How Skeletons Of WWI Ships Came To Rest In The Potomac
Jacob Fenston and Tyrone Turner
If you look at a satellite image of the Potomac River, about 30 miles south of Washington you’ll see a curve in the river, packed with dozens of identical oblong shapes. At low tide, they emerge eerily from the water — a “ghost fleet” of wooden steamships dating back to World War I. It’s called Mallows Bay, and it’s one of the largest collections of shipwrecks in the world.
The story of how these ships ended up in the Potomac is a tale of environmental destruction — and rebirth. The shipwrecks have recently received federal protection, as part of a new national marine sanctuary.
WAMU’s Jacob Fenston and Tyrone Turner visited Mallows Bay, by canoe and kayak, to document the unusual waterscape the shipwrecks have created. Aerial photography by Jerry Jackson.
‘It Just Loomed Out Of The Fog’
Donald Shomette first saw the ghost ships when he was a kid, on a camping trip. He shows me a photo from around that time.
“1958. That’s me. That’s my little brother. That’s my dad.”
In the morning, the river was socked in with fog as the boys and their dad puttered through the water in a small motor boat. Suddenly, rising from the Potomac, we see the wooden bow of a ship.
“It just loomed out of the fog,” recalls Shomette. “It was amazing.”
Altogether, there are about 200 shipwrecks crammed into Mallows Bay. For Shomette, the sight was instantly entrancing.
“It just got me, it just captured me,” he says.
Over the years, Shomette’s curiosity about the ghost fleet brought him back again and again. In college, he came back and made a film about Mallows Bay. (“I got an A on the movie by the way,” he notes.)
Shomette’s ghost ship obsession didn’t dissipate over the years — rather it shaped his life, driving him to become a marine archaeologist and historian. He wrote a book about the ships, aptly titled “Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.”
In his house in Maryland, he shows me into a room packed with binders and boxes — his Mallows Bay archive. “It’s everything I’ve done in the past 35 years,” he says, flipping through a binder. “It’s all that anybody knows about it.”
Shomette spent decades surveying each of the Mallows wrecks, and digging into the story of how they came to rest at the bottom the muddy Potomac. These decaying ships are part of the story of how an agrarian, isolationist nation became an industrial superpower. It’s a tale that starts just over 100 years ago, in the days immediately after the United States entered World War I.
An Emergency Fleet To Rescue The Allies In Europe
In April 1917, the U.S. embarked on a massive shipbuilding program: an emergency fleet of 1,000 wooden steamships, to be built in just 18 months. It was one of President Woodrow Wilson’s first acts, after declaring war on Imperial Germany.
At the time, German submarines were sinking more than 200 of the Allies’ merchant ships each month — one out of every four ships leaving England would end up on the ocean floor, thanks to German torpedoes. Along with those ships, millions of tons of weapons, food and other supplies were lost at sea. It was a blockade by submarine, slowly starving the Allies.
The United States, waking from its isolationist slumber, would crank out new merchant ships to break that blockade and come to the rescue of the Allies in Europe. One official bragged that the U.S. would turn out ships faster than Germany could build torpedoes to sink them.
It was a nationwide effort: 189 companies built ships in 26 states. The companies competed against each other to churn them out — one ship, the Aberdeen, smashed all the shipbuilding records: The 290 foot ship was launched just 17.5 days after construction began.
'Reefs Of Wildlife’
Fast forward to 2019, and much of the emergency fleet lies in a watery grave in the Potomac, unceremoniously marked by small blue buoys — guiding kayakers — and a row of tall wooden pilings — preventing the shipwrecks from floating downstream.
Joel Dunn took me paddling among the shipwrecks — I rode in the back of his tandem kayak, holding a microphone. “It’s a really cool place to kayak around,” says Dunn as we glide past the skeletons of ships — metal ribs peeking above the water. “It’s like Disney World for kayakers.”
Dunn is president of the Chesapeake Conservancy — one of several nonprofits that have been pushing for federal recognition for Mallows Bay. Dunn says it’s a great place to see wildlife. As we paddle, cormorants and bald eagles flap and soar overhead.
“Hey, there’s a bald eagle right there!” says Dunn, interrupting himself mid-sentence.
Ospreys have built huge, twiggy nests on some wrecks. Others have become small islands, sprouting trees. Beavers have taken up residence among a group of ships near the shore.
Mallows Bay is unlike anywhere else — and it’s certainly unique within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Chesapeake and its tributaries are shallow, and flat and muddy at the bottom. But in Mallows Bay, the shipwrecks have become accidental man-made reefs.
“To some people this may look like trash,” says Dunn. “But to animals, it’s structure and function and habitat.”
How The Fleet Came To Mallows Bay
There was one day in particular that epitomized the race to build the emergency fleet: July 4, 1918. Over the course of that one day, 95 ships were launched — the largest ship launch in history, at the time.
But just four months after that glorious summer launch, the war was over. At midnight on November 11, in a train car parked in a forest north of Paris, Germany’s secretary of state signed the armistice, ending hostilities.
Not one ship in America’s emergency fleet had made it to a European port before the war’s end.
Altogether, the U.S. built 296 wooden steamships. By the end of the war, they were obsolete — too small to economically carry cargo during peacetime. The problem was: what to do with a fleet of useless ships?
“The federal government was losing money — $50,000 a month — just keeping watch over the ships,” says Donald Shomette.
