Please note: this is a repost of an article from my old website called “Bone In Its Teeth”, an article which didn’t survive the migration to WordPress back in April of last year. It took me a long time to recover all the text and images, but here it is in its entirety, along with some updates to the images.
Cindy and I decided to head to Mallows Bay back in early May of 2011. Being springtime, we thought the water would be nice and clear for us to better observe all the wrecks there, but we were sadly wrong. The water was amazingly opaque and allowed about 8-inches of visibility into the depths — not enough to see the plethora of hulks lurking just under the surface.
For those that are unfamiliar with Mallows Bay, it’s a shallow and somewhat secluded one-mile long cove surrounded by squat bluffs in the Maryland shoreline of the Potomac River, diagonally across the water from Marine Corps Base Quantico. What makes it of historical interest is the incredibly dense concentration of shipwrecks in the cove. Depending on the source being quoted, there are approximately 90 hulks still visible and the bones of an additional 145+ littering the bottom — most of the wrecks belonging to just one type of vessel alone — giving rise to the local claim of Mallows Bay containing the largest shipwreck fleet in the western hemisphere.
I know, I know… The greatest ship graveyard in the western hemisphere can’t possibly be this little backwater on the Potomac River. The Graveyard of the Atlantic just off the tip of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, has over a 1,000 verified wrecks recorded since 1526, and the Graveyard of the Pacific is even bigger with over 2,000 confirmed wrecks. However, unlike the other shipwreck graveyards mentioned, Mallows Bay has all of her shipwrecks concentrated in a tiny one-mile long area, which makes it unique.
From all the material I’ve been able to sift through on the Web, the best accounting of the wrecks at Mallows Bay comes from Donald G. Shomette and his articles that can be found here and here. Below is an excerpt from his article that was published at American Heritage in 1999 (previously available on the Web, but I can no longer find it)…
Over the next two years, we identified a total of 81 wooden EFC ships, one of which was the North Bend, the first of the fleet to splash into the ocean. She was a 3,024-gross-ton screw steamer, 275.2 feet long, 46 feet abeam, and 28 feet deep, built at North Bend, Oregon, by Kruse and Banks. Numerous other vessels and sites were recorded, including a great steel-hulled seagoing car ferry named Accomac, 11 wooden barges, a possible Revolutionary-era longboat, two mid-nineteenth-century centerboard five-log canoes, a 1949 North Carolina-built menhaden fishing boat named Mermentau, a World War II-era PT boat, a houseboat raised on stilts (possibly a converted brothel), three unidentified workboats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the disarticulated remains of an EFC ship lying completely buried 500 feet inland at Sandy Point. Also discovered were primitive log-and-earth marine railways, remains of a unique steam-powered hauling system to transfer scrap to transport trucks ashore, the residue of the Sandy Point wharf, and pieces of the Bethlehem burning-basin dam, gates, and support facilities.
Of 285 wooden EFC steamships known to have been built by August 1, 1920, at least 152, totaling 554,000 dead-weight tons, ended up in Mallows Bay within nine years. That is more than 53 percent of all American wooden steamships produced in the EFC program and surpasses the total tonnage of all American blue-water ships built in the 16 years preceding the war. Today the remains of at least 30 percent of the entire EFC wooden steamship fleet (and one composite ship of the same program) still lie in the mud of the embayment, surrounded by derelict vessels of all kinds dating from the late 18th century through the 1980s.
While the exact number of actual wrecks can’t be agreed upon, what isn’t disputed is the type of ship that accounts for the vast majority of the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac — the Hough-type wooden cargo steamship.
The biggest hulk that’s visible above the water is of the 291-foot long SS Accomac, a Chesapeake Bay car ferry that was used to transport vehicles between Kiptopeke Beach on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and Little Creek, located near Cape Henry, Virginia. She burned during a refit down in Portsmouth, Virginia, was later towed to Mallows Bay and was left to rot there.
So what’s it like to kayak in among the hulks in Mallows Bay?
Unsettling, to say the least. Why? Because the water is so turbid, few of the underwater obstructions could be seen until we actually touched them with the blades of our paddles or the fins of our MirageDrives. We draw just an inch or two of water when packed as lightly as we were, yet our hulls still ran into some of those bolts. Granted, we were just crawling along because we knew they were there, but still — it was quite a surprise to run into them. Also, if we had gotten seriously tangled up on an underwater obstruction, there were so many jagged pieces of metal just under the surface that we would have needed medical attention once we got the kayaks clear and hopped back in.
Neat place, though. And well worth a visit.