The Ghost Fleet’s Graveyard
In Mallows Bay’s nautical ossuary, the bones have stories
by Reed Hellman
For boaters, sighting a derelict ship has something of the same effect as stumbling across a human corpse. Imagine, then, the impact of dozens, scores, hundreds of abandoned hulks, drawn up in ghostly, serried ranks, left to rot and decompose.
Mallows Bay is hardly a bay at all; it’s merely a narrow gouge in the Maryland shore of the Potomac River. Located across from Quantico, Virginia, it is bordered by a shallow forest and largely isolated. That quiet Charles County backwater is arguably the largest maritime graveyard in North America. Currently, as many as 200 wrecks line the muddy shallows and molder along the shores. Amongst the derelict hulks lie the remnants of the largest shipbuilding program ever undertaken by this nation.
Possibly the first ship to die in Mallows Bay was a longboat abandoned by rebel militia during the opening days of the Revolutionary War. As James Murray, the Earl Lord Dunmore, and his Virginia Loyalist forces swept upriver in a heavily armed flotilla, the rebels sank the boat to keep it out of Loyalist hands. That longboat was the first to be interred in what was to become a nautical ossuary.
After brief notoriety during the Revolution, Mallows Bay slipped back into rural anonymity, rarely broken by local fishermen and the occasional packet steamer tying up at nearby Liverpool Point. Only in the years following World War I would the inlet reach anything approaching public interest.
Crossing Oceans with a ‘Wooden Bridge’
The Great War saw the advent of unrestricted submarine warfare, used by the Germans to starve England and its allies. As many as one in four transports never reached their destinations. A submarine attack was the proximate cause of the United States entering the war.
In one of our nation’s first martial acts, the United States Shipping Board formed the Emergency Fleet Corporation to oversee construction of 1,000 cargo ships. George W. Goethals, famed builder of the Panama Canal, initially managed the daunting task of launching six million tons of cargo shipping in 18 months.
The plan was to build a “wooden bridge” of coal-fired steam ships to supply our war-weary allies. Each ship, ranging from 240 to 300 feet long, would be built from 1.5 million board feet of yellow pine or Douglas fir, cut into prefabricated, easily and cheaply assembled units. Engineer Frederic Eustis’ plan was to build ships quicker than the Germans could sink them.
From the outset, infighting, bureaucracy, ineptitude and even lack of seasoned wood plagued construction. Shipyards were busy building military vessels, and boat builders experienced with wood were almost impossible to find. Some of the construction companies contracted to fill the gap had never before built ships.
Despite the delays, on December 1, 1917, just eight months after the United States joined the war, the first Emergency Fleet steamer slid into the Pacific. But by the war’s end less than a year later, only 87 wooden ships had hit the water and only 55 had carried cargoes or reached their designated ports. None ever crossed the Atlantic. Some never turned over their propellers.
A Bridge Never Built
Though the war was over, contracts had already been let and construction continued on the now obsolete freighters. By the time the Emergency Fleet Corporation was disbanded, 296 ships had been launched. As the world settled back to relative normal, and nations no longer required huge transport fleets, hundreds of ships were idled. The cheaply built wooden hulls of the Emergency Fleet were among the first mothballed.
In 1922, the corporation tried to sell its creation, receiving offers as low as $430,000 for the entire fleet. Finally, it accepted an offer of $750,000 for 226 of the vessels, built at a wartime construction cost of $300 million.
The fleet’s ultimate owner was the newly created Western Marine and Salvage Company of Alexandria, Virginia. The plan was to move the ships from their anchorage in the James River near Claremont, Virginia, up the Potomac to the defunct Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation’s shipyard near Alexandria. There, the hulls would be stripped, dismantled and the metal salvaged.
The War Department authorized a 1,500-acre mooring off of Widewater, Virginia for a staging area, planning to tow each hull to Alexandria for scrapping, then return it to the mooring to be burned. Fittings released by the fire would be salvaged, and the remnants towed into a nearby marsh and buried beneath dredge spoil. But the seemingly simple plan grossly underestimated the difficulties involved in moving, storing and disposing of the hulls.
Things went bad almost immediately. Fire swept through two hulls tied up in the shipyard, damaging the facility. Several ships moored at Widewater also caught fire and sank, becoming navigational hazards. Other moored hulls broke loose, drifting into commercial fishing nets and threatening river traffic. Afloat, the hulks were eyesores; sunken, they were hazards.
