again. Necessity is the mother of invention. Best wishes, Prof. Jonathan Dembo

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