Few people strolling the sands of Sunset Beach, at Cape May, pay much attention to the crumbling concrete remains just off the beach. They may look at the shore side marker naming the wreck as the remains of the concrete ship, “S. S. Atlantus”.
Concrete ship? Everyone knows that concrete won’t float, right? Well, not exactly. As long as the weight of the ship, equipment and cargo are less than the weight of the water displaced, the ship will float. But why build a concrete ship in the first place? For that answer, we need to go back to the darkest days of World War One.
Germany and England were at war. The submarines of the German Navy were the scourges of the Atlantic, sinking cargo ships bound from the US to England. Those ships were being sunk faster than they could be replaced. Cargo ships were the lifelines of the island nation of England. Food, fuel, ammunition and US troops had to come by water.
Replacement ships would use steel vital to other war needs and required skilled labor to build. Remember, steel ships at this time were riveted together, not built by the speedier welding process.
As a result, other means of building ships were considered. President Woodrow Wilson authorized the World War One Emergency Fleet to help alleviate the critical shortage of shipping. The decision was made to try concrete ships, following the 1912 patent of a Norwegian.
The ships were constructed using a special, lighter, Portland cement mixture combined with steel reinforcing. While some steel was used, it was less than one third of what would be required by an all-steel ship. The hulls were between five and six inches thick, necessary to give the necessary strength to the vessel.
The ships, as designed, were 250-feet long with a beam of 45 feet. Draft was 22-feet and weight was around 2,500 tons. While the materials were readily available, the construction of the ships proved more difficult than an all steel ship.
Liberty Shipbuilding Corporation, a Brunswick, Georgia company, was one of the companies building these ships. The Atlantus was the second concrete ship launched from the Wilmington, North Carolina yard*. The launching took place on November 21st, 1918, after the Armistice was signed.
The Atlantus was commissioned on June 1st, 1919. and served the government for a year. At first, she transported American troops back from France. After that, she served as a coal carrier in New England.
With the war over, steel for ships was readily available and steel ships took over from the few concrete ships in service. The remaining ships were decommissioned and placed in the mothball fleet in Norfolk. The “Atlantus’ suffered a further indignity when she was stripped by a salvage company in 1921.
After five more years in the mothball fleet, Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld of Baltimore purchased the Atlantus. Col. Rosenfeld proposed to dig a channel on the shore of Cape May and place the Atlantus there. Two other ships would be sunk off ` the end of Atlantus to form a “Y”. This arrangement would form the northern berth for a Cape May-Cape Henlopen ferry route.
Mother Nature had other idea. A storm broke out on June 8th, 1926 and the Atlantus broke free. She ran aground 150 feet off of Sunset Beach. Despite several attempts to free her, she stubbornly remained aground.
She became a landmark attraction for millions of beach-goers but the years have not been kind to her. By 1935, she began listing to port and cracks began appearing in the hull. By the ‘40s the smokestack had disappeared. A marine insurance company painted a sign on the hull in the ‘50s and by the ‘60s the ship had split completely apart and the cabins had disappeared.
Today, the stern section has rolled on its side, the middle section has disappeared completely and only a small portion of the bow is visible at low tide. She used to be a popular spot for swimmers to dive from, until a young swimmer was drowned.
Before long, she will be gone. So, the next time you walk Sunset Beach, take a few moments to view the remains and reflect on the unhappy history of the Atlantus.
*On a personal note. I was born in Winchester, England on VE Day, 1945. Mom was in the English Fire Service while Dad was a sergeant in the US Army. Mom and I came to the United States on a WW II Liberty Ship that was built in Wilmington, North Carolina, birthplace of the Atlantus.
Credits: Cape May County Historical & Genealogical Society
Cape May Court House, New Jersey