On the edge of the Delaware River, just north of Pier 78 in South Philadelphia at what was once the start of McKean Street, the rotting hulls of several ships can be seen at low tide. Older residents of the Pennsport neighborhood refer to them as “The Dead Fleet” or “The Three Sisters.” The vessels were abandoned by the Kensington Shipyard and Dry Dock Corporation in the 1930s, and their rich, individual histories were eventually lost to time and public memory. Although there are four ships buried deep in the mud there today, at one time they numbered five.
Chasing The Chesapeake
The one ship that did manage to escape Delaware River’s watery graveyard, the John J. Phillips, was a three-masted barque originally known as the USS Chesapeake. It has a storied history that spans two wars and many voyages. Built at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, from August 1898 to June 1899, the Chesapeake was the first sheathed vessel to be constructed in the United States (its steel hull was covered with four-inch-thick Georgia pine planking). The ship was christened on June 30, 1899, by Miss Elise Bradford (the daughter of Rear Admiral Royal Bird Bradford). It could be propelled either by sail or by an auxiliary steam engine, and its armament consisted of six 4-inch guns (four 6-pounders and two 1-pounders).
On April 12, 1900, the Chesapeake was placed under the command of Lt. Commander Charles Ellwood Colahan to be used as a training ship at the U.S. Naval Academy. Some of the future admirals who trained aboard the Chesapeake as midshipmen were William “Bull” Halsey (commander of the U.S. Third Fleet in the South Pacific during the Second World War), Chester Nimitz (commander and chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during the Second World War), Richard E. Byrd (Antarctic explorer) and John S. McCain Sr. (grandfather of Arizona Senator John S. McCain III).
President Theodore Roosevelt was a scholar of U.S. naval history. While still a student at Columbia University in 1882, he published his first book, The Naval War of 1812. It disturbed him deeply that the country’s future naval officers were being trained aboard a ship named the Chesapeake. Roosevelt knew that the first USS Cheaseapeake, a 38-gun Frigate that was authorized by Congress in 1794 as one of the U.S. Navy’s first six ships (along with the USS Constitution, USS Constellation, USS President, USS United States and USS Congress), had twice surrendered in disgrace to British warships.
With such a negative history attached to the original USS Chesapeake, President Roosevelt felt compelled to change the name of the current ship. On June 15, 1905, he had the vessel re-christened as the USS Severn, named for the Severn River, at the mouth of which the U.S. Naval Academy is situated, in Annapolis, Maryland.
On February 10, 1910, the USS Severn was ordered to be refitted as a submarine tender (supply ship) and in mid-May 1910 was assigned to the Third Submarine Division of the newly formed Atlantic Torpedo Fleet, training off the New England coast.
The Severn was assigned to the First Group Submarine Flotilla in 1913 in support of four submarines: the C-2 (formerly the USS Stingray), the C-3 (formerly the USS Tarpon), the C-4 (formerly the USS Bonita) and the C-5 (formerly the USS Snapper). On December 7, 1913, the First Group was sent from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Coco Solo, a submarine base and naval air station located in the Panama Canal Zone (the canal was nearing completion). The 700-mile trip took five days which, at the time, was the longest made by U.S. submarines using their own power.
The Severn remained in the Panama Canal Zone until July 1916, when it was recalled to the Norfolk Navy Shipyard in Virginia. It was decommissioned on October 3, 1916, and, on December 7, 1916, was sold for $41,025 (equivalent today to almost $920,000) to Francis J. McDonald, the president and treasurer of the Philadelphia Ship Repair Co., which was located on the banks of the Delaware River, between the foot of Mifflin and McKean Streets. The ship arrived in Philadelphia on December 22, 1916.
McDonald changed the name of the Severn to the John J. Phillips. Phillips was the captain of the navy tugboat Pentucket, which earlier that year prevented a burning barge that was loaded with ammunition from reaching Ellis Island.
Black Tom Island was a munitions depot in New York Harbor not far from Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island) and Ellis Island. During the early hours of July 30, 1916, German saboteurs set several fires on Black Tom Island, where 1,000 tons of small arms, artillery ammunition and dynamite waited on boxcars and barges to be loaded onto a ship sailing for Russia. The initial explosion scored a 5.5 on the Richter Scale and could be felt as far away as Philadelphia, where telephone operators received hundreds of concerned phone calls. Seven people were killed and hundreds were injured.
The blast and ensuing fires destroyed 17 warehouses, six piers, four barges, one tugboat and 85 freight cars. Thousands of windows broke in a 25-mile radius, including all of the stained glass windows at St. Patrick’s Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. In Manhattan, the Woolworth Building, which at the time was the tallest building in the world, swayed so bad that two night watchmen on the upper floors fell to their knees and prayed aloud for mercy. The Statue of Liberty received shrapnel damage to her gown, right arm and torch. The cast-iron doors at the base of the statue were twisted and torn from their hinges.The damage to the narrow stairway that leads to the torch was severe enough that it was closed to the public; it is still off-limits more than 100 years later.
