Sleep with the Fishes - The Floating Concrete Fleet at Kiptopeke
Updated: Jan 10
While the remote Delmarva shoreline and scenery is worth a trip in itself, I wonder if part of the push for a Kiptopeke State Park had to do with the pre-existing infrastructure that was already in place here. Kiptopeke offers plenty of natural beauty and recreation opportunities, but it also benefited from having pre-existing infrastructure to support a state park, well before it was designated as one in the early 90s.
Before the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, a private ferry service operated out of Kiptopeke, loadings passengers off of what is now an expansive fishing pier. The long straight road from route 13 towards the shoreline projects hints of that history. For a brief stretch you get that feeling of scrambling to get in line for a car ferry. I imagine the line of cars on this road once looked something similar to the line for the Cape May ferry or the Ocracoke ferry in Hatteras Islands. And I have to imagine that cars once worried about being that one car too many, minutes too late from being able to board for Norfolk or Hampton Roads.
I was here mid-morning and midweek, and that sense of urgency felt like a thing of the past. Like a lot of places in the lower Delmarva peninsula, Kiptopeke really exudes an even keel aura. There's an absence of anything and everything fast-paced or crowded. Along with a few other visitors you'll run into, you just feel content here.
The most unique feature of the park is by far the deteriorating concrete ships which sit end to end a few hundred yards from the shoreline. The unique bow to stern configuration of the nine concrete hulls provided a necessary breakwater for the ferry when it was in service, especially amidst the rougher waters that can pop up along the lower shore here.
I'll admit, the words concrete and floating aren't often used in the same sentence. I think they are more likely to stir up legends of Mafia henchmen. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and history has shown that few times called for more desperate measures than a World War.
The ghost fleet on Mallows Bay in the Potomac tells the history of a wooden fleet constructed during the age of steel in World War I. But here on the Delmarva peninsula the story centers around a concrete fleet being built during World War II.
The idea of a concrete fleet sounds odd. Sources I've read describe it as being as much of an oddity in the 40s -a strange thing to behold or stand upon by most accounts. Unlike the Mallows Bay fleet however, the concrete ships which now sit off Kiptopeke actually sailed across the Atlantic during the war. A few of them were present during the D-Day invasion in France (but none of the ones in Kiptopeke).
As one might guess, there is a big difference in the current state of decay between the wooden hulls at Mallows and the concrete ones here. While large sections of the concrete hulls have fallen into rubble- in some places enough to paddle a kayak through- the ships are for the most part intact. You get the sense that these ships will be here for a long time. They'll never be recommissioned, but you can count on them being there. At Mallows Bay, you feel like you might want to appreciate them now, because you might not be able to see them for much longer. A few strong storms over a few hurricane seasons might wash away all but the iron struts in Mallows in the years to come.
Kiptopeke and Mallows both offer a unique glimpse into the past. They hold historic artifacts from two of the most consequential periods in modern history, but without a real expressed purpose towards preserving them. For now and for the near future, they tell some unique and often overlooked stories. Those stories provide insight into the state of affairs here in our region amidst global conflicts. Without questioning the necessity of the Merchant Marine fleets built from questionable materials, it's probably safe to say that the hastily built ships made a hefty profit for the companies that built them. One can only wonder what the future holds, and hope that this is the last of the ghost fleets that we'll ever know. Here's hoping that a 3D printed fleet of ghost ships isn't the next half sunken spectacle to eventually become a local Chesapeake landmark.