THE SHIP GRAVEYARD
Just offshore of Charles County, Maryland, across the Potomac River from Quantico Marine Base, lies one of the Potomac River's great historical oddities. From a distance, the water's surface is broken by patches of low scrub covered islands, seemingly overcome by the tide. On closer inspection, the islands have distinct outlines, familiar forms, and an arrangement unusual to behold in most quiet coves along the Potomac. This is Mallows Bay, the resting place of some 130 sunken ships, including the remains of 81 historically significant wooden steamships built under a crash government program during World War I.
For decades, the mile-long isolated cove about 30 miles south of Washington has served as a dumping ground for old ships. And for almost half a century, the site has been virtually ignored by all with the exception of wildlife and the anglers. Today, historians, conservationists, and many citizens are interested in designating the area as a special shipwreck preserve to maintain this unique historical site. According to Don Shomette, a maritime historian and underwater archeologist, Mallows Bay holds the greatest concentration of sunken ships in North America. "It's one of our stunning and undiscovered resources," said Shomette. The diverse collection of ships at the site includes various sailing vessels, steamships, and even an 18th century longboat, which also is the oldest wreck in the cove.
The main attraction at Mallows Bay is the steamship fleet. During World War I, the United States built a fleet of 336 wooden steamships, intending to use them in the war against Germany. The hulking, coal-dependent ships ranged from 265 to 285 feet long and cost more than $1 billion to construct. However, it was soon discovered that the long transatlantic journey required so much coal that the ships could not carry much cargo and the steamships were rendered obsolete by the time the war was over in 1918. In the early 1920s, the majority of the fleet was sold to a variety of investors for scrap material and by the 1940s, most of the hulls had been salvaged by prospectors, burned to their waterlines and abandoned.
The history and ships of the bay are the subject of a book by Shomette entitled The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.
(Please remember: Mallows Bay is within Quantico's airspace. If you want to overfly the bay, you may do so above 2500 feet or, if you want to get up close and personal, contact Quantico tower: 118.6. Quantico's ATIS is 121.75)