“It’s the largest assemblage of historic shipwrecks in the western hemisphere.” —Don Shomette
By Daniel White
Paddling Mallows Bay on a calm morning with low, glassy water must be a sublime experience. Today is not one of those days.
My kayak spins like a rodeo bull when I stop paddling for even a moment. The rain-swollen Potomac River seems to have conspired with the wind to thwart this morning’s quest: capturing the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay on camera.
I’m glad to finally beach my bucking boat alongside Don Shomette’s canoe on a sandy, root-snarled spit stretching from the base of a bluff. The bay’s renowned ghosts remain mostly veiled within their watery grave, but as Don soon points out, we’re standing on one.
Ghosts in the Mist
Don, who literally wrote the book on the subject, first saw Mallows Bay in the early 1950s. He was no older than 10 when his father took him and his brother on an overnight boat trip to see “something special.”
“He didn’t tell us what it was,” Don says. “We came down in a little johnboat with a 5-horsepower engine going bup bup bup.” The trio camped at Sandy Point, on a Civil War wharf that still stood at the time, and shared ghost stories.
“The next morning, there was this thick fog, the river was calm and we set off, algae swirling in front of us. Then out of the mist there’s this waterman [in creaky old man voice]: ‘You going to see the ghost ships? Mwahahaha!’
“Not long after that — I guess it was right around here — we pulled in and this stern was standing up maybe eight feet above us. It just loomed out of the darkness.”
Don could never shake that image of the spectral shipwreck looming overhead. First as a college film student and later as an underwater archaeologist, he would return again and again to study and document the mysteries partially hidden within Mallows Bay.
Nature Reclaims National Fleet
“If you go up on the cliff and look down, as far as you can see, it’s ships,” Don says. “It’s the largest assemblage of historic shipwrecks in the western hemisphere because we’ve got brogans, log canoes, bugeyes, schooners, sharpies, crab scrapes, turtle scrapes — you name it, we’ve got it.”
This ship graveyard in the Potomac is no accident. Most of the bay’s 200+ derelict vessels constitute the skeletal remains of an emergency fleet ordered by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 as the U.S. entered World War I.
To shore up a merchant marine devastated by German U-boats, shipwrights on both coasts raced to meet the president’s goal of 1,000 new wooden steamships. Shipbuilding continued even after Germany’s surrender in November, 1918, but only a few hundred vessels were ever delivered to the government. All proved obsolete practically before ever setting sail.
Mallows Bay, a bulge in the Potomac across the river from Quantico, Virginia, was pegged as a burial ground. Ships were burned there in a basin engineered for that purpose, then lined up in the bay and abandoned. Makeshift settlements later arose, inhabited by scrap-iron salvage operations ranging from Bethlehem Steel to desperate Depression-era wildcatters.
“A four-masted schooner down here called the Ida S. Dowe … was brought here as a dormitory,” says Don. “There were 26 stills down here and four or five floating brothels to keep the men happy, keep industry going.”
In time, those workers, too, became ghosts. Mallows Bay was relegated to a historical footnote until the 1960s, when water-quality concerns led to questions about cleaning out the wrecks.
That discussion led to an ironic discovery. Over the decades, nature had been slowly reclaiming the vessels, creating a new wetland ecosystem encompassing ship-shaped islands and reefs. The hulls sprouted trees and shrubs and now host fishes, turtles, otters, ospreys and eagles.
Raising Awareness and Support for a Sanctuary
I arrive back at the Mallows Bay Park dock as The Nature Conservancy’s Steve Bunker paddles in with a canoe-load of trash. Steve explains that the Conservancy protected Liverpool Point, which frames the lower end of the bay, and helped conserve another 3,500 acres on shore around Nanjemoy Creek.
For today’s clean-up event, Steve worked with NOAA’s Sammy Orlando and other organizers to recruit the 50+ volunteers who turned out. As we talk, volunteers heave more bags of collected recyclables and trash, old tires, a propane tank, and less recognizable hunks of rusted metal onto a growing pile.
In addition to leaving a cleaner park and bay, this event is intended to raise awareness of the site’s special natural and cultural heritage — and of a movement to get Mallows Bay designated as a national marine sanctuary.
Why the push for this formal designation? Sammy reels off five key benefits of a sanctuary in Mallows Bay:
- Partnership: A “national brand” would be a catalyst for Charles County, federal agencies and myriad other partners to collaborate on conservation.
- Economic Opportunity: Ecotourism and other ventures consistent with conservation would benefit local communities.
- Interpretation: Materials would be developed to interpret Native American, Civil War, maritime and natural history for visitors.
- Education: Opportunities could include formal school programs as well as public awareness.
- Science: A living laboratory would be preserved for researching “theinteraction of the vessels on the environment and the environment on the vessels.”
Returning to the bluff above the dock, I look out toward the deteriorating hulk of the S.S. Accomac standing sentinel in the bay. A lone bald eagle and several raucous seagulls patrol the sky overhead, while an osprey pair attends to their nest.
It’s turned into a sublime day after all.
Go on Your Own Ghost Hunt
Mallows Bay Park in Charles County, Maryland, provides the closest access to the ghost fleet. The park features hiking trails, birding and other wildlife viewing opportunities, a boat ramp, and a canoe/kayak launch. The waters around the ghost fleet reportedly offer outstanding bass fishing.
Spring and fall are the prime seasons to visit. To catch the best views of the shipwrecks, consult tide tables and time your visit for low tide.
About the Author
Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Daniel White is a Conservancy senior writer and the editor of Passport to Nature.