The Ghosts of These Historic Ships Float On
The wrecks of more than 100 abandoned World War I wooden steamships submerged in the shallow waters of southern Maryland's Mallows Bay could soon enjoy protection as part of the state’s first National Marine Sanctuary.
It is cool for August in southern Maryland as Susan Langley and I kayak the shallow waters of Mallows Bay to get a firsthand look at the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac, the largest ship graveyard in the Western Hemisphere.
Langley, an underwater archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust, does most of the paddling, while I video and photograph the one-of-a-kind waterscape—the partially submerged remains of more than 100 abandoned World War I steamships. Rotted, waterlogged timber and huge fragments of rusted iron protrude from the surface like giant, deteriorated rib cages. Some of the shipwrecks are easily identifiable, while others look more like long, skinny islands that have been taken over by dense vegetation and nesting osprey. Still others are barely visible at all, their only evidence a low column of wood and metal perforating the waterline—what’s left of the hulls of 100-year-old ships.
I’m visiting this unique environment to learn more about the Ghost Fleet, which was recently named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Before my visit, I spoke with Sharee Williamson, the National Trust’s Ghost Fleet project lead, to understand the organization’s goals out at Mallows Bay. “Our primary goal is to aid the work of an existing coalition of partners that have been trying to protect Mallows Bay and the shipwrecks with National Marine Sanctuary designation,” she says.
While National Marine Sanctuaries are all established for different reasons, the primary goal at Mallows Bay is to protect the Ghost Fleet. “Sanctuary designation for Mallows Bay will help to promote the historic shipwrecks, increase public access, and bring additional national and international attention to the site,” says Williamson. “The only proposed regulations would be to increase protections for the shipwrecks.”
Navigating among the wrecks brought to Mallows Bay for salvage during the 1920s, I listen as Susan Langley narrates an account of the Ghost Fleet that’s equal parts history and nature. Shortly after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the United States Shipping Board established the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) to build up to 1,000 ships in 18 months. Because German U-boats were sinking ships in the Atlantic faster than new ones could be built and put into service, the EFC opted to build its ships out of wood. Though inferior to metal, smaller wooden vessels could be built much more quickly and economically, and the EFC set a goal to produce these ships faster than the Germans could sink them.
“The EFC effort rocketed America to the forefront of global shipbuilding,” says Langley. All told, the undertaking mobilized about half a million American civilians working in more than 40 shipyards, as well as related industries such as lumber harvesting and milling, mining and iron production, and steam engine manufacturing. Today, a roughly 15-mile stretch of the lower Potomac River is the final resting place of the products of that massive enterprise. “Between Mallows Bay and nearby Caledon State Park in Virginia,” says Langley, “there are 106 World War I–era vessels, 14 vessels related to the shipbreaking efforts, another 16 not related to World War I, eight piles of debris that we can’t pin to a specific vessel or period, and six features such as berms, slipways, the World War II burning basin, and marine railways.”
According to author, historian, and marine archaeologist Donald Shomette, the area proposed for sanctuary designation harbors not only the largest collection of EFC vessels, but also the first and last built (North Bend, May 1918, and Boynton and Wonahbe, March 1920), the smallest (Kangi, 3,411 deadweight tons), the largest (Detrona, 4,500 deadweight tons), and the fastest built (Aberdeen, completed in 17 days).
Judy Lathrop underscores the Ghost Fleet’s degree of importance. A naturalist and educator, Lathrop operates Atlantic Kayaks and the Mattawoman Creek Nature Center near Mallows Bay. Leading an average of six kayak tours a week (seasonally), she teaches clients about both the cultural and natural history of Mallows Bay, and the Ghost Fleet is her tour’s highlight. “Some of these ships were built on the West Coast and had to come through the Panama Canal,” she says. “To see and be among these ships that were built all over the country a hundred years ago is really powerful.”
While the abandoned shipwrecks represent a time of unprecedented American unity and the extraordinary civilian effort to prepare the country for war, they also represent the largest American shipbreaking operation ever. Delays caused by the rush to produce the fleet with limited resources and a shortage of skilled workers plagued the shipbuilding campaign. Seventeen months after construction began, the war was over, with only 134 ships completed. Another 263 were less than half finished. By December of 1920, the government ceased the wooden shipbuilding operations altogether, and when production was finally halted, 296 had been completed. The question became what to do with this fleet of hastily built, obsolete, oceangoing steamships. The answer was salvage.
In 1922, 233 of the ships were sold for scrapping to the Western Marine & Salvage Company for $750,000, the approximate cost of building one vessel. But salvaging efforts were confounded with setbacks, and Western Marine declared bankruptcy to avoid responsibility for what was left of the ships. Over the next few years, dozens of the ships were burned, either intentionally or by accidental fire, and by 1929, Western Marine had moved at least 174 ships to Mallows Bay. As the Great Depression set in, the price for scrap metal plummeted, and salvage operations became unsustainable. By the mid-1930s, with most of the ships abandoned together at Mallows Bay, jobless local residents established a cottage industry to scrap what was left of the fleet.
Arthur Willett, a lifetime area resident, remembers spending two weeks in 1936 with his father “scavenging the shipwrecks.” Willett, now 91, says he’s the last living person to have been on the Ghost Fleet ships during the salvage era. “I was 10 years old,” he says, “and mostly I helped by staying out of the way. But on one of the hulls I found an 8-pound piece of solid brass. Brass was selling for five cents a pound, so my fortune from the Ghost Fleet was 40 cents.
