The Great White (Elephant) Fleet

Most of our readers are familiar with the Great White Fleet of US battleships that Teddy Roosevelt send on a world tour to announce the American status as a world power in the early years of the 20th century.

This is about a somewhat less successful fleet.

The American entry into World War I found the US woefully unprepared for war and not just in a military sense. The German U-Boats unrestricted attacks on shipping meant losses of merchant ships were far beyond the levels Britain could replace. Merely importing enough food to keep her people from starving was rapidly becoming impossible. Losses were approaching 25% per round trip in some cases. The entry of America to the war would mean little if the hundreds of thousands of soldiers couldn’t even be transported, and more importantly, supplied, across the Atlantic.

The US merchant marine was at an ebb. Accordingly, the United States Shipping Board, established shortly before the war, was empowered to subsidize a vast wartime mass production plan for cargo shipbuilding. Alongside the vast naval shipbuilding expansion program of 1916, the USSB soon found virtually all shipbuilding assets operating at capacity, and yet the need for more shipping continued to grow ever more urgent.

An attempt to build ever more shipping lead to the decision to build over 700 small steamships out of wood. Wood was already obsolete as material for ocean-going shipping, but the reasoning was that wooden construction would not compete for strategic materials needed elsewhere, and smaller yards not already building shipping could quickly build the wooden ships. Even if the wooden ships were small and fairly flimsy, one successful transit from America to Europe would justify the expense of the ship. The USSB’s in house marine architect. soon published plans for the Design 1001 ship, often commonly called the “Ferris” design.

No fewer than 87 yards contracted to build ships of or similar to the Ferris design. Lumber for the ships would be pre-cut and numbered offsite, simplifying the skills needed in the actual yards.  Even so, it took time to train both the lumber cutters and yard workers. Like most mass production schemes, there was a steep learning curve, and time to produce first ships took a good deal longer than later ships in the serial.

In the event, almost none of the ships were finished before the Armistice of November 1918. Hundreds of orders were cancelled, and many ships were scrapped on the slipways. Of the almost over 300 that were completed, mostly in 1919, only about 265 actually carried cargoes overseas, usually under government contract.

Then end of the war, especially combined with a global economic recession, meant there was suddenly a huge surplus of merchant shipping, and the Ferris ships, already obsolete, were suddenly worthless.

Hundreds were sold for scrapping. The wood was essentially worthless, but the steam plants and other fittings could be recovered for scrap steel and iron. One business, Western Marine and Salvage Company, bought hundreds of Ferris design ships with the intention of burning them to the waterline, salvaging the steel and fittings, then sinking the hulks in the shallows of the Chesapeake Bay to be covered with dredging spoil eventually. But eventually the stock market crash of 1929 made even scrap metal unprofitable. WM&SC went belly up, and many of the ships were left to simply rot away and sink at their moorings in a small backwater at Mallow Bay, MD, where they rest today.

Mallows Bay MD