The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay – Nanjemoy, Maryland - Atlas Obscura

The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay

Nanjemoy, Maryland

The remnants of a wooden-hulled fleet built and abandoned in WWI, now home to a thriving ecosystem. 


If there were ever a place that could be described as a ship graveyard, it is the murky waters of Mallows Bay.

The remains of the fallen ships create a virtual reef of their own on the shores of this small bay on the Potomac River. Once mighty steamships, many built for war, these vessels now serve as a decaying refuge for woodland creatures.

Close to 230 shipwrecks litter the bay in what is believed to be the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere. (Chuuk Lagoon being the largest in the world.). Dozens can still be seen in the shallow waters, remnants of the latest (and priciest) shipbuilding project in history.

When the U.S. entered WWI, the military was coming up a little short on transport vessels, so 1,000 wooden steamships were approved for construction under the tight deadline of just 18 months. With a rapidly approaching due date and a supply of steel  that was reserved for ships that would see battle, the rush job was just that. It resulted in poorly constructed wooden ships that, despite the time saving methods used, didn’t come anywhere close to being ready in time. By the time the Germans had surrendered, not a single ship from the lofty order had crossed the ocean.

With the war over and steel once again in abundance, the ships, mostly unused, became obsolete and were discarded, left to rot in the Potomac. Two salvages were attempted but were, for the most part, unsuccessful due to cost and sheer magnitude.

In the 1960s, an effort to clean up the bay was begun in earnest, and research was conducted to inventory, judge cost, and measure the environmental effects of the ships. During that research, it was discovered that the shipwrecks had, in their non-toxic wooden state, become the foundation of an active and thriving ecosystem. Acting as vessels for new life, the ghost ships will remain in the bay until they crumble away to nothing in the waters where they rest.

Know Before You Go

While a few of the ships are visible from shore, the ghost fleet is best viewed from a human-powered craft such as a kayak or canoe. Use caution when paddling among the wrecks, as sharp pieces of metal and wood can poke through the waves. Mallows Bay Park, part of the Charles County, MD park system, features a free boat launch, a hiking trail, and portable restrooms.

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