WWI-era concrete ship, the USS Selma, deteriorating in Texas harbor
By KELLY KAZEK | Alabama Media Group | Published: February 20, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — To conserve steel during World War I, Mobile, Alabama, shipbuilders turned to an unlikely building material: concrete. On June 28, 1919, the first concrete-hulled ship built in Mobile, the USS Selma, was launched and prepared to aid Allied forces.
Unbeknownst to the shipbuilders at the time, the Treaty of Versailles was being signed that same day, ending the war. The Selma never saw active duty and was sold by the government to a private company.
What happened to the Selma?
The first concrete boat was built in France in 1848 by Joseph Louis Lambot, according to Tony Liu and James McDonald, authors of the scientific paper, “Concrete Ships and Vessels Past, Present and Future.” The authors, who wrote the document for the Concrete Lab at the U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss., said that despite documented success the “mention of concrete as a construction material for ships and barges still invites skeptical comments that it is too heavy and will not float.”
By the start of WWI, shipbuilders were looking for better ways to create battleships after “major losses in merchant shipping due to submarine action,” Liu and McDonald said.
Alabama concrete ships
Selma was built by the F.F. Ley & Co. in Mobile. The hull of the Selma was made of concrete while conventional construction was used for other portions of the ship.
“The Selma’s hull was made up of more than 2,600 cubic yards of expanded shale concrete reinforced by 1,500 tons of smooth steel reinforcing bars,” according to W. Jayson Hill in an article on the Encyclopedia of Alabama. “The concrete hull was five inches thick at the bottom, tapering to four inches on the sides of the vessel.”
The company built a second ship, the Latham, to nearly identical specifications.
“Twelve concrete ships were completed by various contractors [in the U.S.] and proved the viability of the concept,” Hill said. “The largest of these were the SS Selma, named for the city in Dallas County, and the identical SS Latham.”
Interest in use of concrete in shipbuilding grew following WWI. “During World War II, the United States built and used 104 concrete vessels of various types,” Hill wrote.
The fate of the Selma
Never used in battle, the Selma was sold as a private oil tanker but didn’t serve long in that capacity. Less than a year after her launch, the Selma struck a jetty in Mexico, making a 60-foot hole in the hull.
The Selma was hauled to port in Galveston, Texas, but “no facilities had the ability to repair concrete hulls,” Hill said.
The Selma sat neglected in the Galveston port for two years before the owners decided to scrap her and she “was towed to a specially dug channel and sunk off of Pelican Island, Texas, on March 9, 1922,” Hill said.
Today, the Selma is a tourist attraction of sorts. The massive hull of the ship remains above water and is visible from the shore.
An article in the Houston Chronicle, however, says time is running out to see the shipwreck. Ken Cox, president of the company that owns the ship, told the Chronicle: “It’s deteriorating, deteriorating greatly. It really, really is in pretty bad shape and could be completely underwater within 15 years.”
The Selma is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Texas archaeological landmark.