On the Maryland side of the Potomac River just west of Chesapeake Bay, the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere sits half-sunk and decomposing.

In the early 20th century, hundreds of U.S. vessels were sent to Mallows Bay to be destroyed and scrapped – and to this day the remains of dozens can still be seen in the shallow water.

How did the ships end up here and why were they abandoned?

Mallows Bay abandoned boat
A ship at Mallows Bay

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Call For One Thousand Ships

Mallows Bay aerial photo 1942
Aerial photo of the ship graveyard in Mallows Bay, circa 1942

The story of the ships at Mallows Bay begins when the United States entered World War I. The U.S. had warships, but a shortage of transport vessels led President Woodrow Wilson to approve, in April of 1917, the greatest shipbuilding program in history: an order for 1,000 300-ft long steamships to be built in only 18 months.

It was also one of the most expensive in history; each ship would cost the taxpayer almost one million dollars.

To monitor progress and enforce the contracts, the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) was formed to oversee the 87 shipyards who would participate in the program.

With little time to ramp up production and prepare for the order, the shipbuilders were pressed to reach deadlines. To save time and money the builders used wood rather than the more expensive steel, at the time reserved for vessels that would see combat.

The lack of effective oversight was realized when a Congressional report in October of 1918 revealed only 134 ships had been completed.  A year and a half into the program, this was well behind schedule.

Over 260 ships were less than half-completed, and hundreds more had not yet been started.

 

Mallows Bay abandoned ship
A vessel deteriorates in Mallows Bay.

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Immediately Obsolete

mallows bay abandoned boats
Dozens of vessels spend their final days in Mallows Bay

Germany would surrender on November 11th of 1918. At that time, none of the quickly-commissioned EFC vessels had yet crossed the Atlantic. To this point, the program had officially approved funding and paid for 731 wooden steamships. While over 130 ships had been completed, only 98 had actually been delivered.  Of those, only 76 had been used to carry cargo as intended.

Despite the war being over the shipbuilding continued building. By September of 1919 the builders had delivered 264 steamships to the government. By this time the United States had no use for the ships; they were left to rot while the powers that be determined how to re-purpose them.

Complicating the situation were allegations of poor construction; corners were allegedly cut to speed up the building process. Ships suffered leaking issues, were poorly caulked, and were too small to be efficient long-distance shippers. Additionally, the invention of the diesel engine made the coal-burning vessels obsolete.

After World War I the war-effort levels of demand and high costs of steel subsided, moving the shipbuilding industry toward steel construction for all vessels. With steel becoming cheaper and more readily available, the end had come for the wooden EFC steamships.

 

Mallows Bay boat fire 1910s
Burning the ships in Mallows Bay

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Salvage Attempt 1: Western Marine

By the end of December in 1920, Congress realized the failure and decided to take action. Nearly 290 unused leaking ships were being temporarily stored and cared for in the James River at a cost of nearly $50,000 per month – something had to be done.

Hoping to recoup some money, Congress listed all vessels from the program for sale at a steep discount. Two years later in September of 1922, Western Marine & Salvage Company (WMSC) purchased 233 of the ships in the fleet for $750,000.

Ships burn in Mallows Bay, circa 1925
Ships burn in Mallows Bay, circa 1925

The plan was to tow the fleet to an authorized mooring area near Widewater, VA for scrapping. They would retrieve the re-usable materials, then burn and sink the remaining hull into the marsh where it would be buried beneath dredged soil.

Complaints from local watermen and nature activists halted the operations at Widewater on the Potomac. In April of 1924, WMSC purchased 566 acres opposite Widewater in Mallows Bay on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

This did not stop the protests, so WMSC was forced to act quickly. On November 7th, 1925, workers for the Western Marine & Salvage Company torched the ships in the bay (above left). Western Marine would continue salvage operations for the next few years but would never recover their investment costs. By the stock market crash in October of 1929, WMSC had brought 170 ships to the bay.

The dire economy of the Great Depression took down Western Marine with it – they would file for bankruptcy in 1931 and abandon the ships at Mallows Bay. For the next ten years the desolate fleet was left to rot and scavengers would do their own salvaging.