The burning barge that was loaded with artillery shells drifted free and was heading dangerously close to Ellis Island and the more than 200 immigrants being detained there in the hospital. Captain John J. Phillips and his crew of nine aboard the Pentucket intercepted the barge and blasted the fire with heavy streams of water. Explosion after explosion pelted the tugboat with shrapnel. One shell crashed through the pilot house and another struck a deckhand who was working the main deck hose, but the crew did not quiver nor quake. They successfully put out the fire and managed to sink the barge. The secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels, commended the crew’s bravery in a speech two weeks later. It was Francis J. McDonald’s admiration for the plucky captain’s tenacity that led him to rename the Severn after Phillips.
McDonald intended to use the John J. Phillips as a transatlantic freighter and had it fitted with a steam hoisting engine. Those plans changed on May 18, 1917, when another of his schooners, the Francis M., heading for France with a load of crude oil, was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine UC-73 off the coast of Spain. McDonald didn’t want to risk losing the John J. Phillips so, for the duration of the war, it was used as a temporary floating warehouse.
The war was over for a year when, on November 19, 1919, the John J. Phillips left Philadelphia with a cargo of lubricating oil bound for Hamburg, Germany. On January 10, 1920, it departed Hamburg with a cargo of fertilizing salts bound for Baltimore. The ship hit a series of bad storms and was forced to dock at Plymouth, England. On January 28, the Phillips again tried to cross the Atlantic but met with more bad weather. With leaking decks and choked pumps, it returned to England and took shelter from the storm in Falmouth. The Phillips left Falmouth on February 11 and again sailed into a fierce storm. Its headgear (foresail rigging) and jib boom were swept away into the angry ocean, and it took a full month for the battered ship to reach Baltimore. It was the first sailing ship to arrive in the U.S. from a German port since before the war.
On November 3, 1920, the John J. Phillips sailed from Boston to Rosario, Argentina, loaded with lumber. The 7,000-mile voyage took 70 days and earned McDonald $23,000 ($281,000 today).
By the early 1920s, sailing freighters had gone the way of the Conestoga wagon and so the John J. Phillips, after a final trip to Hamburg, came to rest on October 7, 1922, at the yard of McDonald’s Philadelphia Ship Repair Co. As late as 1926, it was still being advertised for hire, but there were no takers.
The Three Sisters and Mud Scow #11
The remaining four ships of the Dead Fleet are: the Francis J. McDonald, the Marie F. Cummins, the Albert D. Cummins and Mud Scow #11. They are grouped together about 150 feet north of Pier 78 at what was once the foot of McKean Street. In 1914, McDonald partnered with Albert D. Cummins, a successful ship broker, as the vice president of A. D. Cummins and Co. (formerly Haldt and Cummins and later the Cummins and McDonald Navigation Company). The Francis, the Marie and the Albert were owned by A. D. Cummins and Co. and are collectively known as “The Three Sisters.” Mud Scow #11 (as well as the John J. Phillips) was owned solely by McDonald.
By the time the U.S. entered the First World War in April 1917, there was a global shortage of freight ships (many having been requisitioned for the war). To that end, A. D. Cummins and Co. commissioned the construction of the Francis J. McDonald. The McDonald’s keel was laid in October 1917 at the Groton Iron Works in Noank, Connecticut. For reasons unknown, Groton wasn’t able to proceed any further than the hull, which was then towed to the yard of the Thames Towboat Co. in New London, Connecticut, who took over the contract.
At the end of the six-week contract, the ship wasn’t completed, and Thames asked Cummins for a 30-day extension. Cummins refused and had the McDonald towed to a shipyard in Hoboken, New Jersey where the masts were placed and the rigging installed.
The Francis J. McDonald arrived in Philadelphia in January 1918. It was a four-masted schooner constructed of oak, chestnut, and yellow pine with galvanized fastenings. In February 1919, it sprung a leak off of Cape Hatteras while carrying $1 million of wool (around $14 million today) from Algoa Bay, South Africa, to Boston. The insurance claim exceeded $150,000 ($2.12 million).
On March 30, 1922, the Francis J. McDonald was docked near Mifflin Street at the Philadelphia Ship Repair yard when it was struck by the Lewis Luckenbach, a passenger steamship. The Luckenbach was attempting to pass between Pier 78 and another steamship, the Mayama, when it struck the pier, bounced into the Mayama and then side-swiped the McDonald. Although the McDonald wasn’t badly damaged (a launch boat hanging from its side was crushed), it never again left McDonald’s ship repair yard.
