Historic cases of waste, fraud, and abuse have, in the end, led to a new national underwater sanctuary. Mother Nature turned this severely damaged section of the Chesapeake Bay into an underwater ecosystem that the federal government is now protecting.

Mallows Bay was once a ship dumping ground. Then, President Barack Obama started the process to make the area nearly halfway down the Potomac River a national marine sanctuary because all those deteriorating ships created a fish haven.

In 2019, Congress approved the designation.

Mallow's Bay map

The crazy story of these 14 square miles starts in World War I when the country needed ships to cross the Atlantic to supply troops. Steel was hard to come by and in 1917 an engineer by the name of Frederic Eustis talked the U.S. Shipping Board into building 731 wooden steamships ranging between 240-300 feet long.

To put it into perspective, the historic USS Constellation frigate permanently docked in Baltimore’s harbor is 179 feet long.

Contracts went to shipyards across the country. But as 1918 was drawing to a close, only 134 of the ships had been built. Another 263 were partially done.

The war was over before any of them could carry cargo to Europe. Congress launched an investigation.

Of those 134 completed ships, only 98 had been delivered and 76 of them had actually carried cargo. But, in the government job-creating way, the program kept going. By September 1919, 264 ships were in operation.

However, the economy was in a slump by that time and there wasn’t enough cargo for all the available ships. Besides, faster diesel engines were replacing maintenance-heavy steam engines.

The government was stuck with hundreds of obsolete wooden ships, and another investigation started.

In 1922, the ships were sold to a private company out of Alexandria, Virginia, which created yet a third scandal involving the same vessels.

The company was to scrap the ships, but basically, they stripped the ships of useful metal in Alexandria, floated them downriver, and sank them out of sight at Mallow’s Bay.

The Ghost Fleet grounded in Mallow's Bay circa 1925 (courtesy NOAA)
The Ghost Fleet grounded in Mallow’s Bay circa 1925 (courtesy NOAA)

Historian Donald G. Shomette explains the problems in a Maryland Department of Natural Resources report.  There was no government oversight agency like the EPA back then. The company kept dumping scrapped ships and eventually went bankrupt.

By the time the government got around to doing something about it in 1963, there were about 200 ships at the bottom of that section of the Potomac River.

It is the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere, and Shomette says, possibly the world.

Remaining boats in Mallows Bay, Virginia
Boats still sitting in Mallows Bay (Photo courtesy exploratorius.us)

That turned into the fourth scandal involving the sunken ships.

A company called Idamont, Inc. bought the land near the ships and convinced Congress that the ships needed to be removed. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was slow getting the contract going and it came out that Idamont was a front for the Potomac Electric Power Company which wanted to build a power plant. Executives were trying to get around telling shareholders and the public.

Meanwhile, out of sight and underwater, the “Ghost Fleet” of Mallows Bay came back to life. The dead ships had created a new home for marine life.

Removing the ships would cause more pollution in the river and disrupt the natural habitats that had formed over 50 years.

Kayaker at Mallow's Bay
Courtesy Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Photo by Daryl Byrd.

Scientists started looking closer. They found 88 of the wooden ships — a seagoing car ferry, 12 barges, a Revolutionary War longboat, 19th-century log canoes (schooner-like fishing sailboats carved out of logs), a North Carolina menhaden boat, and a number of workboats.

Vessel at low tide showing hull frame in Mallow's Bay
A vessel at low tide showing hull frame (Photo by Don Shomette, courtesy NOAA)

The area is now a county park known for its water trails through the ships. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared on October 5, 2015, its intent to designate Mallows Bay in Charles County as a  National Marine Sanctuary, and sought public input on how the site should best be used and managed.

NOAA issued its designation in July 2019. Congress approved it and President Donald Trump signed the legislation creating the nation’s 14th national marine sanctuary in September 2019. 

Mallows Bay-Potomac River Marine Sanctuary was the first sanctuary added to the program in nearly two decades. 

Mallow’s Bay from a drone.