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.

SS Independence photo SS Independence photo

An Unlikely Outcome

In September 2007, Stephen Freskos and I snuck into BAE Systems, an active ship repair facility and Department of Defense contractor in downtown San Francisco. To gain access to the shipyard, we climbed a razor wire fence, crawled into an abandoned warehouse, and scaled the side of a building above the western edge of SF Bay. There we stumbled upon a hole cut in a chain link fence that we slid through onto the property. Similar to our first two missions, our goal was to board the decaying, forgotten 682-foot S.S. Oceanic Independence cruise ship moored on-site.

SS Independence photo

Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky this time. As we sprinted across the yard toward the ship, the night foreman spotted us. We tried to run up the gangway and hide, but it was too late. He was angry and screaming at us, ordering us to get off the boat. We obliged, and were promptly escorted to the guard shack near the shipyard’s main entrance.

At first, the guard demanded that we turn over all of our camera gear, including our bags. We refused. When the SF Police arrived, the guard changed his mind and decided that confiscating our memory cards was sufficient. I inquired with the officer about our options and she presented an ultimatum: Turn over our memory cards or be arrested. It was an easy decision; since we hadn’t made it onto the ship that night, our $20 memory cards were still empty. The cop insisted on keeping a paper trail so that we could recover our seized cards, but it didn’t help.

Despite repeated efforts, we never saw our memory cards again. But something remarkable happened. After multiple visits and phone calls, I began to befriend both the guard and the night foreman who ran us out. Eventually, the foreman became comfortable enough with me that he offered legitimate access to photograph the shipyard at night during his shift. Initially, the Indy was off limits, but after a few visits, he allowed us to board the ship and gave us the keys and free reign to shoot both the exterior and interior of the ghost ship.

SS Independence photo

The night foreman holding his daughter’s “Flat Stanley” at the shipyard

Goodbye Indy

I feel very fortunate to be one of only a few photographers allowed on board one of the last American-built cruise liners before it was too late. The Indy’s survival had become symbolic of an era before air travel enabled most of us to zip across the country and even around the globe in just a few hours. In fact, it is the jet engine that ultimately sealed the ship’s fate.

SS Independence photo

On February 8, 2008, the Indy was pulled out to sea by tugboat, unable to make the voyage under her own power. Although her destination was muddled in uncertainty and controversy, the ship’s final port of call ended up being a ship-breaking beach in Alang, India.

View more of my S.S. Independence ghost ship photos »

See Also:

Jon Haeber’s write-up on the ship

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12 Responses to SS Independence Ghost Ship

  1. Stephen Freskos said on 

    I’m glad to see you’ve published a write-up of our adventures and mis-adventures on BAE property and the lovely ship, Independence. It’s notable to say that it was on our 5th or 6th? visit that we were finally apprehended. The port manager turned out to be a truly great guy and eventually recognized that we were, in fact, upstanding and trustworthy fellows, besides the regrettable circumstances of our first meeting. I will never forget that night he handed me the keys to the Independence and said be out by 4:00am! What a refreshing turn of events. It goes to show the open-mindedness of the manager; Open-mindedness that we so rarely see in most people we encounter in our adventures. If only they could all have such fairy-tale endings…

  2. Adrian said on 

    I wish you had taken some more pictures. With an opportunity like this with freedom to roam, it seems that more than 18 pictures could have been taken.

  3. Larry Eschenbacher said on 

    Many times I would sip my beer at the Ramp, gawking at that great ship, wondering about her origins and fate. Happy to have stumbled upon your site and these great pix and stories. Thanks!

  4. Steve said on 

    I remember the SS Independence well, and in fact, was aboard her once for a tour. This was BEFORE Hawaii was even a state, that is, I toured her in New York City at her pier midtown west side. Sad, all the really great ships are gone, SS United States, SS America, Queen Elizabeth, but at least we can still go onboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. I remember the Independence had a sister ship which alternated at the pier, but just can’t seem to remember the name right at the moment.
    Thanks for the pix…

    • Joan said on 

      The Constitution was the sister ship. We sailed on both ships during the early sixties.