The government put the ships up for sale.
“We offered them up to, like, Norway,” says Shomette. Norway was not interested. Eventually, 16 were sold to foreign governments at bargain basement prices. A few more were sold domestically — one was purchased by some Hollywood producers, who used it for a movie scene.
“The rescue scene is of this damsel being rescued before the ship goes BANG!” says Shomette. “They blew up the ship — for the movie — because it only cost a couple hundred dollars.”
There were still more than 200 ships left, when a group of California lawyers made an offer: $750,000 for the lot of them. That was about the same as it cost to build just one.
The lawyers created a salvage company, and towed the boats up the Potomac, to a shipyard in Alexandria, Va., where they were picked over for valuable metals. Now the problem was: What to do with the worthless wooden hulls?
“That’s when they sort of tied a bunch together, one of the biggest mass burns, and kind of pushed them into Mallows Bay, thinking nobody would object,” says Susan Langley, the Maryland state underwater archaeologist.
The largest of the many ship burnings to occur at Mallows Bay was on November 7, 1925. That day, 31 ships were lashed together with steel cables. Ten men dashed about the ships with torches, setting the flotilla afire. It would burn for hours, the flames visible for miles.
The salvaging and burning of emergency fleet ships would continue off and on for decades. During the Great Depression, local residents descended on the shipwrecks to remove what scrap they could.
“At any given time, in a very, very depressed Charles County, southern Maryland, you could find 70 to 100 men out there with their small boats, blowing up ships, just to get pieces of metal out that they could sell for pennies,” says Shomette. “But that was an income.”
It was a floating city of wildcat salvagers, with its own local economy. There were 26 liquor stills in the area, according to Shomette, as well as at least five floating brothels.
“They called them ‘Potomac arks,’” Shomette says.
During World War II, industrial salvaging began anew, when the government contracted with the Bethlehem Steel Company to recover more metals from the ships. Years more of burning and destruction followed.
What’s left of the ships today is the bottom 10 to 20 percent of the hulls, according to Shomette.
When we visited Mallows Bay, we didn’t only see the wooden World War I fleet. In fact, the most prominent wreck — which we could see from the shore — is much newer: a giant steel-hulled ship, called the Accomac. From our canoe, we peered inside the ship, and heard ghostly groaning from the hull’s interior, as waves washed against the rusting metal.
The Accomac was in service until the 1960s, as a car ferry in the Chesapeake — it hadn’t even been built when the Ghost Fleet was burning and sinking in Mallows Bay.
“It’s a litter mentality,” says Susan Langley, the state archaeologist. “Once these vessels were here, other people kept sneaking their stuff in. That’s why the Accomac is there. It snuck in in ‘73. How do you sneak a boat that big in? But they did.”
From Junkyard To Sanctuary
There have been various efforts over the years to rid Mallows Bay of the rotting and rusting hulls, to make way for development. In the ‘70s, there was a plan to build a nuclear power plant that would have required dredging out the bay. In the ‘90s, the threat to the shipwrecks was a proposed gravel mine.
Now, Mallows Bay and its shipwrecks have received official protection from the federal government. As of September, the area is a national marine sanctuary, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s sort of like a national park, but in the water.
“This is one of the most unique pieces of U.S. history, right here,” says Sammy Orlando, a regional coordinator with NOAA. “This is a time capsule.” He says the sanctuary designation will bring national attention and investment to the area.
Mallows Bay is the fourteenth marine sanctuary administered by NOAA. Others include such special places as California’s Monterey Bay, Michigan’s Thunder Bay and the Florida Keys.
Susan Langley, the state archaeologist, says she has one rule for visitors to Mallows Bay (besides staying off the shipwrecks): “You have to come in every season,” she says.
“There’s something different in every season. Once isn’t enough.”
Burning and sinking the Ghost Fleet in the Potomac wrought havoc on the environment. Building the fleet was a colossal waste of money, lavished on vessels that would have no impact on the war. But over the decades, the ships have become a sort of natural oasis in the river. The ships are now a resource, drawing tourists and federal investment to rural southern Maryland.
Kimberly DeMarr, owner of Atlantic Kayak, does regular tours of the shipwrecks at Mallows Bay. The sanctuary designation has already been great for business, she says. “My phone has been ringing nonstop. Emails — constantly.”
Donald Shomette, who spent much of his life studying the wrecks, says the construction of the ships had another lasting impact on the country.
“We became the largest shipbuilding nation in the history of the world,” Shomette says.
Building these ships was a huge undertaking, one that rippled through the U.S. economy. To make ships, you need shipyards: So, new shipyards rose on the shores of 16 states. To staff shipyards, you need workers: So, 30 new towns sprang up to house the hundreds of thousands of freshly trained ship builders. To get the timber from the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, you need new railroads…the list goes on.
In this way, even though the product being built ended up being sold for scrap, the act of building, itself, transformed the United States.
“When the war was over, we are all of a sudden industrialized on a scale we have never been before,” says Shomette.
That history of war and industrial effort now lies mired in the muck of the Potomac River. You can still catch a glimpse of it at low tide.
Thanks to Chris Tylec for lending his canoe to this project. Thanks to Victoria Chamberlin and Bec Feldhaus Adams for playing piano and recording vocals for the song, “Launch The Life Boats!” Thanks to the Library of Congress and National Archives for archival material. Thanks to WAMU news director Jeffrey Katz.