In a secluded river bay on the east coast of the United States, the remnants of dozens of wooden ships jut haphazardly above the waterline. Stark and broken, the ships comprise a “ghost fleet” long ago abandoned to the elements. Within the still gloom cloaking the scene, there is a pervading sense of ruin, of mysteries unsolved.
Here and there, wooden posts protrude like the limbs of drowning and desperate men. Some of the ships are capsized. Others are half-sunk in the mire. Their hulls are rotted. Their sides are split. Time and nature have torn the vessels asunder. And on a cold, dark winter’s day, the grey-black skies seem to mirror the deathly waters.
The eerie inlet is in fact the final resting place of some 185 scientifically-documented shipwrecks – the largest collection of sunken ships in the Americas. And although the fleet is very much dead and dilapidated, it recalls one of the most dynamic episodes in American history: the dawn of the nation’s shipbuilding industry.
Known as Mallows Bay, the 14-square mile archaeological site is located approximately 30 miles south of Washington D.C. on the Potomac River in Maryland, close to Nanjemoy. It falls within the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which includes 3,000 miles of waterways in and around Chesapeake Bay.
During high tide, the ghost fleet is submerged and invisible to the naked eye. During low tide, however, the water recedes to expose the decomposed and decaying remains of some 100 sunken steamships. In fact, the ships were built in the early 20th century. And most of them lived very short lives.
The ships were originally commissioned in 1917 during the latter stages of World War I. At that time, Germany was practising submarine warfare with considerable success. Indeed, German U-boats were destroying around half of all British vessels leaving European ports, including passenger and merchant ships, as well as military vessels.
With U.S. allies in desperate need of new vessels, President Woodrow Wilson established the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC). Its purpose was to construct and manage new merchant vessels. In fact, its work was unprecedented – it signified the largest and most intensive shipbuilding operation in American history.
In fact, the EFC production order called for 1,000 steamships to be completed in just 18 months. Not only was the task Herculean, it was costly, too. The bill for each ship was nearly $1 million, or the modern equivalent of about $19.5 million. And to complicate matters, there was a general shortage of laborers with the requisite shipbuilding skills.
Ultimately, however, the project, set in motion by wartime president Woodrow Wilson, represented the kind of ambitious public works schemes which had so characterized the previous administration under Theodore Roosevelt. To complete the task, the EFC contracted some 87 shipyards across 17 states. And with such tight deadlines, they decided to construct their fleet from wood, which was also much cheaper than steel.
According to author and marine archaeologist Don Shomette, the effort was transformative. Speaking to CNN in 2016, he said, “Within a year we had a million men building ships, cutting the timber, mining the iron for them, building the machinery for them. At one point we became the greatest ship-building nation in the history of the world.”
That said, not everything went to plan. By October 1918, production was far behind schedule. In fact, the shipyards had completed just 134 ships. Some 260 ships were not even half-finished. And work had not commenced on several hundred more. Then, in November, everything changed. Germany surrendered. The war was over.
Nonetheless, work on the steamships continued. And by September 1919, the shipyards had completed and dispatched approximately 264 vessels. Of course, there was no useful purpose for the ships. As The Atlanta Constitution newspaper wrote at the time, “these ships are veritable ‘white elephants’ on the hands of the government.”
But lack of demand was not the only issue with the fleet. Many of the ships were apparently badly built, prone to leaks and, at 300 feet long, not large enough to complete long-haul journeys. Furthermore, they were technologically out-of-date. Diesel engines were replacing coal furnaces and steel was now the preferred production material of all ocean-bound vessels.
Meanwhile, by the close of 1920, the storage of almost 290 obsolete ships on the James River was costing the U.S. government $50,000 per month. Congress decided to cut its losses and offer them for sale at a generous discount. Finally, in September 1922, they sold 233 ships to the Western Marine Salvage Company (WMSC) for $750,000 – a staggering loss.
The WMSC planned to tow the ships to Widewater, Virginia, strip them of useful components, burn the remains and submerge them in murky marsh waters. However, their plans were soon disrupted by environmental activists and local residents. So the company bought up 566 acres in nearby Mallows Bay and started moving the ships there instead.
On November 7, 1925, the WMSC burned the ships down to the water in groups of 35. At the time, the San Francisco Examiner newspaper described the torching of the “doomed ships” as “the world’s most expensive bonfire.” The WMSC would spend years salvaging the vessels. Ultimately, however, it failed to break even on its investment.
In fact, the economic challenges of the Great Depression forced the company into bankruptcy in 1931. Unable to sustain its operations in Mallows Bay, it simply left the ships to rot. Low-key scavengers picked at their remains for the next decade. And then, in the 1940s, a new effort was mounted to salvage the ill-fated ghost fleet.
Indeed, the wrecks were thought to hold some 20,000 tons of unrecovered iron. And with World War II intensifying, the demand for scrap metal was soaring. As such, the U.S. government commissioned Bethlehem Steel to extract the remaining metal from the ships. However, the company had little more success than the WMSC.
To conduct the salvaging, Bethlehem Steel needed to create a separate, sealed marine basin off Mallows Bay. However, the plan soon proved unprofitable. The U.S. government had assigned $200,000 for the iron but by 1943 the company had already spent some $360,000 on the job, with scant results. Bethlehem Steel abandoned the project and left more than 100 vessels rotting in the bay.
The ships stayed there for two decades. Then, during the 1960s, local watermen lobbied the government to remove them. Congress initially approved the spending of $350,000 on a cleanup. The work was subsequently canceled, however, after it emerged that the watermen were working closely with a power-generating firm that was seeking to acquire land around Mallows Bay.
