Foss Senior Petroleum Coordinator Patrick Mulcahy tells the story of an old WWII barge from his office on its deck.
By Hilary Reeves
When Patrick Mulcahy joined Pacific Towboat & Salvage Co. (PacTow) in 1991 he was assigned an unusual office space on the top deck of the 265-foot “BARGE I,” an old World War II barge moored in the Port of Long Beach.
During the spring of the following year, during a particularly late night in the office, he decided to go exploring.
“I’m a bit of a history buff,” said Mulcahy, Foss Maritime’s Senior Petroleum Coordinator in San Francisco Bay. “It was, like, two (o’clock) in the morning. I remember walking down a set of stairs from the upper deck – where all the administrative offices were located – to the main deck where most of the machine shop work was done. The main deck is covered with hatches. On deck, I came across a locker full of old vacuum-tube radios, and tooling kits used to change the barrels of machine guns. I popped a hatch, looked down, and found miles of old, hard-hat diving air hoses and canvas suits used for salvage work. BARGE 1 was a living history book back then.”
The new steel
During World War II, particularly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when the United States entered the war, the country’s manufacturing sector grew exponentially, consuming traditional steel outputs and leading to a shortage of materials. Experiments began with the goal of creating ships and barges out of ferro-cement as an alternative to steel.
“After the war, people continued building recreational boats out of Ferro,” said Mulcahy. “It makes for a very heavy displacement boat, but for people sailing around the world – if you’re sailing into a coral reef in a wooden boat, it might sink it. With cement, it just takes a chunk out and you can patch it.”
The military commissioned Ferro vessels at three locations during the war years: McCloskey & Co.built 78 barges in Tampa, Florida; Barret & Hilp Co. built vessels at Belair Shipyard in San Francisco; and Concrete Ship Constructors built 22 barges in National City, California, near San Diego.
“Concrete Ship Constructors produced two hulls in National City, numbers 48 and 49, named ‘CERIUM’ and ‘RADON,’” said Mulcahy. “CERIUM” was designated B5-BJ3 – the “B” indicates a MARAD designation as a World War II barge. It was delivered in March of 1945, and later became FMS1 – Floating Machine Shop 1. RADON was designated BJ-BJ3, delivered in May of 1945 and became FSM2. I’m 99.9 percent sure BARGE I is either CERIUM or RADON.”
After the war
The question of what happens to decommissioned military vessels is a complicated one for BARGE I. She was built as a floating machine shop, used to rebuild engines and electric motors. Similar barges were used as bases for “PBRs” (Patrol Boat Riverine) during the Vietnam War.
There are rumors, Mulcahy said, that BARGE 1 had at one point been converted into a gambling casino and taken offshore to avoid local ordinances against gambling – a rumor he has been unable to prove, although there is ample evidence that it housed some sort of restaurant.
“During one of my many deck-diving expeditions, I found boxes upon boxes of restaurant paperwork, including receipts, and even commercial dishware and crockery,” he laughed.
Foss in the Bay
Several years after joining PacTow/Dillingham Marine Co., by then owned by Foss Maritime, Mulcahy took a job in San Francisco. And BARGE 1 followed. Today, moored off a pier at Point Richmond on the northeast side of the San Francisco Bay, sits BARGE 1. And on most days, in an office on her top deck, sits Mulcahy.
“It’s strange how it happened,” he laughed. “I like to say that I started my career on BARGE 1 in Long Beach, and she followed me north. She’s like an old friend.”
Foss Maritime has several lines of business in the Bay, escorting loaded oil tankers, ship assists, a dredge operation that mines sand for use as construction materials. Mulcahy coordinates with Chevron Marine Products, transporting residual fuel left over from refining crude, to tank farms in Richmond – where it is blended into bunker fuel for ships calling San Francisco Bay.
“The lower deck of BARGE 1 is still used by our mechanics to repair the tugs,” he said. “I think it’s great that BARGE 1 is still serving in the way it was intended to almost 75 years ago.”
Editor’s Note: Weeks after this story was written, a previously unseen historical photo confirmed to Mulcahy that BARGE 1 is, in fact, the CERIUM, Hull No. 48.