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Exploring the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay

Ghost Fleet photo by Tom Pelton.jfif

In a shallow bay of the Potomac River about an hour south of Washington, D.C., lie the remains of 214 wooden cargo ships from World War I, some of which have sprouted trees and become islands.

The so-called "Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay" is a reminder of the waste of war, but also of nature's resilience and ability to transform even a graveyard into an insurgency of life. 

I explored the shipwrecks with a guide, Donald Shomette, a historian and author who wrote a book about the fleet.

It was a gray morning on the Potomac River in southern Maryland when we set off paddling in canoes into what seemed like a strange dream.  In front of my boat, rising up out of the murk, was what looked like a huge wooden face topped by a shaggy wig of sticks.

As I glided closer, I could see it was the pockmarked stern of a wrecked ship, crowned by an osprey nest. Trees sprouted from rotting planks in the nearly century-old cargo ship.  The ship had become an island – as had several other half-submerged wrecks in the “Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.”

All around in this bay, located in Charles County about an hour south of Washington, rows of rusty iron rods with metal caps that look like helmets march through shallow waters coursing with fish.

Donald Shomette described the maritime graveyard:

“The embayment is about a mile a quarter long, and it contains within it the largest ship wreck assemblage in the western hemisphere, dating from the period of the American Revolution, up through the 1970s.  At one time, we had as many as 260 vessels that we know of. Two hundred and fourteen of them were World War I wooden steam ships built for the transport of troops over to Europe, troops and cargo.”

Shomette and cartographer Bob Pratt worked with National Geographic to publish a detailed map showing the locations of 2,400 ship wrecks across the Mid-Atlantic region.  Many of these skeletons are now breeding grounds for oysters, crabs, fish and birds. The forested wrecks in Mallows Bay make especially good habitat.

“In some areas, these ships are quite present with whole environments of their own -- Mini ecosystems,” Shomette said. “There are full-sized trees are growing from their hulls, where animals that have taken up habitation, beaver, river otter, deer, eagles, you name it, blue heron. It’s a rich environment both above the water and underwater because it is also one of the richest bass fishing areas in the tidewater.”

At one point in our exploration, rain began to fall. So we paddled for shelter under the rusty, peeling deck of a 1928 passenger ferry, the Accomack. It was abandoned here in 1973, and is now owned by osprey. They have woven a nest from asbestos and driftwood at the bow.

The osprey circled around us, aggressively. Perhaps they were worried we were trying to steal their mansion, so we could lay our own eggs in it.

Later, we climbed aboard one of the World War I ships. We sloshed through an Amazonian jungle on its deck.

“What we have here is mother nature taking over an American ship in great form,  beautiful form,” Shomette said.

The ship, called The Tonka, was part of an emergency fleet of steam-powered wooden cargo carriers that the U.S. spent a billion dollars building from 1917 to 1923. The idea was to overwhelm German U-boats by creating a so-called “wooden bridge” across the Atlantic. But by the time the ships were built, the war was over, steam power was outdated, and so many were just dumped here to be scrapped and partially burned.

The wrecks are the waste of war. But they are also monuments to something uplifting: The fierce resilience of nature, and its ability to transform even a junk-strewn wasteland into an insurgency of life.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.