Meanwhile, it was not until March 1993 that any serious academic study of the wrecks was initiated. In fact, a grant was awarded to conduct an inventory of the ships, calculate the costs of their removal and analyze their effect on their environment. The study, which took place over two years, discovered 88 ships from the original EFC fleet.
Additionally, the researchers identified a host of other vessels left there by the WMSC, including 12 barges. There were also schooners dating to the 18th century, a longboat from the Revolutionary War and several war boats. One of the most distinctive wrecks in the bay was a steel-hulled car ferry called the S.S. Accomac. Built in 1928, the ferry had been decommissioned in 1973 after an onboard fire.
But shipwrecks were not the only archaeological treasures found in Mallows Bay. In fact, the site contains a wealth of ancient Native American artefacts, some of them 12,000 years old. Indeed, prior to European colonization, the region was occupied by the Piscataway-Conoy nation, who lived in settled farming communities on the riverbanks.
Likewise, African-Americans have long contributed to the hidden history of the Potomac. In 1634, three African men were among the first settlers on the river. African slaves were subsequently brought to the region and many of them participated in the Civil War. Other African-Americans worked as boatmen. Still more contributed to the construction of the ghost fleet itself.
Of course, the Potomac is well known for its diverse and pivotal history, so much so that is has been nicknamed “The Nation’s River”. In fact, Washington D.C. lies within the Potomac basin. And George Washington himself, who was born in the region, spent the best part of his life in the vicinity of the Potomac.
But Mallows Bay is not only notable for its trove of history. It is a haven for wildlife, too. Since its wreck-strewn waters are tricky to navigate by motorboat, the bay is relatively free from diesel and oil pollution. Furthermore, decaying wood from the ghost ships has helped to enrich the bay’s sedimentary layers.
Indeed, shipwrecks often provide ecological oases, as the Maritime Archaeology Trust explained on its website. “Almost immediately [after] a ship comes to rest… an ecosystem will start to establish itself. This ecosystem will eventually become varied and prolific, with an astounding number of different species often inhabiting a very small area…”
In fact, the ghost fleet today provides shelter for diverse animal species, especially birds. Ospreys, whose local populations were once devastated by the pesticide DDT in the mid-1900s, are now common in Mallows Bay. Beavers and bats also make their homes in the wrecks. And rare fish such as warmouth and longnose gar populate the area too.
Meanwhile, according to Shomette, one of the most striking features of the bay is the verdant vegetation sprouting from the ghostly wrecks. He said to CNN, “At low tide all you see is these forest of things at the north end… It looks like shore, but it’s ships… I call these the flowerpot ships. Each of those ships have become islands – some have trees 30-40 tall… It’s very exotic, it’s just beautiful…”
Indeed, the site is so ecologically and archaeologically valuable that in 2014, Martin O’Malley, the then-Governor of Maryland nominated it for protected status. Proponents argued that federal protection would help guard the site from damage, promote it at a scientific and educational level, and provide a financial boost to eco- and adventure tourism.
But despite the lobbying of conservationists and politicians, the proposal failed to make much headway. In fact, local watermen who depend on the Potomac for their livelihoods objected to it on economic grounds. They feared that fishing and other vital activities might be restricted or perhaps even prohibited.
However, the nomination was merely stalled. On July 8, 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the designation of a new 18-square-mile protected area – The Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. And once approved, the new status will not impact recreational activities such as kayaking and fishing.
According to acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs, the new sanctuary represents a landmark in American conservation. He said, “The designation of Mallows Bay as a national marine sanctuary is a milestone for NOAA and an opportunity for the public to celebrate and help protect this piece of our nation’s rich maritime history.”
However, the new designation won’t take effect until the expiry of a 45-day congressional review period. Until then, it is possible that it may be rejected or delayed due to administrative issues. But if everything proceeds smoothly, the new area will be operational from November 22, 2019. It will be managed by NOAA, Charles County and Maryland State.
The new sanctuary will form part of the National Marine Sanctuary System, which currently includes two marine national monuments and 13 wildlife havens. The last site to join the system was The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve in Lake Huron in Michigan, which has been nicknamed “Shipwreck Alley”.
In fact, at least 116 archaeologically important shipwrecks lie within the preserve, from relatively modern, steel-built steamers to Victorian-era side-wheelers fashioned from wood. The boundaries of the preserve initially encompassed an area of 448 square miles. However, these were significantly expanded in 2014 to cover 4,300 square miles.
Among its wrecks is the decaying hull of a package freighter, the S.S. Pewabic. The vessel was launched in the fall of 1863 but subsequently sank in the summer of 1865 after colliding with another ship. Between 100 and 125 people died in the accident, which had one of the highest fatality counts in the maritime history of the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, working in conjunction with Fourth Element, a diving equipment company, NOAA has produced 3D maps of seven wrecks in Thunder Bay. They include four wooden schooners and three bulk freighters, all dating to the 19th century. The maps are interactive and accessible online, allowing armchair explorers to make virtual dives of the wrecks.
Meanwhile, Mallows Bay is the first site to be added to the National Marine Sanctuary System since 2000. And Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland applauded the new designation. He said, “There’s good reason that the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary will be the first national marine sanctuary created in the last two decades – it’s a unique blend of historical, recreational and habitat resources with strong public support for its protection.”
The ghost fleet of Mallows Bay is one of the spookiest places on the east coast of the United States. But where there is death, there is life. For as much as its wreck-strewn environs exude a spectral air, they teem with birds and other wildlife. And now, thanks to the dedicated work of campaigners and federal workers, this unique and emotive site is set to be protected for future generations.