The Ghost Fleet, 1946-1947

The Hudson River National Defense Fleet, December 14, 1947. Courtesy of the New York State Archives.
The Hudson River National Defense Fleet, December 14, 1947. Courtesy of the New York State Archives.

Here are some dramatic aerial photos of what locals call the Ghost Fleet, taken soon after the ships were moved north from Tarrytown to Jones Point (at one time known as Caldwell’s Landing) at the foot of Dunderberg Mountain. The anchorage remained at that location until the last two ships were towed away on July 8, 1971, to be sold for scrap to Spain.

The Hudson River National Defense Fleet, December 14, 1947. Courtesy of the New York State Archives.
The Hudson River National Defense Fleet, December 14, 1947. Courtesy of the New York State Archives.

The fleet, officially known as the Hudson River National Defense Fleet and the Hudson River Reserve Fleet, was established by an act of Congress in 1946 “to provide a sizable group of merchant ships to support the military effort at the outset of any war.”1 According to an article published in the journal of the Rockland County Historical Society in 1972 (adapted online here):

“When foreign nations at the outbreak of World War I had diverted their ships for wartime service, the small American Merchant Marine fleet was unable to transport even 10 per cent of normal foreign exports. Docks in major ports were stocked high with products of American farms and factories for which no ships were available. When foreign vessels were again available, their rates were ruinous. . . .

The fleet was at its peak with 189 ships in July of 1965. Anchored in ten rows, it extended from the fleet office at the Jones Point dock several miles to the south—to the Lovett Orange and Rockland Power Plant and the Boulderberg House at Tomkins Cove. Several viewing points were established along Route 9W for the hundreds of motorists who stopped daily to look at the ships.

During the Korean War, a total of 130 ships were taken from the Hudson River fleet leaving only 39 ships. During the Suez Crises in 1956, 35 ships were put back into service when British and French ships were diverted from trade routes to supply their nations’ armed forces. The Vietnam War required more than 40 ships.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1953 needed storage space for large volumes of government-owned wheat, it turned to the Hudson River Reserve fleet. During the following ten years more than 53,563,948 bushels of wheat were loaded into 231 ships. Approximately 255,000 bushels of wheat were stored in each ship with the number of ships carrying wheat at any given time ranging from 70 to 90. The last ship was unloaded in 1963. Ships that had stored wheat rose about twelve feet higher above the water surface and exposed a bright orange band of rust.

A ventilation system had been installed in the ships, making it possible to maintain the quality of the wheat for long periods of storage. This saved the U.S. government some five million dollars on commercial storage estimates. None of the grain, sold to foreign countries in the 1960s, was found to be spoiled when unloaded. . . .

The ships were kept in condition . . . by a crew of 86 men under the supervision of Charles R. Gindroz of Pearl River, fleet superintendent and one-time chief engineer on the George Washington, the ship which years before had carried President Woodrow Wilson to France and in 1950 burned at Baltimore.

The reserve fleet ships, valued at over $255 million, had their machinery turned over periodically and their internal surfaces sprayed with a coat of preservative oil on a regular basis. Electrical equipment, such as generators and motor wiring, were cleaned and coated with a fungus-retarding varnish. All loose scale and rust were water-blasted off decks, hulls and superstructures. Then the entire outside of the ships was sprayed with a gray-tinted preservative oil. This was done at least once a year on each ship. The underwater portion of the hull was protected by means of an electric current, a method known as cathodic protection . . . preventing corrosion from taking place.”

The images shown here come from a large collection of aerial photos at the New York State Archives, which has been scanned and made available online.

These specific photos must be missing identifying information other than dates because they all have vague descriptions like “Multiple boats in the water in an unknown location, possibly in the Hudson River.”

This archival mystery about the fabled Ghost Fleet is fitting because Dunderberg Mountain and Caldwell’s Landing have long been associated with ghosts, goblins and Captain Kidd’s treasure.

We will have much more to say about those legends in a future post. . . .

  1. Quote from the online adaptation of the article by article by Scott Webber from South of the Mountains, the journal of the Rockland County Historical Society, Vol. 16, No. 2, April-June 1972. ↩︎
The Hudson River National Defense Fleet, June 10, 1946. Courtesy of the New York State Archives.
The Hudson River National Defense Fleet, June 10, 1946. Courtesy of the New York State Archives.

