Surely the oddest spectacle in all the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries is Mallows Bay. You can’t help some sense of bewilderment paddling about the 170-odd burned and weather-beaten hulks, their remnants barely breaking the surface of the murky water, their keels sunk fast into the Potomac River’s syrupy black mud.
The remains here are what’s left of a wartime shipbuilding effort given purpose and urgency by the nation’s first real dance on the world stage. For two-and-a-half decades after these vessels slid off ship ways they found marginal use, but never delivered all their potential, and now, approaching 100 years old, they’re some ruined sideshow and have found validation as a sanctuary for the plants and animals that use the structure they provide.
In World War I, German U-Boats were literally sinking ships faster than the Allies could build them, so the United States government commissioned a fleet of hundreds of wooden steamships (steel, the preferred material, was scarce) that would haul freight to friendly ports. Despite that some 250,000 Americans–from lumbermen to carpenters to engineers–worked hard to hastily cobble the Emergency Fleet together, logistical problems plagued the program from the get go.
A handful of these ships saw limited wartime use, but Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, came and went quickly, and a couple years after the war, the U.S. government had on hand more than 300 wooden ships that were brand new, ready for service, and totally obsolete. A wooden vessel in the age of steel ships is what a rotary phone would be today. Usable but quaint and inefficient. The government sold most of the fleet, well over 200 vessels, for $750,000, the price originally paid for one ship. Some lawmakers nearly hemorrhaged crying boondoggle.
The firm that bought the ships, Western Marine and Salvage Company of Alexandria, Virginia, removed all the easy-to-get-to (and not surprisingly, profitable) metal–boilers, smokestacks and the like–but settled on the least worst option for salvaging the hulls’ iron pegs and bracing: they’d burn them to the waterline, hoist what remained ashore via a marine railway, and burn them again until nothing remained but metal. Their staging area for pulling this off en masse? You guessed it. Mallows Bay.
WM&SC eventually went belly up, claiming a $250,000 loss, leaving nearly 200 hulks to the elements in a shallow cove carved into the Maryland countryside about 30 miles south of Washington D.C. WM&SC’s bankruptcy occurred in the early 1930s, and soon after the firm abandoned the work in Mallows Bay, salvors descended on the hulls, selling what scrap metal they could remove. By all accounts, Mallows Bay buzzed with activity during that decade, with an impromptu system of laborers, middlemen and buy boats. One account even mentions a number of stills aboard the boats.
In World War II, the government, desperate for metal to help fashion tools of war, contracted Bethlehem Steel to deconstruct the ships and once and for all collect the estimated 20,000 tons of iron that held the derelict hulls together. This company, too, had an ambitious plan that included construction of a lagoon and cofferdam. Alas, the wooden Emergency Fleet once again proved too daunting a challenge and Bethlehem Steel scrapped their efforts after collecting a paltry fraction of what they intended.
Chesapeake Bay historian Donald Shomette has chronicled the wooden Emergency Fleet in Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake. It’s worth a read.
Navigating these wrecks today is an exercise in extreme caution. The jagged iron bracing is lashed together in thin diagonal strips, their sharp corners pointing straight up. Thousands of these rusty snags rest ominously at the waterline, or worse yet, just below. A self-powered boat–canoe or kayak–will work. A johnboat with a trolling motor is pushing your luck. Anything larger, more powerful, forget it. You’re likely to end up with a sunken craft and perhaps even like a man in the 1960s, dead.
If you can approach the ships with great care, though, they are indeed a thing of beauty. The stout timbers, cut in precise angles, rest inches below the surface, silent testament to the care and technique that went into crafting these vessels. Thick mats of hydrilla, an invasive water plant that branches prolifically, shroud many of the submerged ships and sway gently in the current. Fish flit deep into the cover at the first hint of a watercraft.
Several ships lie fully exposed, or nearly so, at the shoreline, perhaps drawn there at the direction of WM&SC, freelance salvors or Bethlehem Steel, perhaps sent there by wind and tide. And naturally, beautifully, plants have found purchase in the exposed timbers and taken root there, creating whole ecosystems, lush islands shaped precisely like the ships they’re reclaiming.