      • Kristi said on 

        I sailed around the Hawaiian islands on the Independence with my family in the summer of 1982. The occasion was the celebration of my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My grandparents were even invited one evening to dine at the captain’s table (fans of the TV series “Love Boat” can appreciate what a big deal we thought that was!). The crew was very friendly to us kids (ages 12-17) and when we went back to watch the ship dock at the Aloha Tower one week after our cruise had ended, the cruise director recognized us and invited the four of us on board. We had a grand morning running all over the ship, visiting with our former cabin steward and waiters. They even served us breakfast! The sister ship, “The Constitution”, had only recently begun sailing in Hawaii and there was a friendly rivalry that was developing among the crews. I’ll never forget the name of the sister ship because some of the crew members of the Independence referred to it as “The Institution”! Supposedly the Constitution’s crew had a name for the Independence as well, but they would not divulge it to us.

        I enjoyed hearing the story of how you were able to take these photographs. They are really beautiful. Thank you for sharing them with us!

  5. john wiley said on 

    A blog about a community of ships – I’d apreciate your comments

  6. john wiley said on 

    Your photos are great as is the adventure – I’d like your comments on my fiction so far -

    John Wiley

  7. Jerry Cross said on 

    The sis ter ship was the Constitution. She was also built in the quincy shipyard. I seem to have a long history with those two ships. I am from Weymouth Ma. right across the river from the Shipyard. I was in the Navy and stioned in Hawaii from 86 to 88, My parents and other relatives took a cruise on the Indy in late 88. When i worked for Sperry Marin in the early 90′s at Newport news shipping, Both of the ships came to the shipyard for a much needed upgrade. Ultimately the ships were siezed by US Marshalls as the company went bankrupt well before 9-11. the real reason they had any business at all was an old rule that Cruiseliners had to be US Flagged to go from one US port to another. Otherwise they needed to dock at a foreign port. (of course that is impossible to do in Hawaii). Some time ago , that rule was rescinded and there are lots of newer and larger cruise liners making port calls in Hawaii.
    great photo’s

  8. Edward H. Zumstein said on 

    My father, the late Emil H. Zumstein, worked at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet from about 1947 to 1969, with a two or three year hiatus to be recalled to the Navy for the Korean War. He was a tugboat engine mechanic during his many years of employment at that facility.

    Growing up in Vallejo (near Mare Island Naval Shipyard) I always thought it was funny that all our garden hoses were black (and 1 inch), much of our cutlery had “USN” stamped on it, and our plates had anchors on them. My sheets were always plain white, twin sized or sometimes smaller.

    I found out, about the time I became a teenager around 1965, that much of our stuff had been salvaged from these Reserve Fleet ships. It seems that during this time period, it was cheaper for the Department of Commerce (who administered the place then) to simply throw a lot of the ships’ furnishings overboard, rather than recovering them and selling them to commercial salvage operators. At least, that’s the story that came to me. I cannot verify its veracity.

    During the 1960′s and 1970′s, there was a ship called the Glomar Explorer in the mothball fleet. It was built by Howard Hughes and used to raise a Soviet submarine during the Cold War (somewhere near Hawaii). I don’t know if it is still moored at the site.

    Dad occasionally had to work overtime during storms in that part of the bay because the old ships would slip their moorings and start drifting. So he, along with his tug driver (pilot) and another crewman, would go out in the lousy weather, grab the anchor chains, and pull the hulks back to where they were supposed to be.

    One of the duties of the tugboats during this time was security patrol. Dad told me stories of shooing fishermen away from the old hulks because they were fishing too close, or sometimes between, the old ships. I guess sturgeon liked to hide there.

    I applaud your audacity for getting a look at the old ships and am glad you did not get caught by the security personnel.

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