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Behind The SS Selma, A Historical Landmark

Since 1848, reinforced concrete, known as ferrocement, had been used as an experimental material to build ships. In 1917, Nicolay Knudtzon Fougner of Norway built the Namsenfjord – the first self-propelled ferrocement ship intended for ocean travel. Namsenfjord was 84 feet long and about 11.5-ft wide, weighing 400 tons with four-inch-thick walls below water that transitioned to 2.5-in thick above the water line.

With a storage of steel during World War I (1914 – 1918) and the success of Fougner’s Namsenfjord, ship builders in Europe and the United States (U.S.) looked to concrete as a viable means of building ships. On April 12, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson approved the Emergency Fleet Corporation program.

This program oversaw the construction of 24 ferrocement ships for the war. However, when the war ended in November 1918, only 12 concrete ships were under construction. A local example of one of these concrete ships is the SS Selma, which sunk in Galveston Bay and is visible today from the Houston Ship Channel.

The SS Selma, named after Selma Alabama, was completed in 1919. The SS Selma was 434-ft long and 54-ft wide. The ship was constructed with 2,600 cubic yards of shale concrete and 1,500 tons of reinforcing steel. The hull of the Selma was 5-in thick and transitioned to 4-in thick.

The U.S. government sold the SS Selma to a private company and in 1920, the ship developed a crack from an impact with a jetty in Tampico, Mexico. Towed into Galveston Bay, the repair of the ship could not be done.

The decision to sink the ship happened in 1922 without knowing if the ship could be fully repaired. Concrete ultimately proved unsuccessful as material for ship building; however some hobbyist [and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Student Chapters] still use concrete to build boats and canoes today.

In 1996, the Texas Historical commission dedicated the SS Selma as a Texas Historical Landmark. It has also been designated as a State Archeological Landmark by the Texas Antiquities Committee and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, engineers visit the SS Selma to observe how concrete reacts within the marine environment. You can see the ship from Pelican Island and the Point Bolivar Ferry, or on video.

Another example of a similar concrete ship is the SS Palo Alto, a concrete tanker launched on May 29, 1919, and subsequently purchased and turned into an amusement pier. The SS Palo Alto is still visible at Seacliff State Beach, near Aptos, California.

Not much is known of Nicolay Knudtzon Fougner. He was born in Norway in December of 1884. He attended Trondheim Technical College, now Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in 1906. Interestingly, some of the proceedings of ASCE show him as a member. He worked in New York and Detroit, Michigan for the Trussed Concrete Steel Co. of America. Once the U.S. government engaged him to consult with the Emergency Fleet Corporation program to help build ships, he formed the Fougner Company with his brothers.

The Company went bankrupt and Fougner traveled to Argentina then back to the U.S. He shared his knowledge of ship building via a book he published titled “Seagoing and Other Concrete Ships” and some ASCE presentations. Research conducted during the time of this article indicates records for Fougner are not available after 1942.

Author’s Note: Thank you to ASCE Texas Section Past President, A.C. Burkhalter Jr., who brought my attention to this Texas Historical Landmark as a subject for ASCE Texas Section’s History and Heritage Committee to research and share with all Section members