Only 30 miles downstream from bustling Washington, D.C., lies Mallows Bay, home of the largest maritime burial ground in the Western Hemisphere. Here, in this somewhat peculiar, remote spot off the Potomac River, more than 100 World War I-era wooden steamships and other abandoned vessels rest eternally, cast off as obsolete, their working lives abruptly curtailed.
Despite the scrapyard nature of the place, Mallows Bay has a serene beauty. Home to vibrant and diverse wildlife, including bald eagles and osprey, beaver, muskrat and river otters, the area is also a haven for kayakers, anglers and other recreational interests. But to truly understand and appreciate the amazing tale of this place, you have to peel back many layers of history.
A Call To Arms
The saga of the Mallows Bay ghost fleet begins almost 100 years ago, in 1917, when WWI plunged much of Europe into turmoil. Just offshore in the Atlantic, German U-boats and mines made shipping supplies to Allied forces nearly impossible, destroying one of every four vessels leaving England for other parts of Europe. The Germans were sinking nearly 200 ships a month at the height of the conflict, with more than 5 million tons of Allied shipping destroyed since the beginning of the war in 1914, according to Donald Shomette, Chesapeake Bay historian and author of Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.
Hoping to overwhelm the German naval forces, President Woodrow Wilson in April 1917 issued a call to arms and ordered that a fleet of 1,000 wooden steamships be built in just 18 months. Soon after, 41 shipyards in 17 states set to work on the ambitious plan. Shomette writes that on Dec. 1, 1917, the first steamship slipped into the Pacific, and in the following months shipyards ramped up production to crank out as many more as possible. Most builders struggled to keep pace, however. When WWI ended in November 1918, only 134 of the ships had been built, and another 263 were less than half-finished.
Still, building continued after the war, and by late 1919 nearly 300 ships had been built, with another 200 half completed. Shomette’s research shows that 195 of the steamships went on to make an Atlantic passage. But despite several successful Atlantic crossings, a variety of problems plagued these ships and many others in the fleet. Poorly constructed hulls were easily racked and twisted in the rough Atlantic, improperly caulked seams allowed water in, and the overall design proved too small and expensive to be profitable in carrying cargo. Even the wood used for many of the hulls was substandard. Unseasoned green timbers were blamed for bent and warped planks and frames, adding to the ships’ propensity to take on water.
These defects weren’t what ultimately led to the steamship fleet’s obsolescence, however. The rise of diesel-powered, steel-hulled ships that were far more efficient and seaworthy dealt the final blow. In fact, many historians note that the wooden steamships were obsolete from the day they were launched. By 1920 most of the fleet had been mothballed — the project an overambitious folly that cost American taxpayers between $700,000 and $1 million per ship, according to Shomette. Two hundred eighty-five of the ships from the fleet were anchored in the James River off Chesapeake Bay, where Shomette writes that the government spent $50,000 a month keeping them afloat.
Burn Baby, Burn
Despite their poor condition and quick obsolescence, the government tried to recover a portion of the cost of building the ships by selling the fleet for scrap, says maritime archaeologist Susan Langley, of the Maryland Historical Trust. “In 1922 the Western Marine and Salvage Co. of Alexandria, Virginia, purchased 233 of the remaining ships for $750,000,” says Langley. “The fleet was towed from the James River to Widewater, Virginia, just downstream from Mallows Bay. Each vessel was then floated to Alexandria, where the more easily removed scrap metal was salvaged before the hulls were returned to Widewater. Here they were burned to recover the remaining metal fittings before being covered in dredge spoil.”
Langley acknowledges that the scrap company encountered problems from the start. “A shipyard fire that burned two vessels at Alexandria was the first sign of trouble,” she says. “Soon after, around a half-dozen more ships burned at Widewater. Realizing the scale of the task, and with possible legal action from local watermen looming, the company secured land around Mallows Bay in Maryland and began constructing shoreside facilities to expedite the scrapping process. In November 1925, 31 of the ships were lashed together around the outer perimeter of Mallows Bay and set ablaze, creating a massive inferno on the river.
“Scrapping operations continued on Mallows Bay over the years,” Langley adds. “Western Marine and Salvage continued scrapping operations until about 1931, when the company was forced into bankruptcy. Bethlehem Steel had an operation here for many years during World War II, when prices for scrap metal for the war effort made the operation somewhat feasible. But in 1944 the company abandoned the site, leaving behind about 100 burned and partially dismantled ships.”
Langley says the remains of about 80 of the WWI steamships remain at Mallows Bay, along with other vessels abandoned here over the last 70 years — the latest around 1980. “It’s like a roadside litter mentality,” Langley says. “People saw the other ships dumped here and figured what difference will one more make?”
Most of the ships lie just beneath the surface, their skeletons occasionally poking out of the water when the tide is right. Other vessels lie closer to shore and are dotted with trees, bushes and other flora, providing homes to birds, mammals and other wildlife. Beneath the surface, the ships provide habitat for a variety of aquatic species.
Modern-Day Mallows Bay
Intrigued by its potential designation as one of the first new National Marine Sanctuaries in two decades — and as an avid birder — I visited Mallows Bay one chilly morning this past spring. Paddling alongside me was Chesapeake photographer and friend Jay Fleming.
Looking out across the calm bay as we launched our kayaks into the twilight, a distant hulk shrouded in sea smoke popped in and out of view. It was the Accomac, a steel-hulled passenger ferry abandoned here in the 1950s and one of the nearly 100 wrecks that pepper the ½-by-¾-mile area. Just north of the Accomac was the WWI steamship Benzonia, her stern resting atop another decaying hulk and topped by an active osprey nest. These ships were the most visible, but just beneath the surface — and lined up along the Mallows Bay shoreline — were the remains of many more ships. Paddling farther into the maze of fog-smothered skeletons only made it more difficult to imagine that such a wild and historic place could exist just a half hour’s drive from the nation’s capital.
Along the shore, we could see and hear migrating songbirds popping in and out of the tree-topped remnants of ships scuttled up on the beach; loud splashes of feeding predatory fish, such as largemouth and striped bass, broke the calm surface of Mallows Bay. Nesting bald eagles and osprey called out into the dawn light and broke the eerie silence, and wild turkeys made their presence known by gobbling. The habitat the shipwrecks provide and the ecosystems they form — as well as the historical importance of the area — have landed it on a course for possible National Marine Sanctuary designation. Mallows Bay, along with an 875-square-mile shipwreck area in Lake Michigan, are the first two areas in nearly two decades to receive consideration for the designation.
“The designation would map out a larger area of the Potomac from Sandy Point down to Widewater, including Mallows Bay, for protection,” says Sammy Orlando, a regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “With the designation will also come opportunities for education, research and improved access, including interpretive nature trails, launch areas and more. It’s not an effort to exclude people from the area; it’s an effort to preserve it while expanding access at the same time.” The designation is in the middle of a lengthy process, but Orlando hopes that Mallows Bay will become a National Marine Sanctuary in April 2017.
The area is accessible via Mallows Bay Park in Charles County, Maryland, and also the Potomac River. Because of the shallow depth, as well as the obstructions and wrecks, it is best enjoyed by kayak or canoe. Arrive at the right time, and you’ll almost feel as if you’re being transported back 100 years in history.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.