By Polly Sparling
Photo by Frank Roberts
If they’re vigilant, eagle-eyed travelers on the western side of the Hudson can catch sight of this peculiar monument through their car windows. Two rusting anchors flank a boulder impressed with a memorial plaque; this is all that’s left of a fleet of nearly 200 merchant ships that once called this section of river their home.
In 1946, an act of Congress created the National Defense Reserve Fleet, a flotilla of commercial ships that stood in reserve, ready to assist the country in times of war or national emergency. The fleet was docked at eight locations around the country, including at this spot on the Hudson River. In 1965, 189 ships were anchored offshore, lined up in 10 rows which extended several miles to the north; viewing areas were set up along the roadside to accommodate the scores of motorists who stopped daily to view the scene.
Vessels from the Hudson River group saw action in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and helped ferry goods during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. But perhaps the fleet’s biggest contribution to history was its use as a floating silo. Between 1955 and 1964, more that 53 million bushels of wheat were stored on the ships, each of which was outfitted with a special ventilation system that kept the grain from spoiling.
While laid up in the river, the fleet was maintained by a “crew” of 86 local workers. Using a method called cathodic protection, they passed electric current through the underwater portion of the hull to prevent it from corroding. Loose scales and rust were water-blasted from the decks and hulls, and the whole exterior of each ship was covered with a preservative oil. By the mid-’60s, the cost of keeping the Hudson fleet seaworthy had risen to nearly $800,000 a year.
Eventually, the number of reserve locations was reduced to three (in Virginia, California, and Texas). The last two ships in the Hudson River Reserve Fleet sailed for Spain in July 1971, where they were sold for scrap.
Do you know where in the Hudson Valley this maritime monument stands? If so, e-mail us at email@example.com; the first reader to correctly identify this spot wins a prize. Check next month’s issue for the answer.