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Washington Naval Conference

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United States Shipping Board

United States Shipping Board, Maritime Commission, Maritime Administration

United States Shipping Board (1916)

The United States Shipping Board (USSB) was established as an emergency agency of the US government to increase the number of US ships available to support World War I. Its purpose was to “encouraging, developing and creating" ships "to meet the requirements of commerce of the United States” and “to regulate carriers by water”. Leading up to the war, European countries dominated ocean trade. Only about 10% of ocean trade was carried by US owned ships. With outbreak of war in Europe the national fleets of warring countries were withdrawn from vital ocean trade to the United States.

 When the US entered the war (April 1917), the USSB changed it focus to a massive wartime program. The USSB:

                Seized 91 German ships.

                Negotiated either purchase or charter of German ships seized by foreign governments.

                Commandeering ships under construction in the US by foreign entities (431 ships).

                Allocated ships delivered from builders to service based on operating needs.

                Required foreign ships to obtain a license to refuel in the US.

                Established training centers for ship crews “open to all male citizens” (1917 remember).

                Entered into agreements with labor to resolve labor disputes without stoppage.

                Constructed a shipyard at Hog Island (Philadelphia) (see Shipyards, Hog Island in this virtual museum.)

With the end of the war, the need for ships dramatically collapsed. The USSB operated a shipping business with surplus ships until 1920. In 1925 Henry Ford bought 199 of the USSB ships for supplying his River Rouge automobile building complex. Remining ships were recycled and USSB shut down in 1934.


Hog Island ship built in Philadelphia


German ship Kronprinzessin Cecilie seized by USSB 1942

Maritime Commission (1936)

Maritime Commission was created by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 and replaced the USSB. Its purpose was to design and build 900 modern merchant cargo ships to replace the World War I ships that comprised the bulk of the US Merchant Marine. It was to administer a subsidy system to off set the cost differential between building and operating ships under the American flag. It also formed the Maritime Service for training seagoing officers.  Between 1939 and end of World War II, it funded and administered building of 5777 seagoing merchant and naval ships. The SS America is one example.

A huge reduction in need followed WWII. Many ships were sold to foreign militaries and commercial fleets. The last shipbuilding project was the ocean liner SS United States, currently inactive at a pier in Philadelphia. The Maritime Commission was abolished in 1950. Its functions were divided as follows:

                Federal Maritime Commission –  regulating the U.S. international ocean transportation system for the benefit of U.S. exporters, importers, and the U.S. consumer.

                Maritime Administration – (see below)


SS America built by the US Maritime Commission.

Maritime Administration (MARAD) (1950)

Purpose - Promote the use of waterborne transportation and viability of US Merchant Marine. It does this by administering construction and operating subsidy programs, maintaining National Defense Reserve Fleet, operating the Federal Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY. MARAD came under the Department of Transportation in 1981.

National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) – consists of “mothballed or laid-up” ships that can be activated to provide shipping during national emergencies. At its peak in 1950, NDRF had 2277 ships in its fleet. In 2003 it had 274. NDRF ships were used in several national emergencies such as Korean War, closure of Suez Canal, and Vietnam War. In a number of locations, flaking paint with toxins were accumulating in the sediment under the ships. MARAD is removing and scrapping such ships and remediating the areas.


Reserve Fleet Suisun Bay California

Reserve Fleet Locations


USS Salt Lake City (CA 25) 1929

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Learn about the destroyers from the Delaware-Camden area.

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