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Salvage Attempt 2: Bethlehem Steel

Mallows Bay abandoned boat
Decomposing in Mallows Bay

As World War II approached, the threat of war saw the price for scrap metal skyrocket. The U.S. government allocated $200,000 to Bethlehem Steel in the early 1940s to recover over 20,000 tons of iron thought to still be in the wrecks of Mallows Bay.

The project was massive, calling for the company to excavate a marine basin sealed off from the bay for salvaging. However the program proved too expensive; the ultimate cost of the salvage was far more than the value of the recovered materials.

By 1943 Bethlehem Steel terminated the program after spending over $360,000 on salvaging – with little to show for it. When Bethlehem Steel was done, there were still over 100 ship hulks left in the bay.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

 

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Mallows Bay in the Years Since

Mallows Bay abandoned ship
Remains of a ship at Mallows Bay

The sixties saw a renewed effort to clean up the area, with Congress bending to the calls of local watermen and initially approving the Army Corps of Engineers to spend up to $350,000 to clean up Mallows Bay. The bid failed when it was discovered the watermen had partnered up with the local power company who was looking to re-claim the land around Mallows Bay for private enterprise.

In March of 1993, a Maryland grant approved a study to research the fleet at Mallows Bay and measure its cost of disposal, effect on the environment, and to inventory what vessels were left for historical and archaeological purposes.

Over the next two years the researchers would identify 88 wooden ships left over from the original EFC program. Researchers also discovered the bay was used by Western Marine for more than just EFC vessels; twelve barges were discovered, as well as a Revolutionary War-era longboat, several 18th century schooners, miscellaneous workboats, and even car ferries like the S.S. Accomac (below).

The S.S. Accomac abandoned in Mallows Bay
The S.S. Accomac abandoned in Mallows Bay

Vessels would continue to be abandoned in Mallows Bay as recent as the 1980s. Researchers learned the hulks had created a mini-ecosystem in the Bay for fish & many birds.  The heavy concentration of wood enriched the shallow bay’s sediment, and the absence of diesel and oil polluting the water has presented a healthy habitat for many species of wildlife.

Ultimately, the EFC program was reported to have built 285 ships through August of 1920, and of those – 152 ended up in Mallows Bay within nine years. Experts estimate the remains visible in Mallows Bay today only represent 30% of the fleet sent there for salvage.

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old boats abandoned mallows bay
Today abandoned boats in Mallows Bay support new ecosystems.

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The Old Abandoned Boat

Reader Liz Johnson shares her picture and story of the boat below:

mallows bay old boatAttached please find the photo of the old abandoned boat. I think the photo is from around 1970-72. Noted the large cable in the foreground, which was part of what kept the boat moored to its spot, though there were more cables anchoring it under the water.

We were told my locals at the time that several people at different times had been killed in motorboats that got too close to the boat and got caught up in the lines, flipping the boat. The boat was moored directly in front of the old Chatterton farmhouse – which was right on the river, maybe 75-100 feet from the water’s edge. It was built in 1882 when the people that owned the Chatterton manor estate divided the property between four of the children (John Tayloe – not sure which generation – was the owner for probably 100 years or so)

I was told that at some point in the early 1900s, whichever of the Tayloe children (now adults) was living in the large manor estate – the man lost the property through gambling and the family had to move out of the large house into the smaller farmhouse on the river. However, when I requested Chatterton’s history from one of the descendants, she marked that part out of the papers she sent me. So of course, that was heresay. By the 1960s-70s, the old farmhouse was abandoned, like the boat. The house was surrounded by trees and so dark that between it and the boat – it was very scary and if you include the fact that people died there …

Lastly, a person committed suicide right by the boat one January in the early 1970s. She drove down there, took her shoes off, left her purse on the sand and walked into the water. They found her standing straight up – frozen. Again – that’s what I was told – her obituary has no mention of this, nor do any of the papers and because she died in the river, it was considered Maryland jurisdiction, not Virginia.

Our cabin was about a mile down river and my sister and I found the boat, house and history fascinating and during low tide, we’d sometimes walk down to it – in the river – just to scare ourselves.

