Inside the Ghost Ships of the Mothball Fleet

For decades, dozens of forgotten Navy and merchant ships have been corroding in Suisun Bay, 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. These historic vessels—the Mothball Fleet—served their country in four wars: WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Desert Storm. After a decade of impasse, the ghost fleet is slowly dwindling as the ships are towed out one-by-one for scrapping. About 15 retired ships are already gone; by 2017, the entire fleet will be just a memory.

Mothball Fleet photo: Ghost Ships

Over a two-year period, several close friends and I gained unprecedented access to the decaying ships, spending several days at a time photographing, documenting, and even sleeping aboard them—often in the luxury of the captain’s quarters. Sneaking on-board required months of planning and coordination, and it involved taking significant risks. Of course, things did not always go as planned, but despite several close calls, we were successful in all of our attempts to infiltrate the ships while evading round-the-clock security patrols.

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Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, New Jersey’s second oldest insane asylum, opened its doors to the first 300 patients in 1877. Originally called the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Morristown, it received its current name, Greystone Park, in 1924.

Greystone photo

Postcard published sometime before 1923. Source: Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital archives.

Dorothea Dix, a school teacher and crusader for the mentally ill, was instrumental in creating the new hospital. Her persistence and lobbying led the New Jersey legislature to appropriate $2.5 million to secure land for Greystone. Dix proposed the new hospital to relieve overcrowding at New Jersey’s first state hospital in Trenton, which she founded in 1848. Trenton Psychiatric Hospital is significant because it was the first mental hospital built according to the Kirkbride Plan, which emphasized humane treatment of the mentally ill.

The Kirkbride Plan

Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809–1883), a physician and advocate for the mentally ill, was regarded as one of the leading authorities on mental health care in the late 1800s. His ideals were based on the concept of “moral treatment,” where patients enjoyed attentive care with a minimum use of restraints, and his belief that the buildings and grounds could have a curative effect on patients.

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Abandoned Six Flags in New Orleans

I met fellow explorers Mike Rosati and Minda Vermazen for the first time in the Las Vegas Airport, en route to New Orleans to photograph the abandoned Six Flags Theme Park that closed when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. We read online that the park was being dismantled and sold for scrap beginning in January 2011, so with little time to spare, we hastily made plans to visit during the first week of December 2010. Our plane landed around midnight, and we drove straight to the park on a cursory scouting mission. We took a couple night shots from outside the park, made a plan, then headed to the hotel for some rest.

Six Flags photo

Gaining Access

The next day, we spent 10 hours documenting and exploring the park. Mike dropped Minda and me and our gear off, then parked the car in an adjacent neighborhood that is still littered with abandoned homes in the aftermath of the hurricane and flooding.

We entered through a hole in a barbed-wire fence along a main thoroughfare, right next to a Six Flags sign that still reads “Closed for Storm” a full five plus years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city. Weeds and grasses were sprouting in the vast, empty parking lot, crumbling the pavement as nature begins its first steps to reclaim the amusement park.

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SS Independence Ghost Ship

The distinct Hawaiian-themed funnels of the abandoned S.S. Independence cruise ship, visible from both I-280 and HWY 101, were a familiar site to commuters in San Francisco. The neglected ghost ship sat unused in the Pier 70 drydocks from 2004–2008, after being moved from its previous home at Mare Island. Prior to that, it was anchored in the Mothball Fleet in the Suisun Bay.

SS Independence photo

The steamship was completed in 1951 at Bethlehem Steel Corporation in Quincy, Massachusetts at a cost of $50 million. It had a rich history of sailing passengers between New York and Europe, Portugal and Africa, and in its later life, inter-island service in Hawaii. In 1981, it ran aground off the coast of Kauai, suffering severe damage. Although the ship was repaired, it became a casualty of decreased bookings following the September 11 attacks that ultimately forced the tour company to file for bankruptcy.

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The Delta Works

In June 2007, I was invited as a special guest to join Job van de Sande, head of Deltaworks Online, to document the country’s most important dams and sluices. We used kite aerial photography to produce a set of 360° Panoramas looking down on the engineering marvels. Deltaworks Online is a non-profit organization providing reliable information about water management, flood protection and the delta works in the Netherlands.

photo of the Hartel Barrier

360° view of the Hartel Barrier

Background and History

The Netherlands is a low lying county, much of it below sea level. Throughout the ages, many devastating floods have claimed thousands of lives and large tracts of land. In 1570, the All Saints Flood engulfed half of Northern Holland, killing at least 5000 people (and possibly more than 20,000, but exact data is not available).

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