Title: Western Marine & Salvage Co., Alex, VA
Photographer: National Photo Company
A notable, possibly notorious, project was the wooden, ocean-going steamer. William Denman had been an early proponent of these ships, as the nation had abundant lumber supplies, and there was doubt whether domestic steel production could cope with the demands of shipbuilding in conjunction with other wartime pressures. Both British and U.S. officials considered the ships worthwhile if the ships could make a single, successful one-way voyage to the war. Still, the wooden ship program was so controversial that Edward N. Hurley, Chairman United States Shipping Board, had to defend them from “criticism and ridicule” with “I am convinced that we were amply justified in building the wood ships, although no one wished to assume the responsibility for them because of the criticism and ridicule which they had received.”
Some of the several designs are commonly named Ferris Designs after Theodore E. Ferris, the official naval architect for the USSB. Ferris designed both steel and wood ships for mass production. One design, 1001, was for wooden 3,500 ton steam freighters with dimensions of approximately 281 X 46 X 23.5 feet (7.2 m) built largely of precut, numbered components of pine or Douglas fir.
There were other wooden ship designs, many unique to regional yards, and a large wooden fleet was built, one that has been called by some the “white elephant” fleet. Some were burned in accidents; however others were burned after the war to recover valuable metals. For example, in 1922 Western Marine and Salvage Company (WM&SC) of Alexandria, Virginia bought 233 such ships for $750,000 so that the ships could have machinery removed in Alexandria and then towed back to the anchorage on the Potomac and burned to regain remaining scrap. That activity brought protests from watermen and the operation was moved to in 1924 to 566 acres (2.29 km2) of company owned farmland surrounding Mallows Bay in Maryland.