The Marie F. Cummins and the Albert D. Cummins were both built by the Beaumont Shipbuilding Company of Beaumont, Texas. They were originally ordered before the war by the Kirby Lumber Company as lumber schooners, the Shelbank (Marie) and the Shelby (Albert). After the hulls were built, work on the ships came to a halt as Beaumont switched to war work for the United States Shipping Board, building “Ferris” design cargo ships only. After the war, A. D. Cummins and Company bought the hulls and had the ships completed as four-masted schooners, constructed of oak and yellow pine with galvanized fittings. The Albert D. Cummins was delivered in May 1920 and the Marie F. Cummins in June 1920.
The Marie F. Cummins wasn’t the first ship of that name owned by Cummins. When he first married his wife, Marie, in 1900, he named a three-masted schooner for her, but that ship sunk near Lewes, Delaware, in 1908.
Immediately upon delivery in May 1920, the Albert D. Cummins was sent to Galveston, Texas, to be loaded with Freeport crude sulphur, which it then delivered to Falmouth, England. In July 1920, the Marie F. Cummins also picked up a load of sulphur in Galveston for delivery in Nyhamn, Sweden. The Marie repeated the voyage during the summer of 1921. On September 29, 1921, the Marie F. Cummins dropped anchor at the Philadelphia Ship Repair Yard and never sailed again. The Albert D. Cummins was already there waiting for her. Within a year, the Francis J. McDonald and the John J. Phillips would join them. Sailing cargo ships had become obsolete.
Mud Scow #11 had been sitting in the Philadelphia Ship Repair yard since 1920. It was left as collateral for repair work done on a tugboat. The bill was never paid though, so McDonald became the owner of an old wooden scow for which he had absolutely no use.
On March 25, 1925, McDonald was elected president of the Baltimore and Philadelphia Steam Ship Co., operators of the Ericsson Line (a large string of passenger and cargo steamers). Later that year, he bought out Albert D. Cummins and became president of the Cummins-McDonald Navigation Co. Albert (who had only just turned 50) and Marie retired to a bungalow just off of Biscayne Bay in Miami, Florida. Marie died in 1934 and Albert in 1939.
On February 8, 1928, McDonald bought the lower end of the former William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company’s repair yard at Beach and Palmer Streets for $1.25 million (approximately $17 million today). Three weeks later he opened the Kensington Shipyard and Dry Dock Company. At the time, the Philadelphia Inquirer had this to say about McDonald: “He has been a leader in the shipbuilding and ship repair industry for the past twenty-five years and is recognized as the largest individual owner of maritime enterprises in the Port of Philadelphia.”
On July 15, 1929, McDonald merged the Kensington Shipyard and Dry Dock Company with the Philadelphia Ship Repair Yard, the Camden Shipbuilding Company and the Noecker and Ake Shipbuilding Company to form the Kensington Shipyard and Dry Dock Corporation. McDonald had big plans and high hopes for his new corporation. One week after the merger, McDonald went under the knife for exploratory surgery. The news was bad, he had pancreatic cancer. He died a year later on July 17, 1930.
McDonald left the bulk of his $3 million estate (equal to nearly $44 million) to his 6-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor “Dolly” McDonald. Dolly’s parents were Francis J. McDonald Jr. and Eleanor Mullins, who had married in 1923. When Francis Jr. and Eleanor divorced in 1929, Dolly was placed in a private school in Ardmore. After it came out that Francis Sr. had left his money to Dolly, Zaida, his ex-wife, sued for custody of the child, claiming that her son was an inept spendthrift, that her former daughter-in-law was a drunken floozy, and that neither of them were fit to raise her. After a four-month court battle, Eleanor was given custody of Dolly. Zaida was shocked by the judge’s decision and, according to one report, cried aloud: “Oh God, take her. This is terrible. I’d rather bury her. It couldn’t be worse. God take her. I will soon be with her, for I can’t live without her. She was all that I had in this world.” Zaida died in 1936.
In 1931, three members of the Dead Fleet (the Francis J. McDonald, the Albert D. Cummins and the Marie F. Cummins) were purchased by Lt. Commander Sloan Danenhower, formerly of the U.S. Navy. Danenhower planned an arctic expedition under the North Pole aboard the submarine Nautilus and wanted to use the old schooners as floating museums to showcase the specimens he planned to bring back. The expedition failed, though, as the ice proved to be thicker than expected, and Danenhower never took possession of the ships. He later tried to sell them to Warner Brothers, who were interested in the ships to use in a movie, but the deal didn’t go through when it was learned that their hulls were too waterlogged to make the voyage to the West Coast.
