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The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay

Ships’ graveyard possible National Marine Sanctuary site

The Ghost Fleet includes more than 185 documented vessels, making up the largest assemblage of shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere.

The Potomac River continues to bear the legacy of World War I — which ended 97 years ago this week — in one of the Chesapeake watershed’s secret places, Mallows Bay.
    Tucked into the coastline of Charles County, Mallows Bay is the final resting place for 88 World War I wooden steamships of the U.S. Emergency Fleet. Built between 1917 and 1919, these ships were to supply European and American troops with much-needed supplies.
    “It was a social endeavor unlike any in American history,” says Don Shomette, author of the book Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay. Shomette has had a fascination with Mallows since he first visited as a boy. Since that time, he has become one of the area’s premier historians and archaeologists, documenting the resources at Mallows since 1986.
    “It is a story of America becoming the industrial power that it is today. This was really the beginning. We came from nothing to the greatest shipbuilding nation in the world,” he said.
    Building these ships transformed the wartime industry in America, played a role in the establishment of the U.S. Merchant Marine and served as a template for production in World War II. At the height of the effort, ships were being built in 87 shipyards across the country.
    Despite the mammoth effort, none of the ships crossed the Atlantic before the war ended. After several homes, 88 of the ships were ultimately scrapped and sunk at Mallows Bay. There, they joined remains of shipwrecks dating to the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, vessels involved in Potomac River fisheries operations plus American Indian artifacts. The Ghost Fleet includes more than 185 documented vessels, making up the largest assemblage of shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere.
    As their building altered the course of American history, their scuttling has altered the ecology of Mallows Bay. The river has claimed the ships. A few rise above even high tide, providing homes to nesting osprey and herons. At low tide, the ghosts emerge, covered in trees, shrubs and algae. As they have decayed, each ship has become its own ecosystem, supporting abundant life both above and below the water.
    “Nature is reconstituting herself on the bones of ships created for war,” says Shomette. “It is very symbolic. It is a place of rebirth.”
    Time moves slowly on Mallows Bay, but big news is in the making. The Ghost Fleet is on the fast track to become America’s first National Marine Sanctuary in over 15 years.
    Maryland proposed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designate Mallows Bay and the 14 surrounding square miles as a National Marine Sanctuary. The designation gives federal protection to globally significant history and natural resources. It is also likely to draw ecotourists.
    The nomination was supported by 60 environmental, archaeological, historical, educational, civic, American Indian, tourism and recreational organizations. Supporters envision it as an outdoor classroom and hands-on learning experience for local schools and colleges.
    In early October, President Barack Obama announced Mallows Bay-Potomac River as one of two nominations to move forward toward designation. The other is an 875-square-mile area of Lake Michigan. These would be the first designated sanctuaries in over 15 years.
    “This is not just a local treasure,” Shomette says. “It is a national treasure and a worldwide treasure.” Shomette first suggested the area’s nomination and has remained a strong voice for the proposal.
    Designation as a National Marine Sanctuary is largely community-driven and often takes several years. That timeframe would put designation in line to coincide with the centennial of the United State’s entrance into World War I.
    The next step is public comment, open through January 15, 2016.

Tour the fleet by launching a canoe or kayak from the Mallows Bay County Park boat launch or from your couch via the Chesapeake Conservancy’s virtual tour:
Learn more about the sanctuary nomination at Comments accepted until January 15 through the Federal eRulemaking Portal, (use the Mallows Bay docket number NOAA-NOS-2015-0111).