The wreckage of the concrete Steamship Atlantus has become one of the most popular tourist attractions along the Jersey Shore. Every year thousands of tourists visit the Atlantus’ final resting place at Cape May Point.
The History of the S.S. (Steam Ship) Atlantus begins with the First World War. America was faced with a steel shortage towards the end of the war, leaving little of that metal available to construct ships. Experimental designs were therefore drawn up to construct a fleet of ships out of concrete, a material which was more readily available.
The United States Shipping Board original planed to construct a fleet of 38 concrete ships, however, in the end, only 12 were finished. Two more ships were started, but neither of them was completed.
The first concrete prototype had some serious problems, in that the concrete was too brittle, and was prone to shattering entirely. The upper decks were also too weak, and were prone to collapse under a full load.
The Atlantus was the second concrete ship constructed, and was designed to address some of the problems with the first ship. The builders constructed the 5 inch hull out of a special concrete aggregate that would make the Atlantus far more durable than the original prototype.
The Atlantus was 250 feet long and weighed over 3,000 tons. It was built by the Liberty Shipbuilding Corporation, of Brunswick, Georgia and was completed in 1918. The ship launched on November 21st, from Wilmington, North Carolina, 10 days after the war had ended.
Although the fighting was over by the time the Atlantus was ready to sail, the ship did serve a vital function in the first year after the war. The Atlantus was sent to Europe to transport American troops home, and served out the rest of the year as a government-owned, but privately operated coal ship sailing the waters around New England.
By 1920, steel had once again become available, and the concrete ships, deemed to be too heavy to be practical, were no longer useful. Most of the ships were decommissioned, and the Atlantus was sent to the “Bone Yard” at Pigs Point, in Norfolk, Virginia. The ship remained in the Bone Yard for another year, until it was purchased by a salvage company, and stripped for parts.
The Atlantus was saved by Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld from Baltimore. He purchased and salvaged the ship with the intention of using it in the creation of a ferry line in the Cape May area. This would be one of the many failed attempts to create a Cape May Ferry, before the successful creation of the modern ferry line in 1964.
Colonel Rosenfeld had the Atlantus towed to Cape May Point in 1926, where he intended it to be joined by two other concrete ships to create a floating ferry dock.
The Colonel’s firm had developed a system for loading the ferry with a special drawbridge mechanism, and the Atlantis was to be part of a Y-shaped dock created by the three concrete ships.
Construction of the dock began on March, 1926, and the Atlantus was moored by Cape May Point while it waited to be positioned. Unfortunately a severe storm on June 8, 1926 shook the ship loose from its moorings, and the Atlantus ran aground 150 feet off the shore of Sunset Beach.
The owners attempted numerous times to free the boat, but were unsuccessful. Colonel Rosenfeld’s ferry project would never be completed.
After the ship ran aground it was determined it could not be recovered, a sign was erected on the beach reading:
S. S. Atlantus
Remains of experimental
concrete ship. One of twelve
built during World War 1.
Proven impractical after
several trans-Atlantic trips
because of weight
Broke loose during storm
(June 1926) went aground.
Attempt to free her were futile.
At some point during the 1950s an amusing billboard was placed on the Atlantus advertising a company selling boat insurance, but the advertisement has since sunk into the ocean.
The Atlantus remains trapped just off the shore of Cap May Point today, and, unfortunately, the elements have not been kind to the ship. Being battered by wind and rain for nearly has taken its toll on the Atlantus, and the hull has progressively deteriorated. The ship began to split in two parts in the 1960s, and those two parts have been slowly sinking and drifting apart ever since.
Today, most of the boat is underwater, with only a small portion of the ship’s hull visible above the surface of the ocean. Eventually the Atlantus will disappear entirely beneath the waters of Cape May Point.
The derelict ship became an almost immediate tourist attraction. Thousands of people visit the ship each year to see the ship and have pictures taken with it. Swimming out to, and exploring the wreck of the boat was a popular activity for many tourists until a young man tragically drowned while diving off of the ship’s hull.
Another interesting aspect of the story of the Atlantus concerns the “Cape May Diamond”, which are actually stones of pure quartz that are plentiful on the shores around the Atlantus wreck.
These stones are not actually from the Cape May area at all. The veins of quartz crystal from which the stones originate are located nearly 200 miles away, in the Delaware River. The “diamonds” travel down the river and into the ocean, where the strong tides pressing against the hull of Atlantus cause the stones to be washed a shore.
The Cape May Diamonds have become very popular with tourists, who attempt to find and collect them while visiting the wreck of the Atlantus. In the days before modern gem analysis techniques, a polished Cape May Diamond could often be mistaken for the real thing.
The S.S. Atlantus is probably the most famous of the concrete ships. Surprisingly, the Atlantus and its 11 counterparts were not the last concrete ships constructed, despite the fact that the experiment is widely regarded as a failure. It is interesting to note, that despite their alleged impracticality, 24 more concrete ships were constructed during the Second World War.