A Visit to a Proposed National Marine Sanctuary in the Potomac River
Paddling Mallows Bay on a calm day with low, glassy water must be a sublime experience. But today is not one of those days.
The rain-swollen Potomac River seems to have conspired with the wind to thwart this morning’s quest: capturing the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay on camera.
Though relieved to beach my bucking kayak alongside Don Shomette’s canoe on a sandy, root-snarled spit, I’m also disappointed. To my eyes, the bay’s historic shipwrecks remain completely buried in the watery grave of this unseasonably high river.
Or so I thought. Then Don points out that not only are the ghosts all around us, we’re also standing on one.
Ghosts in the Mist
Don, who literally wrote the book on the subject, first saw Mallows Bay in the 1950s. He was no older than 10 when his father took him and his brother on an overnight boat trip to see “something special.”
“He didn’t tell us what it was,” Don says. “We came down in a little johnboat with a 5-horsepower engine going bup bup bup.” The trio camped at Sandy Point on the Maryland side of the Potomac about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. There, on a Civil War wharf that still stood at the time, they shared ghost stories into the night.
“The next morning, there was this thick fog, the river was calm and we set off, algae swirling in front of us. Then out of the mist there’s this waterman [in creaky old man voice]: ‘You going to see the ghost ships? Mwahahaha!’
“Not long after that — I guess it was right around here — we pulled in and this stern was standing up maybe eight feet above us. It just loomed out of the darkness.”
Don could never shake that image of the spectral shipwreck looming overhead. As a film student and later as an underwater archaeologist, he would return again and again to study and document the mysteries partially hidden within Mallows Bay.
Nature Reclaims National Fleet
“If you go up on the cliff and look down, as far as you can see, it’s ships,” Don says. “It’s the largest assemblage of historic shipwrecks in the western hemisphere because we’ve got brogans, log canoes, bugeyes, schooners, sharpies, crab scrapes, turtle scrapes — you name it, we’ve got it.”
This ship graveyard in the Potomac is no accident. Most of the bay’s 200+ derelict vessels constitute the skeletal remains of an emergency national fleet. As the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson sought to shore up a merchant marine devastated by German U-boats. So the president charged the nation’s shipwrights with building 1,000 new wooden steamships within 18 months.
Shipbuilding continued even after Germany’s surrender in November 1918, but only a few hundred vessels were ever delivered to the government. All proved obsolete practically before ever setting sail.
A bulge in the Potomac across the river from Quantico, Virginia, was pegged as a burial ground. Ships were burned there in a basin engineered for that purpose, then lined up in the bay and abandoned. Makeshift settlements later arose, inhabited by scrap-iron salvage operations ranging from Bethlehem Steel to desperate Depression-era wildcatters.
“There were 26 stills down here and four or five floating brothels to keep the men happy, keep industry going,” Don adds.
In time, those workers, too, became ghosts. Mallows Bay may have been relegated to a historical footnote if concerns about the river’s health in the 1960s hadn’t raised questions about cleaning out the bay.
Those questions led to an ironic discovery. Over the decades, nature had been slowly reclaiming the vessels to create a thriving new wetland ecosystem. The vessels’ decaying hulls transformed into ship-shaped islands and reefs sprouting trees up to 50 feet tall and harboring myriad fishes, turtles, otters, ospreys and eagles.
Raising Awareness and Support for a Sanctuary
I arrive back at the Mallows Bay Park dock at the same time that a Potomac clean-up event is winding up. While I’d been listening to Don Shomette’s ghost stories, my Nature Conservancy colleague Steve Bunker had been using his canoe to ferry volunteers and bags of trash.
I ask Steve, who leads our land protection programs in Maryland/DC, about the Conservancy’s connection to Mallows Bay. He gestures toward Liverpool Point, an arc of land framing the lower end of the bay, and explains that the Conservancy protected that property and transferred it to the state. He adds that the Conservancy also helped to conserve another 3,500 acres on shore around Nanjemoy Creek.
For today’s clean-up event, Steve worked with Sammy Orlando of NOAA and other organizers to help recruit the 50+ volunteers who turned out. As we talk, Sammy greets returning volunteers and records each bag of collected recyclables or trash as an old tire, a propane tank, and less recognizable hunk of rusted metal are heaved onto a growing pile.
According to Sammy, leaving behind a cleaner park and bay is only part of today’s goal. This event also helps raise awareness of the site’s special cultural and natural heritage — and of a movement to get Mallows Bay designated as a national marine sanctuary.
Sammy reels off the benefits if a rare sanctuary designation were to be approved, from the science of this living laboratory to the economic opportunity ecotourism and other ventures would provide local communities.
Returning to the bluff next to the parking area, I look out toward the rusting remains of the S.S. Accomac standing sentinel in the bay. A lone bald eagle and several raucous seagulls patrol the sky overhead, while an osprey pair attends to their nest.
It’s turned into a sublime day after all.