Liz

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Watch: Video kayaking around the SS Accomac hull in Mallows Bay, courtesy Mitch Zeissler.

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31 COMMENTS

  1. You can’t see many of the ships from the shore and you have to have shallow or flat hull small vessels to get over into the area. There are LOTS of bolts that are exposed if you are right up on/over them, but make sure you get out before low tide, or you will be stuck until the next high tide. Just saying – not as easy as it appears.
    You may also want to check out Don Shomette’s book “Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay” that provides the entire history. Also, National Geographic had a story in the Oct 1969 issue with some great pix.

  2. the long vessel along the shore in Mallows Bay is the Morris Springer a Coast Guard sea rescue vessel its also in the Wippeka on Mallows Bay. before it was sank in 5 feet of water at Mallows Bay, its was docked at pier 1 in Old town Alexandria on the Potomac behind the Torpedo factory between the Old Dominion Yacht club and where the Chart House is now. It also served the Sea scouts a maritime version of the boy scouts.

  3. In the 1980’s there was beached at mallow bay an intact wooden vessel in good condition. I did not know the history but was fascinated by it. I later did some research and learn of the ship grave yard at mallow bay. During 2010 while visiting friends at their home I observed a framed photograph picture of the very boat mentioned above hanging on their living room wall. When I inquired about the picture it was confirmed to be mallow bay where this photo was taken by my friend. He knew nothing of the mallow bay history. The vessel is no longer their and I assume it became a victim of many storm and the aging process. Has anyone else seen this vessel other then me?

  4. Thank you for this interesting post. As a child, we had a cabin on the Potomac between Fairview Beach and Caledon and there was an old wooden vessel moored closer to the Caledon side for years and years with trees growing out of the middle of it. I had been told it was from WWI and had broken lose from a ships graveyard and drifted there – then moored there instead of carting it back to the graveyard – but I wasn’t 100% sure of my memory. I took a photo back then and posted it on the Fredericksburg, VA Facebook page and someone recognized it. It’s great when a long buried question gets answered.

  5. Technical quibble: it wasn’t the diesel, but the advent of oil fuel that made the coal-burning EFC ships obsolete. Oil-fired steam plants continued to drive nearly all ships (except submarines) until the 1980s.

  6. There is a similar fleet of these same ships on the Delaware Bay. They were moored at the southern point of Artificial Island, Baker Shoal back then. They were sunk in a ring formation to make a breakwater for the dredging equipment used to deepen the Delaware River channel and create the island. Artificial Island is the home of the Salem/Hope Creek nuclear power plant now. The positive ID is the telltale criss-cross steel reinforcing straps along the hull. The DelBay ships have the same construction. Besides the harbor ring, there is another a little further inland and one more sunk at Arnold Point a little bit south of the island.

    • Actually, if you go up on top of the hill above the boat ramp and near the picnic tables, there are kiosk with an abbreviated version of the history and some photo’s. It’s a nice place for a hike, also – just keep on the trails.

  7. Wow… I had only heard of the Bay… I live waterfront at Widewater Beach. As soon as we un-winterize the boat, we’re gonna float on over!

  8. I have a 12 foot long mess hall table that came off of one of the wooden ships from the ghost fleet. The table was used at my mothers family summer cottage on the river at Wide Water in the early1920’s and later the table ended up in Manassas at a antique car museum. My cousin contacted me and asked if I wanted the table. It has been on my porch looking over the river at Fairview Beach for the last 35 years. We have a view of Wide Water from our porch where it sits.

    • Wow, that’s pretty neat Andy. That’s a real piece of history there! Thanks for sharing your personal story with us, I bet that wood has been put to better use with your family than it would have otherwise. Cheers!

  9. Makes me wonder if one of these boats is currently resting on Curtis Bay, MD. You can see it from the draw bridges looking west (on what may be part of the abandoned GSA depot).

  10. Lived up the river from this in woodbridge for years never knew about this but there is an old barge sunk at our park right on the water. Kinda hidden in the brush would like to kmow where that came from. Such an interesting article so much history.

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