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The Mallows Bay “Ghost Fleet” of Sunken Ships

Aerial view of Mallows Bay Ghost Fleet

PortandTerminal.com, July 17, 2020

NANJEMOY, MD – Mallows Bay is a small bay on the Maryland side of the Potomac River that is home to what is considered to be the “largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere”.

The remains of more than 230 shipwrecks litter the shallow, tidal bay. Most are the remains of wooden steamships that date back to the first World War 1. Some of the vessels resting at the bottom are believed to be even older, from perhaps the Civil War or even earlier. Steeped in history, Mallows Bay is also the location of Native American archaeological sites dating back 12,000 years.

The Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary occupies an 18 square mile area


Wooden ships owned by Western Marine & Salvage tied together in 1925
Wooden ships owned by Western Marine & Salvage tied together in 1925, likely on the Potomac or at Mallows Bay. (Library of Congress: National Photo Company Collection)

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a national call to arms against Imperial Germany. What followed in the United States was a frenzied effort to build 1,000 wooden merchant ships in 18 months, as part of the greatest shipbuilding campaign in history. 

The ships were poorly constructed. Plagued by mechanical and construction issues, none of the ships actually made it to Europe during the war.

While the ships never saw action during the war, their construction at more than 40 shipyards in 17 states was part of the national wartime effort that fueled the economic development of waterfront communities and maritime services industries.

Abandoned wooden ships
The Ghost Fleet, grounded in Mallows Bay, circa 1925. (Don Shomette)

After the war, most of the ships, by then considered useless, were moved along the Potomac to be salvaged by a local company that later abandoned them in Mallows Bay. 

In the 1960s, an effort to clean up the bay was begun in earnest, and research was conducted to inventory, judge cost, and measure the environmental effects of the rotting ships. During that research, it was discovered that the shipwrecks had, in their non-toxic wooden state, become the foundation of an active and thriving ecosystem. 

While a few of the ships are visible from shore, the ghost fleet is best viewed from a human-powered craft such as a kayak or canoe.  (Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA)
Aerial view showing the outline of shipwrecks in the water
Most of the shipwrecks are the remains of wooden steamships that date back to the first World War 1.

Today, the ships emerge at low tide and now provide a habitat important to osprey, bald eagles, herons, and an array of fish, plants, and animals. Understandably, the site is a popular location to canoe or kayak among the ship ruins.

Due to the area’s historical significance, the Mallows Bay – Widewater Historic and Archeological District was listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in April 2015.

In 2019, NOAA designated Mallows Bay-Potomac River as the first national marine sanctuary in nearly 20 years.

To plan a visit or learn more click here.

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