25 thoughts on “The Ghost Fleet, 1946-1947

  1. As a resident of Jones Point for just 8 years, I have heard much of it’s history. Of course this fleet is often mentioned. It’s great to see these photos and read about them.

  2. We used to water ski in between the ships back in the 60’s . We boarded them once in awhile but got caught.
    One ship had an outhouse mounted over the side of the top deck-scary to look down-seemed like a hundred feet to the water.
    We were young teens back then-
    Bob A-Croton on Hudson

  3. My father had a boat and we would anchor behind those ships and have lunch .The ships would serve as a breaker for waves from other boats.I remember looking up and be amazed how big they were when you were close.

  4. I just blogged briefly about this and have linked back to this page to share your wonderful account. Here’s what I wrote in my blog:

    “When I was a kid, my family had a small motor boat that we’d launch under the George Washington Bridge. Common day trips back then included a cruise around Manhattan Island, a trip down to the Statue of Liberty, or a trip up the Hudson River, sometimes as far as West Point. Back in those days, the Navy had a fleet of ships anchored at a point along the river, waiting in storage in case they were needed. I clearly remember my father steering our little motorboat up and down the rows of huge ships parked there.”

    Thanks for sharing this information!

  5. I love the history of this area. When I move up hear in 1965 tif fleet was still in the river in Thompson’s Cove. Then I meant a man in Jones point, that told me about the fleet that was there from the First World War. A man you all New Kenny Morehead. Kenny was one of the most interesting people I could ever listen too, and I me listen to and never say a word.

  6. My father was a USN Armed Guard gunner on Liberty Ships during WW2. He stopped to show us the mothball fleet once on our way to Bear Mt. When we were kids. I don’t know if either of the ships he sailed in the convoys across the Atlantic was there. The fleet looked huge to my 10 year old eyes even though thships were small by today’s standards, less than half the length of a modern cruise ship and a fraction of the tonnage.

    1. Thomas, there are a few Liberty ships left. Two still operate as museum vessels, with the closest being the SS John W Brown located in Baltimore. The Brown had been a NYC maritime high school for decades. No longer in use for that purpose, the vessel was granted to Project Liberty Ship in 1988 and has been cared for and operated by volunteers ever since.

    2. My dad was also served in the Armed Guard as a gunner. We lived close to where the fleet was moored. He would take me there and we sit for hours looking at his beloved Liberty Ships

  7. When I was little we had a boat on the Hudson and we would anchor behind the ships and have lunch as the water was very calm.The ships would act like a barrier against the waves.It was kinda strange seeing the empty ships just sitting there.Some had guns on deck.

  8. WoW! This brings back memories. My Dad was a 20 year Navy Man who served under Admiral Halsey as an Personal Aid. He finish his career at the Brooklyn Navy Yards in 1963. We lived in Westchester County and during the Summer the family would regularly drive up to Croton Park along the Hudson River for Picnics. Being only 5-6, I use to ask him everytime about all the Ships in the River and he loved to tell us all about the Mothball Fleet. It was amazing to see so many large Ship moored along each other.

  9. Excellent photos, love to hear about this areas past, it truly represents some historic events that many of us don’t remember, Thanks .

  10. When time permits, would like to hear from anyone who posted. My father served on the Edwin Booth. To my surprise, the bow still remains in a small Merchant Marine memorial park near or in Portland Oregon. It is a must visit one day & be a moving experience. Thank you. Edward Blunnie (Brooklyn) 30 October 2019

    1. Ed, Based upon the link below.

      Note: As of 2006 this park no longer exists; it was redeveloped into a high-end condo community. The sign, anchor and bow sections in the grassy area are gone. There is one small, mounded grassy area remaining; I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a bow section or two left buried there. The bow sections at the water’s edge are still there if you know where to look.

  11. I remember that fleet of ships. My dad would take the family for a Sunday ride and we would see the ships in that Hudson and we would stop to look at them. It was so fascinating to see them. I remember the stories my father told me about why they were there Being a kid we asked a lot of questions. I have all the photos my dad took of them. Finding them is another story.

    1. Tracey, I would love to see those photos your father took of the ships. I lived in Peekskill in the 1960s and remember the ships very well. Unfortunately, I have no photos of them.

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