Exploratorius

Old School Film Hack

Mallows Bay — the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac

40
Exploring the wrecks at Mallows Bay -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Exploring the wrecks at Mallows Bay — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

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.

Other online resources can be found here and here, and a PDF of the steamship building program can be found here.

Hough-type wooden steamship design

31 of the wooden steamers are put to the torch in Mallows Bay on November 7, 1925 - via National Archives

31 of the wooden steamers are put to the torch in Mallows Bay on November 7, 1925 – via National Archives

Close up of the steamers being burned

Close up of the steamers being burned

A more recent enhanced photo of the remaining wrecks in Mallows Bay

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.

SS Accomac

Heading out to the SS Accomac first -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Heading out to the SS Accomac first — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

SS Accomac hulk — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

See the bolts just barely under the water? -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

See the bolts just barely under the water? — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

More hulks and lots of bolts just clearing the surface of the water -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

More hulks and lots of bolts just clearing the surface of the water — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

How would you like to hit that at high speed? -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

How would you like to hit that at high speed? — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

This hulk has some small trees growing on it -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

This hulk has some small trees growing on it — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

More bolts. It's virtually a mine field of them here -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

More bolts. It’s virtually a mine field of them here — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Slowing passing another hulk -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Slowing passing another hulk — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Unreal... they're everywhere! -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Unreal… they’re everywhere! — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

To give a sense of scale to these things -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

To give a sense of scale to these things — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

A keel - it seemed to go on forever -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

A keel – it seemed to go on forever — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Cindy rescued a gorgeous moth that had fallen in the water -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Cindy rescued a gorgeous moth that had fallen in the water — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Cindy's little friend getting dried off -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Cindy’s little friend getting dried off — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

The new Mallows Bay boat ramp that was constructed in 2010, with the SS Accomac hulk in the distance -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

The new Mallows Bay boat ramp that was constructed in 2010, with the SS Accomac hulk in the distance — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

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.

Placard at Mallows Bay -- Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Placard at Mallows Bay — Nanjemoy, Maryland (May 2011)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Neat place, though.  And well worth a visit.

40 thoughts on “Mallows Bay — the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac

  1. narble

    Good stuff. I live adjacent to the Graveyard of the Pacific and there are only a couple hulks that are visible here. You know they’re there, but you just can’t visit. The Peter Iredale can still be easily seen on the beach between Warrenton and Gearhart on the north coast of Oregon, but the others are hidden away in very unruly water and deep sand. To see the extent of Mallows Bay was special. Thanks.

    Like

    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      No problem — I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. I’ve visited the Graveyard of the Atlantic around Cape Hatteras many times, but have only seen a couple of shipwrecks that were washed up on shore; Mallows Bay is very different, and makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of history. It’s a very electric feeling.

      Like

  2. Marilyn Armstrong

    Lots of history You would think the area would be marked off limits as hazardous. Presumably there is no swimming or diving allowed. I have an awful image of children getting mangled and shredded by all that rusting metal just out of sight. Great post!! Fantastic and as everyone else already said, fascinating.

    Like

    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Nope, no physical hazard warnings out in the river area, though the local marine charts have it clearly marked as such. Likewise, I don’t recall seeing any strident postings around the boat launch area, but then again I wasn’t looking for them because I already knew that the area was potentially lethal under water.

      Of more concern to me is the thought of a go-fast powerboat blasting through Mallows Bay — blissfully unaware — and just having the guts ripped out of it. That would be an EMT call I wouldn’t want to respond to…

      Like

  3. suchled

    Mitch, All your posts are brilliantly illustrated – almost all make my heart lift but this one made me so sad and angry that we destroy so much all in the name of progress.

    Like

    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      We’re about the same age as a nation, but capitalism has taken its toll across our landscape.

      Right now the hot-button issue for many is fracking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing), a controversial method of natural gas extraction which may have a longer effect on our environment than many of the other blights we have forced upon it. I used to report upon fracking with my old website — until I saw that legal teams supporting fracking were visiting my posts; then I stopped doing it and took down all my posts that were critical of it. I don’t have the wherewithal to fight them in court if they challenged me, and I’m not going to bankrupt us over an issue of free speech.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. suchled

      Fracking is now a huge bone of contention here. I’d love to see what you had but under the circumstances I will not ask. And please don’t be silly and send me stuff anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      What I posted was material that pro-frackers were apparently not keen on seeing in the public eye. None of it was my own original content, but rather reblogging efforts to spread the word. Maryland currently doesn’t allow any fracking within the state borders, especially after seeing what it’s doing to our neighboring states. However, Maryland does have a lot of potential fracking sites, and thousands of acres of land have already been purchased by speculators. The pro-frackers are licking their chops, waiting for it to be legalized here.

      I’ll just leave it at that.

      Like

  4. Kim Hernandez

    Hello Mitch –

    I am with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and we would like to use one of your photos (specifically the photo of the boat access) for a poster we are developing for an informational open house on Mallows Bay. Please let me know if this is a possibility. You will receive photo credit. Thank you!

    Like

  5. Pingback: Image Used With Permission By MD DNR | Exploratorius

  6. Peter Turcik

    Where and how did you obtain the historical photographs? My organization is doing a story map application on Mallows and it would be very cool to include these and more historical photos. If you could point me in the right direction I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks

    Like

    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      I did a simple Google search on Mallows Bay and hunted some of them down that way; many are in the public domain, you just need to track them down.

      Other sources were found via text searches based upon what I found from having gone to Mallows Bay and making a note of what they used for their sources, or just checking for the subject matter.

      There’s lots of stuff out there, but it does require digging and patience.

      Like

  7. Pingback: "Ghost Fleet" of Mallows Bay May Become Federally Protected - ChesapeakeLiving.com

%d bloggers like this: