One of my favorite places to walk in Alexandria is Jones Point Park.
The improvements that were made there several years ago and the historical markers that were installed makes this southern tip of the city south of Old Town a crown jewel.
We owe a lot to those who researched and created the historical markers. So it is with somewhat of a heavy heart that we bring up something we uncovered about one of them. It’s the marker under the bridge that covers the discovery of a wooden rudder.
As noted by the marker:
In May 2000, this rudder was recovered along the banks of the Potomac River near Jones Point. Measuring over 22 feet high and 4.5 feet wide, the rudder is of the variety used to outfit steel cargo ships constructed between 1918 and 1920 at the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation site. Except for concrete building foundations and the finishing pier, the rudder is the last remnant of the shipbuilding industry at Jones Point.
Workers found the rudder while driving piles for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Once pulled from the mud, archeologists and historians studied the artifact. Though of a slightly different shape than the one shown in the diagram at right, research indicates that the rudder is an alternative style for the ships built on site. This fragile artifact is displayed horizontally to provide better support.
Why put a wood rudder on a steel ship?
The answer is unknown, but modifications to shipbuilding and outfitting during times of war were often completed on an ad hoc basis, and were not recorded. A rudder of this type may have been pre-fabricated by a contractor, using more readily available materials. A wooden rudder could also have been produced more quickly, was less costly than a metal rudder, and was easier to repair at sea.
Last week I posted about The Ghost Fleet at Mallows Bay. Part of the story involves Alexandria. In the early 1920s, the Western Marine and Salvage Company leased the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation’s yard, located at Jones Point. They towed the ships up from Whitewater and stripped them of their engines, boilers and usable timbers.
Learning about this, the question popped in my mind. Could the rudder be from one of the wooden transports?
I knew the answer to this one was way beyond the reach of google. So I contacted Donald Shomette, an authority on marine archaeology in our area, and author of “Maritime Alexandria" and "Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay."
I read his response with one eye, knowing my idea was likely wrong.
The rudder, in humble estimation, is indeed almost certainly from one of the wooden ships brought first to Widewater, and later ending up Mallows Bay.
The 22-foot size is a perfect match.
If the rudders belonged to any of the 16 vessels built at the Virginia Shipbuilding Company yard, they would have been metal, not wood, as the yard was contracted only to build steel ships.
However, it is possible, but very highly unlikely, that the wooden rudder you refer to belonged to one of the nearly dozen vessels dredged up from in front of the Alexandria waterfront by the Army Corps of Engineer a decade or so before WWI and deposited with the dredge spoil to fill in the wetland depression just north of Jones Point (upon which the shipyard was later built).
For those interested, Shomette will present his current research on the Ghost Fleet next April when the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary is dedicated.
I want to publicly thank Mr. Shomette for his prompt reply, and all the work he has done not only on the Ghost Fleet but for many marine historical stories in the Chesapeake region.
As far as the marker, the National Park Service has been contacted. I know it's tough to deal with a situation like this. Perhaps the current marker could be kept as a way of documenting the process of understanding this story. A new marker could then provide the updated information.