Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Concrete Ship

A few hundred feet offshore from Sunset Beach in Cape May Point, New Jersey, rest the visible remains of the cargo ship Atlantus.  She and several similar vessels were constructed as experiments in concrete shipbuilding during the First World War.  Their careers were short lived, however, as the extreme weight of the concrete made it impractical for shipbuilding for several reasons.  Under new ownership after the war, the Atlantus arrived at her final resting place by accident in 1926.  In the ninety years since then, she has enjoyed a second career as a tourist attraction.

Summer vacationers have long traveled to Cape May and its environs to enjoy the sea.  Situated at the southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May is surrounded by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay, and the Cape May Canal.  For someone who enjoys the ambiance of the sea, Cape May is an ideal location.  Sunset Beach forms part of this ambiance. Facing west on the Delaware Bay, it is famous for its views of the sunsets, the ferries sailing between New Jersey and Delaware, and the concrete ship Atlantus.  A novelty, a curiosity, and a relic of history, the Atlantus is almost never referred to by her actual name.  She is simply called “the concrete ship.”  And while she does attract tourists, it is all very low key.  Sunset Beach lies several miles west of the more populated Atlantic beaches and therefore is never very crowded.  People go there to sightsee, to fish, and to browse in the small gift shop.  There is no swimming and only limited wading because of the strong tidal current.  Photographers  sometimes gather and take pictures of the concrete ship as if it were a famous lighthouse.

In the years that my family vacationed in Cape May, it was not always easy to obtain any serious information on the concrete ship, its history, or its reason for running aground there.  With the arrival of the internet, this has changed.  The concrete ship now boasts its own Wikipedia article[1] and is included on a website devoted to the history of concrete vessels.[2]  My research into the subject started with collecting all the picture postcards that featured the ship.  Eventually there were four of these, and I’m pleased to present them here:

This is my favorite portrait of the Atlantus.  The view dates to the 1930s and is an artistic rendering made with some artistic license.  The little rowboat provides a good sense of scale, but the Atlantus is not really as close to the beach as she seems to be.  The painting also gives the ship a remarkably clean and neat appearance. 
I believe this photograph was taken about 1960 or so.  The painted-on advertisement for boat insurance was a local joke and not in very good taste. 
This picture shows the condition of the Atlantus when I saw her in the early to middle 1970s.  The sign was new then.  Clearly the ship had deteriorated a great deal by the time I came along.
A new sign and a further deteriorated hulk.  This view postdates my family's visits to Cap May.  The before and after scenes offer a good basis for comparison. 
In addition to the postcards, the local gift shop eventually offered a capsule summary of the concrete ship’s history printed on a small sheet of note paper.  I daresay this came out in response to endless inquiries from vacationers seeing the concrete ship for the first time.  For a few pennies, then, I added this item to my collection.  Until recently, it was my only source of information about the concrete ship, but it remains a good one, and I’m happy to share it here:

Finally, we have several pictures of the concrete ship that we took on our family vacations.  Most of them are amateur photographs of very mediocre quality, but a few of them turned out well.  These are the two best:

My father took this photograph of the Atlantus on the family's first visit to Sunset Beach in the summer of 1967.  I was a young child then, and this shipwreck was an intriguing sight.  Faintly visible on the horizon through the haze is the northbound ferry New Jersey, soon to dock at the terminal in North Cape May.
My father took this picture of the Atlantus from a nearby jetty in August of 1971.  This view looks northward, with Sunset Beach on the right.  We returned to this spot every summer through 1975.

More recent photographs posted on the internet show an even more deteriorated and broken up hull.  Much of the concrete is crumbled, and the steel reinforcing rods are exposed and rusting.  Most of the ship lies beneath the surface of the water now, and no doubt much of it has sunk into the sand of the bay bottom.  All this decay in 90 years.  In another 90 years, it’s likely that none of the concrete ship will be visible above the water.  Perhaps a buoy will be placed over it to mark the site as a fish haven.  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, as it returns to Nature the concrete ship is going the way of all material things. 

As we also must eventually do.  But in our case, though our mortal bodies must die and decay, our immortal souls will live on.  Our lives will thus continue despite physical death.  We are assured many times “that God hath given to us eternal life” (1 John 5:11), and further “that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body . . . are taken home to that God who gave them life” (Alma 40:11).  When the concrete ship is completely withered away, it will be gone forever.  Unlike this inanimate object, we will be gone only temporarily, until the resurrection, when “the spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form” (Alma 11:43).  Life will indeed go on, a happy prospect to consider.

Meanwhile, as the deterioration of the concrete ship remains a work in progress, we may rest assured that the Master and Chief Engineer of the universe is in charge of it all, and that his work is also in progress.  His Creation knows this, too, as one of our hymns states:

                                    Be still, my soul; The waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.[3]

[1] See
[3] Katharina von Schlegel, “Be Still, My Soul,” tr. Jane Borthwick, in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985. p. 124.  A more literal rendering of the German (Dein Heiland wird zeigen,/ Wie vor ihm Meer und Gewitter muss schweigen) would be: Your Savior points out how before him sea and thunderstorm must be silent.

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