By September 1923, outraged local watermen hired Alvin T. Embry, a Fredericksburg lawyer, to write a letter to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. “On behalf of numerous fishermen along the Potomac River; on both the Maryland and Virginia shores … I desire to file a protest against the practice of some salvage company which has purchased a number of wooden hull boats from the Government,” the complaint read.
The mooring “on which these boats are anchored is the best fishing ground for gill nets for shad and herring on the Potomac River,” the letter continued. “In addition the presence of these hulls on this flat is a menace to navigation endangering the sailing vessels that cross these flats coming from the mouth of Aquia Creek.”
Eventually, the salvage company was forced to abandon the mooring. Salvage operations moved across the river to 566 acres along the narrow groove of Mallows Bay. At this Maryland site, four marine railways, wharves, offices, storage buildings and dormitories were erected to speed salvage. In one mighty demolition, 31 hulls were burned and the remains hauled into the shallows.But the price of scrap metal failed to outpace the cost of dismantling the ships, and the stock market crash of October 1929 forced Western Marine and Salvage into bankruptcy. By then, 169 ships had been hauled to Mallows Bay. The nautical graveyard was now densely occupied.
The Great Depression’s Metal Rush
The Great Depression hit hard in largely rural Charles County, and the remaining metal in the derelict hulks translated to money for cash-strapped locals. By 1934, dozens of independent salvors scrounged through the carcasses for scrap to sell to dealers.
Reports from that time tell of wild and often illegal activities, as legions of scroungers attacked the ships and sometimes each other. At least five floating brothels and two dozen illegal stills offered entertainment. Once-proud ships such as the sleek, four-masted Ida S. Dow were pressed into service as water-bound dormitories. The bay’s shallows were dotted with arks, floating or stationary shacks, housing the workers of one sort and another.
An occasional hulk would float free and careen into the Potomac. So many ships broke loose that those around the edges of the fleet were filled with assorted ballast to keep them from drifting. A dam circling the graveyard was tried, and stout pilings, driven around the perimeter, formed a further barrier to wandering derelicts.
Pounded by storms, tides and ice, the wrecks shed large timbers and whole slabs of planking. As late as the 1980s, the bay’s shores were choked with chunks of wood, rusted machinery, cordage, cables and jetsam.
Salvaged by Time
Impromptu salvage continued until World War II. When the price of scrap metal jumped, the Federal Government formed the Metals Reserve Company, which estimated that Mallows Bay’s wrecks held 20,000 tons of metal. Bethlehem Steel Corporation was hired to retrieve it.
Like Western Marine and Salvage before them, Bethlehem Steel came in with a seemingly good idea. A massive basin was dug across the mouth of Marlowes Creek. Large cofferdams with massive swinging gates enclosed the basin. The plan called for towing in a dozen or so hulks, closing the gates, pumping the basin dry, torching the ships and gathering up the metal.
Stories have it that when Bethlehem Steel flushed the basin for the first batch, instead of settling nicely on a relatively solid bottom, the hulls sank out of sight, swallowed in a pool of mud. Whatever the actual circumstances, Bethlehem Steel’s plan was no more successful than Western Marine’s; the last serious salvage operation closed in 1944.
In 1970, the Maryland Department of Chesapeake Bay Affairs developed a series of aerial photographs, taken from 6,000 feet up and enlarged to one inch for each 200 feet. The photos show ranks of lozenge shapes lining the near shore and bulging from the shore itself. Each lozenge is a football field-sized skeleton; many are clearly outlined with abundant growths of densely packed trees and bushes.
In the water, the debris offered shelter for growing populations of fish and marine life. Otter, turtles and beaver reclaimed the burning basin. The wetlands up Marlowes Creek grew rich stands of wild rice, arrowhead, spatterdock and marsh iris. In the air osprey, then bald eagles, wheeled and dove for fish. For nearly half a century, Mallows bay slept with little to disturb it.
Touring the Graveyard
In March 1993, marine archaeologist Donald Shomette, of Dunkirk, spearheaded the first organized effort to evaluate Mallows Bay’s historical remains. His inventory identified “a total of 88 wooden EFC ships. Numerous other wrecks were also documented, including a great seagoing car ferry named Accomac, 12 barges, a possible Revolutionary War longboat, several 19th-century log canoes and schooners, a North Carolina menhaden boat and miscellaneous workboats.”
Eighty years of exposure have reduced the size of the hulks, but the graveyard remains a mariner’s nightmare. For one-quarter mile out from the shore, the quiet waves wash over barely-submerged tangles of rusted iron jutting up from the wooden outlines of once living ships. The curves of the hulls are still discernable, each a stitchery of exposed rods, railings and pins. Lines of drowned planks twist and merge, and the ranks of the ships thin toward shore.