“At the peak,” Willett continues, “there were probably around 200 locals doing salvage, but when I was out there, oh, there were probably around 40 or 50. These were the Depression years. The whole community, and most of the nation, was out of work. Because the hulls were considered abandoned property, people did whatever they could to make a living.”
So if the Ghost Fleet represents a time of American unity, when citizens came together to tackle a singular challenge, it also represents how communities were able to survive the Great Depression. “Mallows Bay was a great source of employment for about two years,” says Willett. By 1937, however, the Army Office of Engineers had taken steps to end unsanctioned salvaging, after determining that the preferred method—blasting iron fragments from the wooden hulls with dynamite—had created dangers to navigation on the Potomac.
Then, as World War II efforts ramped up in 1942, the price for scrap metal was on the rise. “Bethlehem Steel started a salvage operation out there,” says Willett, “and I worked in a kitchen nearby, washing dishes. Bethlehem Steel dug out a cove [now known as the Burning Basin], and they towed the ships in to salvage them. They would burn down what remained of each ship and take all the metal they could find.”
While shipbreaking accounts for most of the Ghost Fleet’s history, sanctuary designation is partly a measure to discourage the practice today. Judy Lathrop, who runs regular tours, recognizes that people will always be tempted to take home a souvenir, and believes that protecting the Ghost Fleet will rely on education. “Sanctuary designation would put a plan in place to educate people visiting Mallows Bay to understand what they are looking at,” she says.
There’s no question that sanctuary designation would put Mallows Bay in the national and international spotlight. The bay is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and sanctuary designation would confer status akin to National Parks. “Designating the area,” says Langley, “would encourage further investment in tourism and eco-tourism from organizations like REI and the Outdoor Industry Association.” Additionally, she suggests that designation would ensure any such investments would be consistent with the state’s current management plan for the area, which proposes non-regulatory education, science, tourism, and historic interpretation.
But sanctuary designation is not a sure thing. Because marine sanctuaries are a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency first must finalize its draft designation documents and submit them to the governor of Maryland, as well as Congress, for review. While the state of Maryland has indicated support for the Sanctuary, the National Trust’s Sharee Williamson suggests that Congress may have concerns. “Given the current focus on public land designations,” she says, “a new sanctuary could be perceived negatively as an attempt to extend federal jurisdiction over water in the Chesapeake Bay, but that’s really not the case. The area is currently owned and managed by Charles County, Maryland, as a park. The designation won’t change this arrangement, but it will bring increased resources to the area from NOAA.”
Still, assuming the area receives its hoped-for designation, the real work will have just begun. Langley and others maintain that the best way to understand the Ghost Fleet is from the water, so the coalition will have to think about access to the site, visitors centers, land-based kiosks, and shoreline interpretive features, as well as resources like signage and trail markers.
Beyond the benefits that tourism would bring to this part of southern Maryland, sanctuary designation would also create the opportunity for a one-of-a-kind living laboratory. Mallows Bay is a time capsule of maritime history embedded in nature. “There is history in nature and nature in history,” says Donald Shomette. “The ships are affecting the environment, and the environment is affecting the ships.”
Because the wrecks create a sort of artificial reef, Mallows Bay is teeming with flora and fauna. As Lathrop explains, “without the wrecks there would be no structure for small fish to hide, for beavers to build lodges. Native plants grow inside the wrecks like flower pots, and are home to red-winged blackbird and osprey nests. Without the structure, there would be just an open bay with no diversity and little in the way of plants and wildlife.”
The uniqueness of the environment that’s grown around the Ghost Fleet also has created a one-of-a-kind opportunity for scientists, archaeologists, preservationists, and students. “Sanctuary designation,” says Shomette, “will establish a plan for working with local high schools and others to track the Ghost Fleet and the environment.” By teaming up with classes of students, professionals can collect baseline data on everything from the condition of the shipwrecks and water salinity to fish populations and endangered-species counts. “Then, if the same schools send students back year after year to collect the same information, we can really start to see how the environment affects the shipwrecks over time and how the shipwrecks affect the environment compared with other parts of the bay,” says Shomette. “This is a chance to use scientific tracking to increase our understanding of archaeology over the course of the next 20, 25, or 30 years.”
Still, that future is uncertain without sanctuary designation, which could also bring tens of millions of dollars in positive economic impact to this rural region of Maryland. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Michigan provides a good parallel. Established in 2000, the sanctuary at Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay protects 116 historically significant shipwrecks. According to a 2005 study, the designation had an economic impact of $92 million in sales and $35.8 million in personal income to residents. It created 1,704 jobs ranging from glass-bottom boat tour operators and visitors center staff to retail positions at bike and dive shops. Today, the sanctuary is a stabilizing force for the region. In 2010 the mayor of Alpena, where the visitors center is located, noted that the sanctuary “helped begin a shift from an industrial community—reliant on our deepwater port and the industry that surrounds it—to a more stable, diversified economy, bringing a sense of optimism for the future.”
This enormously positive impact is a powerful argument for making Mallows Bay a sanctuary as soon as bureaucratically possible. As Donald Shomette succinctly puts it, “As we saw with Thunder Bay, sanctuary designation will be good for heritage, the environment, and the economy.”