January 17, 2018

The Ravages of Teredo: The Rise and Fall of Shipworm in US History, 1860–1940

Nelson Figure 7-550

By Derek Lee Nelson

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an epidemic of marine wood-boring organisms—known collectively by the catchall name teredo—tore through the American coastline, consuming wharves, ships, and any wooden objects that touched salty and brackish waters. The epidemic, consisting of both native and invasive species, stemmed from the massive commercial development of America’s coastal waterways that began in the late nineteenth century, which created new habitat upon which teredo fed, flourished, and spread. Because teredo hollowed out planks and piles out of sight until they crumbled, the surreptitious borer terrified coastal communities with unexpected damages, ranging in the millions of dollars annually. Teredo was so feared that when sailors, engineers, and stevedores wrote or spoke of it they regularly drew on the menacing catchphrase “the ravages of teredo” to describe its exploits, a negative association that helped to turn the word teredo into an environmental icon that Americans used to express social, economic, and cultural fears and disdain for decades. Americans fought the teredo epidemic by developing freshwater estuaries, importing purportedly teredo-proof hardwoods, and producing all sorts of chemical concoctions to thwart woodborers. Up until the 1940s, when the epidemic subsided, teredo played an important part in shaping the evolution of the American coastline and its peoples.

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