Paddle through history at Mallows Bay

One of the over 200 ships abandoned in the Potomac River that has now become an overgrown island ripe with wildlife. | Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Abandoned World War I ships become unique habitat for wildlife

Within the murky waters of the Potomac River, along the south central coast of Maryland, sits a graveyard that has unexpectedly became the impetus for the growth of new life.

This graveyard hold the remains of approximately 230 ships that have become known as the “Ghost Fleet” of Mallows Bay.

Most of the ships were discarded in 1925 and have since turned into important ecological habitats for countless species of plants and animals. The site has also become a popular place for kayakers to explore.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, in 1917, after the U.S. entered World War I, there was a desperate need for merchant ships due to Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. More than 200 ships per month were being destroyed by the Central Powers, and with steel needed for ships intended for battle, the U.S. began an urgent wooden shipbuilding program under the newly established Emergency Fleet Corporation.

The rush resulted in poorly constructed wooden ships that weren’t finished in time to be of use before the Armistice was signed in 1918. With steel plentiful afterward, the ships were moored in Mallows Bay where they lie today.

The extent of the habitats provided by the ships were not widely known until the Potomac Electric Power Company lobbied the U.S. House of Representative’s Public Work’s Committee on Government Operations for permission to remove the hulks to provide barge access for an intended nuclear power plant.

The official committee report, published in 1970, included testimony from area scientists about the uniqueness of the ecosystem in Mallows Bay.

Dr. Eugene L. Cronin, the Director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, was quoted in the report as saying “Shipwrecks, which have existed in Mallows Bay for many years, have no doubt established a special ecosystem. It has functioned to some extent as an artificial reef and attracted some species of fish…”

From above, the ships look like enormous flower pots holding all types of trees, bushes, and shrubbery, and have created individual islands out in the bay.

In October 2015, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration announced plans to designate the site a national marine sanctuary, which would be the first in Maryland and the 15th in the nation. A final decision on the plan is supposed to be announced sometime this year.

Visitors to the area can rent kayaks or sign up for tours that take paddlers through the World War I ships, as well as Revolutionary era longboats that were discovered during an archaeological survey during the 1990s, according to the Trust for Public Land.

The Charles County Parks and Recreation Department also has a boat and kayak launch within the park, which is free of charge.

For those who prefer to observe the ships on land, there is a mile-long hiking trail that loops around the Bay.

Mallows Bay is located at 1440 Wilson Landing Road, Nanjemoy, Maryland 20662. For more information, visit www.charlescountyparks.com/parks/mallows-bay -park.

By Lauren Finnegan, APG News

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