Down and Out in the Delaware River
In 1932, Kensington Shipyard and Dry Dock Corporation abandoned the Philadelphia Ship Repair Yard and sacked James Wells, the watchman who had been guarding the ships. The Great Depression had hit Philadelphia hard by then, and several homeless men moved onto the Dead Fleet. At first they were orderly and kept the ships neat, they even had a pet dog, (the Philadelphia Evening Ledger ran a pictorial story about them in May 1933) but after Prohibition ended in December 1933, they became drunken rabble and were removed by the police.
In 1934, it was announced that the John J. Phillips would be scrapped. The deed was done in June and July of that year as numerous blow torches cut away its steel hull. Scavengers came and picked away at the other four ships, stealing everything of value. A Philadelphia travel guide published in 1936 described the ships: “From this historic spot (Old Swede’s Church) some might wish to continue southward to the “Ship Graveyard,” where three wooden sailing vessels lie rotting in the mud of the Delaware River off McKean Street. These four-masted topsail schooners in various stages of decay are the Albert D. Cummins, the Francis J. McDonald and the Marie C. (sic) Cummins. They lie in the squat shadows of the City Service (Oil Company) Plant (where Pier 74A now stands), their keels embedded in mud and their main decks awash. All their masts are apparently intact; and of the forward spars, only the jib boom of the Francis J. McDonald is gone, leaving the blunted tip of the bowsprit pointing obliquely skyward.”
On June 28, 1943, Alfred Lynch, the chief clerk of the Delaware River Navigation Commission, announced that plans were underway to remove the Dead Fleet and that Pennsylvania Governor Edward Martin approved an appropriation of $10,000 to dislodge Mud Scow #11 as a preliminary to removing the wrecks. Despite the announcement and the money, the removal never happened. For whatever reason the ships weren’t removed, a decision that would prove to be tragic three years later.
On February 16, 1946, the Liberty Ship John Bartram sailed from Pier 78, accidentally leaving behind five lifeboats. They were discovered the following day by a group of 10 boys. Three of the boys, Alfred Trefs, 13, William McKendrick, 12, and Beyrl Litt, 11–all from Tree Street in the Whitman section of South Philly–climbed into one of them. They panicked as the tide suddenly changed and started to carry them out into the river. To make matters worse, their friends threw rocks at them as they tried to maneuver back to the banks. They managed to get over to the Albert D. Cummins and climbed aboard. They had only been on the ship for a few moments when they heard a crack and a scream. Beyrl had fallen through the rotted planking and became trapped in the water-filled hold.
Two teenagers from Pennsport, Albert Leonchuk and John Rapionits, stripped off their clothes and plunged into the freezing water. Repeatedly they searched the old wreck, but couldn’t find the drowning boy. Finally, the frigid conditions drove them back to the shore and they were taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital for treatment for exposure. Stanley Leutek, the watchman at Pier 78, called for the police harbor patrol. It took them an hour of searching with grappling hooks to recover Beyrl’s body.
In 1947, in the interests of safer navigation and a more sightly waterfront, Danenhower was served with evacuation notices for the ships, but he just ignored them. The state Bureau of Navigation then ordered that the ships be burned to their waterlines. For two weeks, the ships were soaked with kerosene. Then, just before sunrise on August 27, 1947, they were doused with gasoline. The fire was lit just after 7AM. The flames danced 50 feet above the gigantic pyre and dropped a blanket of smoke over the lower waterfront. Engine 46 from Water and Reed Streets and the fireboat Edwin S. Stuart kept a steady stream of water on Pier 78 to keep the flames from spreading. The fire raged for hours until the high tide came in and enveloped the scorched timbers of the ships’ hulls.
The Philadelphia Ship Repair Yard closed 85 years ago. Where it once stood along the river, now thrives a small forest of mulberry trees and a community of feral cats. The northern boundary of the yard was the beginning of Mifflin Street behind where the Old Navy store now stands. The southern boundary was the foot of McKean Street just north of Pier 78 (which turns 100 years old in July 2018).
The remains of the Dead Fleet can still be seen even 70 years after being burned. The most visible of the four ships is the one closest to Pier 78, the Albert D. Cummins. It is only obscured during high tide. It is stuck in the mud, listing slightly toward Pier 78. Sea gulls like to use it as a perch when they bask in the sun. Since 2010, a blue heron has been visiting the Albert during the summer and fall months to hunt for eels. There is currently a small mulberry tree and several bushes growing out of the top of the Albert.
Fittingly, snuggled up alongside the Albert D. Cummins is the Marie F. Cummins. The Marie sits lower in the mud and spends more time under water than the Albert, but is still visible most of the day. The Francis J. McDonald rests about 40 feet north of the Marie. It can only be seen at low tide. It is very close to the shoreline and is the best preserved of the ships, although that can only be appreciated from an aerial view. Mud Scow #11 lies diagonally in front of the Marie at the shoreline and is the most decayed of all the ships.