|One of nine concrete ships at Kiptopeke. By Paul Clancy|
This is the first of two stories about sailing to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
We took a ghost ferry to the Eastern Shore the other day.
And dropped anchor in the lee of a bombed-out fleet of ships.
Well at least that’s how it seemed.
This story goes back to 1948 when the Virginia Ferry Corp., which ran ferries from Cape Charles to Little Creek, decided to shift its northern terminal to a new location, a 375-acre tract just north of the southern tip of the Eastern Shore.
They named it Kiptopeke in honor of the younger brother of the king of the Accawmack Indians and built a huge ferry terminal – biggest in the world, they claimed. What they needed was a breakwater, and there was a perfect answer.
Because of the shortage of steel during World War II, the U.S. Maritime Commission contracted with the McCloskey Co. of Philadelphia to build two dozen merchant ships using concrete or ferrocement. Yes, they were just as buoyant as steel, and maybe a little tougher. A shipyard in Tampa turned out and launched these ships at a dizzying speed, about one a month, and soon they were sent off to the South Pacific to serve as storage or training ships for American forces.
At war’s end they were ready for new, but sunken, lives.
Two of the ships were sunk as blockships in the Allied invasion of Normandy. Two are wharves in Yaquina Bay in Newport, Oregon, and seven are still afloat in a giant breakwater on the Powell River in Canada. As for the rest of them:
In December 1948, a fleet of tugboats hauled nine of the concrete ships from Mobile, Ala., rounding Florida and bound for the Chesapeake. Off Kiptopeke, they were arrayed in two semicircles of five and four, and scuttled, partially sinking to the bottom but standing well above the water: an instant breakwater.
But the ferry service, as it turns out, was doomed by the coming of the new Chesapeake Bay Bridge Terminal. One day in 1964 the ferries were running, the next they stopped.
But there’s a happy ending. The state bought the land, added more acreage to it, and created Kiptopeke State Park, a popular place for tourists, campers and, as it happens, migrating birds.
Each spring and fall, hundreds of thousands of songbirds and raptors fly down from as far away as Canada, funneling to a point at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. Many of them pause there, resting and fattening up on berries, bugs and such before continuing.
Another group of creatures, bird-watchers, in turn flock to Kiptopeke and Cape Charles to observe them. We like to do that, although we’re not exactly hard-core, life-list-keeping, world-touring birders.
We decided to take part in the Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival a few weeks ago, but instead of driving, we’d migrate over on our 25-foot sailboat, “Blue Moon.” We’d drop the hook behind the “Concrete Navy,” as it’s called, stay overnight, dinghy ashore and watch the passing show.
With their sunken profiles, it’s hard to spot the ships at first. Then, about two miles away, there’s a broken brown smudge on the horizon. Then as you approach the smudge turns to rusted hulks. I don’t know how concrete rusts, but they give that appearance.
It’s startling. They look like bombed-out ships from some terrible sea battle, or maybe vessels that ended their days as practice targets. Several have what appears to be sea grass sprouting from canopies and bridges. Fishing boats and crab pots take advantage of the protection of the old vessels.
And so do we, comfortable behind these huddled masses. They’ve long been silenced, but still offer unquestioned and loyal service.
Next: A railroad town that sprang forth from the wilderness.