By Susan Langley, State Underwater Archeologist
Do you believe in ghosts? You might if you find yourself at Mallows Bay in Charles County. Standing on its shores, a ghostly fleet of nearly 100 wooden World War I-era steamships appears to rise from the depths as the tide ebbs. These are friendly ghosts, as they saw no battles and lost no souls. Nevertheless, at nearly 300 feet long each the ships create an impressive sight, especially at times of extreme low water. Around a full moon, one could almost cross the water on the skeletons of these behemoths.
These ships are remnants of the civilian U. S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, which was established when America entered WWI on April 2, 1917 to carry men, arms and equipment to the theater of war. They were also intended to carry supplies to European Allies whose shipping had been decimated by German U-boats. Donald Shomette, who literally wrote the book on this ghost fleet, put the project in perspective when he noted that, between 1899 and 1915, the U.S. had launched 540,000 tons of ocean-going shipping and now proposed to build 6,000,000 tons in 18 months. Unfortunately, by October 1918 –a month before the end of the war—only 134 of the 1000 expected vessels had been completed, 263 were less than half completed and none had crossed the Atlantic. Within a year of Germany’s surrender 264 were in operation, though only 195 had crossed the Atlantic once.
With diesel engines and metal hulls now dominant, the ships were obsolete by the time they were completed and the U.S. Shipping Board determined to sell the fleet. A few – sold into private service and eventually abandoned in Curtis Bay – are still visible while traversing the Key Bridge. In September of 1922, a firm purchased 233 ships for $750,000 (approximately the cost to build a single ship) and moored the majority in the Potomac to be taken to Alexandria, VA and broken for scrap. After the vessels in the Potomac caught fire, broke loose in storms, and created other problems, the company corralled them in Mallows Bay. Small-scale salvage operations took over the bay during the Great Depression, providing 15% of the per capita income for Charles County residents at that time. With the outbreak of WWII, Bethlehem Steel attempted to renew salvaging the vessels and constructed a gated burning basin at the back of Mallows Bay. Ultimately, the company determined it was not cost effective and abandoned the effort.
As the years wore on, the slumbering fleet became part of the maritime landscape, providing roosts and nesting sites for osprey and eagles, a nursery for bass that has made it a prime fishing ground, and shelter for many rare, threatened and endangered species. The bay and its denizens are best viewed from the water and the shelter provided by the vessels creates prime conditions for kayaks and canoes. Numerous State and local government agencies, environmental organizations and private citizens have long wanted greater recognition of Mallows Bay’s many merits but no single program existed that provided the right fit.
Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it would consider community-driven nominations for new National Marine Sanctuaries; the first in more than 20 years. The steering committee, consisting of State and County agencies, environmental organizations, tribal representation, fishing organizations, education and outreach specialists, and citizens-at-large, developed a nomination for Mallows Bay and a portion of the Potomac River in 2014, to coincide with the initiation of global commemorative activities for WWI. The application was submitted by the Governor and included letters of support from nearly 100 groups. In January 2015, the Committee received word that the nomination was accepted into the NOAA Inventory for consideration as a viable candidate for the establishment of a National Marine Sanctuary. If the decision is positive, NOAA will solicit public comment and the steering committee will initiate public scoping meetings. If all goes well, we might cut the ribbon on a National Marine Sanctuary close to the Nation’s capital in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I.
Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake. Donald G. Shomette. 1996. Tidewater Publishers: Centerville.
Don is currently working on two new volumes about Mallows Bay so stay tuned for these too.
NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Inventory:
Read the nomination and see the letters of support for this endeavor.