Lake Fithian

The 2,700-ton Lake Fithian was the most powerful hydraulic dredge in the world in the 1930s. It pumped some six million cubic yards of sand slurry from Rockaway Inlet to fill the Gerritsen salt marshes for an extravagant, ultimately aborted plan for Marine Park—what would have been the largest, costliest urban playground in America. The “mud-chewing monster,” as the Brooklyn Eagle called it, was owned by the National Dredging Company, which previously employed the huge craft to cut flood-control channels on the Mississippi River after the Great Flood of 1927. It was almost certainly also used by Robert Moses to build up the oceanfront at Jones Beach State Park.

The Lake Fithian did not begin life as a dredge. The craft was built in 1919 by the Globe Shipbuilding Company of Superior, Wisconsin for the United States Shipping Board, one of scores of “Lakers” built to haul arms to the allies during World War I. It was later acquired by the New Orleans and South American Steamship Company to run the first direct steamer line between the Crescent City and the west coast of South America, sailing via the Panama Canal to Ecuador, Peru and Chile. In 1926 the vessel was sold to William Clifford, who had just patented a technique for converting common cargo vessels into hydraulic or cutter-suction dredges. The drastically altered Lake Fithian, unrecognizable from its former self, was launched a second time in 1927. Clifford’s conversion was likely motivated by the prospect of plentiful dredge work following the Mississippi floods and the ensuing Flood Control Act of 1928.

The Lake Fithian was nearly as labor intensive as an 18th-century whaler, requiring no less than 50 hands to make it work. It was essentially a giant sea-vacuum, with a “cutter basket” for a nozzle and suction provided by a 3,500-horsepower steam engine. The elephantine intake snout, armed with a cutterhead, was lowered from a ladder at the front of the ship; aft were a pair of great shafts (known as “spuds”) that were pounded, one at a time, into the bottom. Fixed astern by one of the spuds, the craft could winch itself back and forth from side anchors, grubbing the bottom in a great arc like a famished sea-monster. To make land for Marine Park, slurry was pumped at 20 feet per second through a mile-long cloaca of 30-inch pipe floating on pontoons. At the far end, an unholy pancake of mud rushed over the salt grasses and toward the perimeter dyke. Intredid youngsters frolicked at roaring nozzle, hoping that pirate plunder or “some curious underseas creature might be spewed forth from the huge iron pipes” (others swam along the pontoon pipeline and clambered on board the dredge itself).[1] Overhead, a wheeling, shrieking cloud of gulls gathered to feast on the ejecta, which teemed with doomed sea life; later came snipe—clouds of the long-billed birds descended from out of nowhere to probe for meals. “It’s just too bad that we can’t take our shotguns and have a little sport,” complained a local, who had never seen snipe in the marsh before. Now the birds were “so thick that you could close your eyes, fire a gun into their midst and bag about 50 of ’em.”[2] The Lake Fithian worked the bottom of Rockaway Inlet 24 hours a day from July to November, 1931, smothering what had been a primeval estuarine landscape under 14 feet of sand. At night, the snorting beast was set glow by its boiler fires, a flat-water Pequod tending a slurping try-works. By Thanksgiving the vessel had pumped enough sand to bury 500 football fields nearly six feet deep, or make sandboxes out of 1,840 Olympic-size pools.[3] The craft helped create additional city parkland at Dyker Beach the next spring, pumping slurried mud from a shoal off Bay Ridge through a 17,000-foot run of pipe—the longest ever attempted at the time.

After World War II, the Lake Fithian was acquired by the French dredging and construction conglomerate, Société Française D’Entreprises de Dragages et de Travaux Publics. Founded in 1902, the company boasted a vast portfolio of work in Asia that included a 1,200-mile canal across the Mekong Delta and Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport. The vessel later passed to the Dutch firm Amsterdamse Ballast Maatschapij (ABM, today Ballast Nedam). ABM operated the Lake Fithian on the Suez Canal until Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the waterway in 1956—a move that triggered the Suez Crisis and destabilized the Middle East for years. The aging craft was towed down the Red Sea to Aden, and from there to Calcutta for a World Bank project to eliminate shoals on the Hooghly River. For two years, she and a companion vessel—the Queen of Holland—siphoned off river silt to keep navigable Calcutta’s sole connection to the sea. The Hooghly, born in the Himalayas, carried titanic loads of silt from the Ganges Plain to the Bay of Bengal; the river’s shifting shoals were a perennial hazard to all manner of craft. “Some million tons of shipping must find their way to and from Calcutta each twelvemonth,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in An Unqualified Pilot; and “unless the Hugli were watched as closely as his keeper watches an elephant, there is a fear that it might silt up, as it has silted up round the old Dutch and Portuguese ports twenty and thirty miles behind Calcutta.”

By fall, 1960, the vessels were working the Noorpur Reach below Falta Point, a run of river known for treacherous currents. At about eight o’clock on the evening of November 18, the Lake Fithian’s captain cut the engine to make a repair; most of the crew went below for dinner or a game of cards. Some 30 minutes late, the port (left) cable winch failed, causing the vessel to swing starboard with the river current. At just that moment a massive tidal bore reached the aged vessel, striking it broadside. As it leaned, the massive boilers broke free of their mounts and fell. their tremendous weight capsized the Lake Fithian within minutes. Seventeen men—five Indians and 12 Dutch nationals —were trapped in the hold and drowned. The fast-flowing Hooghly quickly covered its deed, scouring a deep depression around the sunken vessel and burying it in silt. The wreck was not recovered for months; the body of one of the Dutch seamen was never found. Rumors spread that ABM deliberately positioned the age, heavily insured Lake Fithian on the most dangerous part of the river, while the company’s prized new Queen of Holland was kept out of danger.[4]

At the playgrounds along Gerritsen Avenue today, a misplayed ball will tumble off court and into the sand, coming to rest alongside on sand and muscle-shell fragments sucked up from the deep a lifetime ago, by a vessel that ended its days 8,000 miles and a world away from its Great Lakes cradle.



[1] “Kids Swarm to Marine Park Dredge Scene,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (23 July, 1931).

[2] “Marine Park Made Paradise for Snipe,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (3 August, 1931). Snipe are notoriously difficult to shoot, hence the origin of “sniper” to describe a marksman of particular skill.

[3] Tenth Annual Report of the United States Shipping Board (Washington: GPO, 1926), 90; “Ramp met ‘Lake Fithian is niet helemaal een geheim…” De Waarheid (17 December, 1960).

[4] http://www.zero-meridean.nl/c_calcutta_181160.html

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