Ghost Fleet of the Potomac, Mallows Bay

photo by: Marine Robotics & Remote Sensing, Duke University

Saving America's Historic Sites

Ghost Fleet of the Potomac, Mallows Bay

  • Location: Charles County, Maryland

Imagine kayaking the tranquil waters of a secluded cove on the lower Potomac, binoculars in hand, in search of bald eagles, great blue herons, and osprey. As you float along, you spot weathered wood and rusted iron jutting out from the water—they look almost like ribs.

You’re looking at some of the approximately 200 shipwrecks of the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac. Located in Mallows Bay near the Maryland town of Nanjemoy, the Ghost Fleet is the largest and most varied collection of historic shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere, spanning over three centuries of American shipbuilding.

Mallows Bay is now the most prominent feature of the new Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, the first national marine sanctuary within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Designated in 2019 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary is the first designated sanctuary in 19 years.

Race to Greatness in World War I

Most of the ships in the Ghost Fleet date back to World War I, when the Wilson administration undertook a rapid shipbuilding program to prepare the United States for war. While World War I began in 1914, the United States did not enter the conflict until April 6, 1917. By that time, German U-Boats were destroying the world’s merchant vessels at the unprecedented rate of more than 200 per month.

Once the United States entered the war, the Wilson administration shifted swiftly into action. On April 16, 1917, the United States Shipping Board created the Emergency Fleet Corporation to ramp up ship production to meet this urgent need.

The Emergency Fleet Corporation created an ambitious plan to hastily construct steel, concrete, and wooden ships to support the war effort. These ships were built in 40 shipyards across 17 states. Wooden steamships were specifically designed to serve as a merchant fleet that could be constructed quickly using the United States’ large timber reserves. But delays and shortages kept the best timber from arriving at shipyards, and many of the shipyards that received contracts were understaffed, underbuilt, and underpaid.

By the end of the war, only 98 of the 734 ships that had been ordered were delivered. Of the 98, only 76 could carry cargo, all were troubled by mechanical failures and construction problems, and none had sailed into a European port. After the war, the Shipping Board appointed a special committee to sell the inactive and incomplete ships. What had cost the U.S. government $300 million to build was sold for scrap for only $750,000.

Western Marine & Salvage Company in Alexandria, Virginia, purchased the majority of the ships for salvage and brought them to the Potomac. The company had determined that they could gain approximately $10,000 worth of scrap from each ship—but deciding what to do with the ships’ wooden hulls posed a problem. Eventually, the hulls were moved to Mallows Bay to be burned and beached. On November 7, 1925, 31 of the ships were burned. It was the greatest destruction of ships at one time in US history.

By 1931, the Western Marine & Salvage Company had transported 169 hulls into Mallows Bay, but the Great Depression and a resulting decline in scrap values lead the company to abandon the project. The remaining hulls were left to local scavengers to attempt to salvage whatever materials could be found.

When World War II began, attention returned to the Ghost Fleet. In 1942, the Salvage Section of the Metals Reserve Company, a company organized by the federal government, issued a contract to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation to recover any remaining metal from the fleet. Bethlehem Steel worked at the site until 1945 and transported salvaged material to a facility near Baltimore to support the war effort.

After 1945, the Ghost Fleet was largely forgotten until a company named Idamont, Inc., purchased the land and lobbied to remove the remaining hulls in the 1960s. Scandal erupted when it was revealed that Idamont was a straw company for the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) and that they planned to build a power generating station nearby at Sandy Point.

The House Committee on Government Operations, considering for the first time the ecosystem that had developed, declared that the removal of the ships was unnecessary, and the Ghost Fleet has been providing a habitat for plants and animals in Mallows Bay ever since.

Mistake-Turned-Ecological Treasure

The Ghost Fleet of the Potomac is a unique natural habitat, primed for exploration by scientists, tourists, fishermen, and outdoor enthusiasts. The fleet is located just 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., and a boat ramp gives visitors easy access to the fleet and other destinations along the Potomac River.

Charles County, Maryland, manages a day-use area at Mallows Bay Park, and the bay is a site along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. It’s also a premier location for bass fishing and a bird watcher’s paradise. Unique habitats have evolved above and below the waters of the Ghost Fleet, and the fleet’s hulls have become a home for birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and mammals. The Ghost Fleet is the perfect spot for heritage tourism, and it has potential for new archeological discoveries and opportunities for scientific research.

To protect this culturally and historically significant area, the state of Maryland, with the support of Charles County, Maryland, submitted a nomination in 2014 to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to consider Mallows Bay a National Marine Sanctuary. Aside from helping to protect these fragile historic resources, the designation will also create a management plan that includes educational and interpretive strategies designed to encourage sustainable tourism at the sanctuary.

A New Marine Sanctuary

In July 2019, local community partners, national conservation and preservation groups, and recreation and education advocates celebrated the designation of a new national marine sanctuary at Mallows Bay in the Potomac River. It was the first such designation in 19 years.

While the National Trust named the Ghost Fleet a National Treasure in 2017 to reflect its cultural and historical value, local community partners, national conservation and preservation groups, and recreation and education advocates all worked together to achieve this game-changing designation. Now as a marine sanctuary, it will enjoy further recognition and attention that connects the local community and new visitors to this unique place.

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