The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay

Thursday, 5th February 2009 by

Mallows Bay on the eastern shore of the Potomac River in Maryland is home to the largest ship graveyard in the Western hemisphere.

At first glance – and with no sense of scale – this may appear to be a shoal of fish or a group of large aquatic animals. The reality is, however, you’re seeing the remains of between 100 and 200 ships, each the size of a football field, rotting slowly into the mud or being overgrown by vegetation.

During World War 1 the US Government undertook a massive shipbuilding effort – only to see hundreds of ships left idle when the War ended. The Western Marine and Salvage Company bought more than 200 ships at a cut-price rate, hoping to scrap them for their metal, but their plan went quickly astray when fire destroyed some of the ships1, while others broke loose and sank.

169 ships were eventually towed to Mallows Bay, but after the price of scrap metal fell sharply in the stock market crash of 1929, WM&SC were soon forced into bankruptcy.

Despite several failed attempts to salvage the wrecks over the years, these rusting hulks are still with us today, but it’s evident that the local environment has adapted to accommodate them. They’re home to many species of birds and other wildlife, and the Live Maps view clearly shows that they’ve been overgrown by trees and other vegetation.

The only really identifiable wreck is that of the ferry Accomac, which was likely towed to Mallows Bay after burning in a Portsmouth shipyard in the mid-1960s.

A more detailed history can be found from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources or the Bay Weekly. And this kayak trip report has great pictures.

Thanks to Derek Lindahl and Chas Owens.

  1. The irony of some ships being lost to fire is that the plan was to burn them in a controlled fashion to allow the metal to be recovered.