The Ferris wooden cargo ships of World War I

A. Background

In April 1917, after much debate, the United States entered World War I, which had been raging in Europe for nearly 3 years. It very quickly appeared to the U.S. Shipping Board (USSB) that the country would not have enough ships to bring supplies, food, and ammunition to support the U.S. troops, especially in view of the effectiveness of the German U-Boats. The Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) therefore decided to contract for 703 wooden cargo steamships to supplement its budding fleet of steel cargo ships. This created great controversy; at the time, wood was already obsolete for large ship building, and even reciprocating steam engines were considered old-fashioned. The main type of wooden ship followed the Theodore "Ferris" design (USSB design #1001), a 270' long, coal-fired, "three-island" ship of 3,500 deadweight tons.

B. The Ferris ship

Ferris_D1.jpg Probably heading for first sea trials.

Ferris standard wooden steamship specifications

Length over all             281'-10"       3,588 deadweight tons
Length between perpendics.  268'- 0"       2,556 gross tons
Breadth moulded              45'- 2"       1,512 net tons
Depth moulded at side        26'- 0"
Load draft                   23'-10" 
2 water tube boilers each 2508 sq.ft       28 tons coal / day
1 triple expansion (19"+32"+56")/36"       1,400 HP indicated
Speed 10 knots

Ferris Plans

Ferris_GA1_USSB.gif Ferris_GA2_USSB.gif General Arrangement.

Ferris_vG53.gif Inboard Profile.

Ferris_vG_OfsBreadths.gif Ferris_vG_OfsHeights.gif Ferris_vG_OfsDiags.gif Offsets; Breadths, Heights, and Diagonals.

Ferris_vG46a.gif Ferris_vG46b.gif Body Plan, moulded lines.

Ferris_vG43.gif Ferris_vG42.gif Sheer Plan, moulded lines.

Ferris_vG45.gif Ferris_vG44.gif Half-Breadth Plan, moulded lines.

Ferris Sections

Ferris_vG47a.gif Ferris_vG47b.gif Midship, construction.

Ferris_vG61.gif Ferris_vG62.gif Engine room looking fwd, and boiler room looking aft.

Ferris_vG48.gif Bridge deck to wheelhouse, construction.

Ferris_vG49.gif Ferris_vG52.gif Poop and forecastle, construction.

Ferris_C84.gif Ferris_vG51b.gif Keel and shaft, construction.

Ferris_C66.gif Stern framing.

Ferris Detailed Arrangements

Ferris_vG58.gif Ferris_vG57.gif Poop deck and gun house.

Ferris_vG59.gif Bridge deck.

Ferris_vG56.gif Boat deck.

Ferris_vG54.gif Ferris_vG55.gif Navigating bridge and Wheelhouse.

Ferris_vG60.gif Forecastle deck.

Construction photographs

Ferris_vG109.jpg Except for cantilever crane, this is XVIIth century....

Ferris_vG108.jpg Inside framing, looking aft.

Ferris_vG102.jpg Forecastle, looking forward.

Not found any picture looking aft on center island....

Ferris_D48.jpg Center island, looking forward.

Ferris_vG111.jpg Poop, looking aft.

Ferris_vG107.jpg Aft hull details; note unusual vertical planking.

Ferris_vG113.jpg Wooden shafted rudder, to cause problems.

Ferris_vG105.jpg Planked and ready for launching.

A wonderful triple expansion engine animation by steam enthusiast Rick Boggs


C. Other wooden cargo ships of the USSB


Ballin_GA1_USSB.gif Ballin_GA2_USSB.gif General Arrangement.


Also spelled Dougherty.

Daugherty_GA_USSB.gif General Arrangement.


Wooden except for bulwarks.

GraysHarbor_GA_USSB.gif General Arrangement.


The cheaper competitor of the Ferris

Hough_GA1_USSB.gif Hough_GA2_USSB.gif General Arrangement.


Composite; wood planks on steel frames.

McClelland_GA_USSB.gif McClelland_GA_Webster.gif General Arrangement.

The Laker (STEEL)

The steel version, for comparison.

Laker_GA1_USSB.gif Laker_GA2_USSB.gif General Arrangement.

D. History

Of the 703 Ferris and other wooden ships ordered, 214 were cancelled when the armistice was signed in November 1918, 323 were completed, 44 sold, 23 lost, and 256 sold for scrapping. These wooden steamships earned a bad reputation due to high maintenance costs and rudder problems, although 265 carried cargoes overseas. In the end, the collapse of the freight rates after the war signed their death warrant. However, had the war lasted even one more year, the wooden steamship fleet would have given ample reason to its existence. These cargo ships were the last and the largest vessels ever built following a tradition of wood shipbuilding that had lasted practically unchanged for centuries. To give an idea of the incredible effort involved, enough wood has been used in these ships to build a bridge 26' wide and 1" thick between America and France, thereby materializing the slogan "Let's build a bridge to France!" of the Shipping Board propaganda of the time.

E. Models

Steam-powered Ferris ship by Antonio Valderrama, 1:48 scale

F. Bibliography

Curtis (1919) The Elements of Wood Ship Construction, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Davis (1918) The Building of a Wooden Ship, Philadelphia: USSB/EFC.

Ferris (1917) Specifications for the Construction of a Standard Wood Steamship; Douglas Fir, Hull only, Washington: Gov. Prt. Off..

van Gaasbeek (1941) Wooden Boat and Ship Building, Chicago: Frederick Drake.

Hurley (1927) A Bridge to France Philadelphia: Lippingcott.

Mattox (1920) Building the Emergency Fleet, Cleveland: Penton.

McKellar (1959) American Wooden Shipbuilding in World War One Belgian Shiplover 71:319-341.

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