If there were ever a place that could be described as a ship graveyard, it is the murky waters of Mallows Bay.
The history of these maritime vessels in the U.S. is preserved in an unlikely place: at the bottom of a river! Here, nearly 200 military shipwrecks, dating as far back as the Revolutionary War and including ships from the Civil War and both World War I and World War II, were deliberately sunk over centuries, in an area of the Potomac River called Mallows Bay, in Maryland.
At Mallows Bay, if you look from the shore of the Potomac River, you can see partially submerged hulls of hundreds of ships belonging to the largest fleet ever sunk in the western hemisphere (Chuuk Lagoon being the largest in the world). Ships intentionally sunk in this desolate area, just 30 miles down the river to Washington, DC.
Once mighty steamships, were built in a hurry, by order of the Emergency Fleet Corporation (later renamed United States Shipping Board Merchant Fleet Corporation). The reason for this immense work was the desire to keep the existing supply lines between the United States and Europe open during the World War I.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, the ships present were not enough: many boats, in fact, were sunk by U-boats. In the first two weeks of the entry into the conflict, the US lost 122 ships, all sunk by German submarines.
The EFC was then tasked with an impossible feat: to build 1,000 wooden steamships, over 90 meters in length, under the tight deadline of just 18 months.
About 500,000 people worked for the hard task, and to fulfill the request, the EFC requisitioned all merchant ships under construction in the nation’s shipyards.
With a rapidly approaching due date and a supply of steel that was reserved for ships that would see battle, the rush job was just that. It resulted in poorly constructed wooden ships that, despite the time saving methods used, didn’t come anywhere close to being ready in time.
So, even if about half a million people worked on the project, in the end they did not build 1,000 ships but only 264 and of these only 76 participated in the conflict before the hostilities ended in November 1918. Moreover, by the time the Germans had surrendered, not a single ship from the lofty order had crossed the ocean.
With the war over and steel once again in abundance, the ships, mostly unused, were discarded, left to rot in the Potomac. Already in 1925 the steamships had become obsolete due to the switchover to diesel engines.
Two salvages were attempted but were, for the most part, unsuccessful due to cost and sheer magnitude.
They decided to burn them and sink into the River. 106 wrecks are still visible today: if you enlarge Google Earth you can see contours below the surface of the water. Among the ships in the bay is the SS Aberdeen, built in just 17 days for the World War I, the SS Accomac ferry used up until 1964, but also older ships like a Revolutionary war boat and eighteenth-century schooners.
US fleet sank and low water turned out to be an advantage.
During the Great Depression locals earned their living by plundering metal wreckage, but also in World War II when steel had to be recovered for the war effort. When the wars ended the wrecks were abandoned again.
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 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, habitat of fish and birds, including bald eagles.
Today in the National Register of Historic Places, Mallows Bay is embarking on the process of being recognized as a national marine sanctuary. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that this fleet appears to be in motion. The results presented at the American Geophysical Union in December 2018 by a group of fifth grade students from JC Parks Elementary School (Maryland) revealed how many of the ships changed positions, comparing their positions plotted over time. The study has certified that most ships have moved (some as much as 20 miles, about 32 kilometers) east along the river to the ocean.
Acting as vessels for new life, the ghost ships will remain in the bay until they crumble away to nothing in the waters where they rest.