The shoreline is largely clear of debris. Families of bald eagles nest in the trees ringing the bay, and in summer seemingly every piling and post holds a mating pair of osprey. The burning basin is clear of obvious wrecks except for one relatively recent addition.
Into the Future
Eventually, the land surrounding Mallows bay will become a park encompassing 5,000 acres and 10 miles of shoreline. Two thousand acres of land have been purchased by Charles County, in cooperation with the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The county has funding available for improvements.
“Currently, visitors can go in on foot from the gate.” says Tom Roland, Chief of Parks and Grounds for the Charles County Department of Public Facilities. “Within the next 12 to 24 months, the property will be made accessible from Route 224.”
Once a long-term agreement is struck with DNR, Roland says that Charles County will manage the new preserve as a non-hunting area with an interpretive water trail. He foresees “the graveyard as a sanctuary for kayaks, canoes and johnboats to get away from powerboats.” For the remains of so many maritime machines, that’s an ironic fate.
Tour the Submerged History of the Potomac with Susan Langley, Maryland State Underwater Archaeologist, who'll speak of the settlements, wharves, fortresses, shipyards, mills, canals, and shipwrecks as far back as prehistoric times. Thurs. Nov. 17 at 7:30pm at The Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum, 201 S. Washington St., Old Town Alexandria. Free: 703-838-4994.
For more information about Mallows Bay and marine archaeology in the Chesapeake, read Donald Shomette’s The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay, (Tidewater Publishers: 1996).
Cosing the Circle
In 1971, Maryland conducted a ground truthing survey as part of its new wetlands legislation. Armed with aerial photographs taken from 6,000 feet up, teams of field technicians waded into each creek, marsh and gunk-hole in Southern Maryland, drawing lines on the photos, delineating the critical wetlands — and visiting places most people had forgotten.
Field technicians was a gracious term for the four of us employed in the first survey teams. By late in the summer we had covered every wetland in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, searching up every backwater and creek, driving 12-foot aluminum runabouts until the water ran out, then wading chest-deep in cattail marshes and spartina swamps. Using the aerial photos as our guides, inventory sheets and road maps, we worked our way up the Potomac River into Charles County and Marlowes Creek.
We launched our boats into the creek mouth, at the end of a dirt road, beneath a tired farmhouse. On the photo, the place looked sinister, but in front of us, across the creek, the pristine wetlands and forest were alive with birds and teeming with fish.
The photos also showed chains of weird islands jamming Mallows Bay, but our business was upstream, in the tidal wetlands spreading into a lush swale bracketed by pine-shrouded hills. We motored through the basin, staring at a pair of good-sized derelict boats tied to a tumble-down, partially submerged pier. Halfway up, the creek split into two arms, each with its own wide fringe of marsh. Two smaller tributaries on the main stem also required exploration, and we did not return to the creek mouth until midafternoon.
Coming out of the basin, I could spot those weird islands seen on the photos. My curiosity increased when I noticed debris of all kinds choking the shallows by the launching point, much more than the usual flotsam and jetsam that washes up on lee shores. There was never a question about it; we had to see what was out in the open bay.
The shock of understanding was stunning. Each lozenge shape on the aerials was another ruined vessel. Some were shrouded with lush trees and shrubs and home to squalling herons and gulls. Motoring through the rough lanes between the eroding hulks, we saw the graveyard’s scale. The afternoon breeze could not even reach into the heart of the maze.
The immediate menace of the tangled wreckage lurking just beneath the surface grabbed our full attention as we dodged the ruins. Only when we turned out into the open river and viewed Mallows Bay’s sweep from a distance were we able to grasp the full size of the fleet.
After that visit, I lost track of the fleet, but remembered the eerie feeling of motoring a small boat through that forest of twisted steel and jagged wooden ribs. In 1996, Donald Shomette published his research on the fleet. His book, Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay, explained the mysterious hulks and how they came to crowd the shallows of this Charles County backwater.
Two years later, I returned to Mallows Bay by land to see what was left. Instead of revealing answers, my visit only left me with more questions. Finally, in the spring of 2004, I closed the circle, opened more than 30 years ago, by returning to the Mallows Bay by boat and venturing into the core of the graveyard. Maybe now I can sleep through the nightmares.
About the Author
Reed Hellman is a freelance writer living in Alberton, Maryland. E-mail your questions and comments to [email protected].