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Explore Shipwrecks, Ecosystems at the Mallows Bay Clean-Up

Ghostly fleet may become a sanctuary

  • By Lara Lutz on March 20, 2014
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Hundreds of ships, most from the early 20th century, make up the 'Ghost Fleet' of Mallows Bay.  (Don Shomette) The wrecks at Mallows Bay have begun to serve the local ecosystem. Many host vegetation and wildlife, and some have silted in completely to create ship-shaped islands.  (Don Shomette) Mallows Bay is on the Potomac downriver from Mount Vernon. The hull of an abandoned wooden ship rises from the water  at Mallows Bay on the Potomac River. (Don Shomette)

On Saturday, April 5, the Potomac River watershed will be crawling with more than 14,000 volunteers clearing tons of trash and debris from rivers, streams, and shorelines. For the first time, some of those volunteers will be paddling among the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.

Mallows Bay in Charles County, Maryland, is home to the largest collection of sunken vessels in the Western Hemisphere — a 20th-century ship graveyard where approximately 200 wooden steamships, schooners, workboats, barges, and even a possibly Revolutionary War longboat were left to rot away.

But their demise has been slow and transformative. Remains of wooden hulls rise above the waterline and have been reclaimed by nature. Sediment has filled the voids, and many of the wrecks have become unique ship-shaped islands, complete with trees, shrubs, and wildlife.

Fans of Mallows Bay, including the nonprofit National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation, added the site to the Potomac River clean-up for the first time this year in order remove trash along the shoreline and near some of the wrecks.

Advocates also hope to spread interest in Mallows Bay itself. The site’s historic and ecological values make it a potential candidate for the National Marine Sanctuaries Program, managed by the U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

During the clean-up, experts on the history, archaeology, and ecology of Mallows Bay will work beside volunteers on land and water while sharing their knowledge of the site.

“Helping the river and Bay is top priority,” said Sammy Orlando of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. “But we also want people to explore the story of this really cool place, learn about its national significance, take a look at the ecosystem, and see why people are excited about it.”

If Mallows Bay were nominated and selected, it would become the first National Marine Sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“It’s an incredible resource that very few people know about,” Orlando said.

The April 5 clean-up at Mallows Bay runs from 8:30 a.m. to noon. Volunteers can work on land and view the Ghost Fleet from shore, or bring their own paddle craft and help clean areas that are most accessible by water. The event is recommended for ages 12 and up. It is not suitable for children under seven or the disabled.

For more information, visit the web site for the Potomac River Watershed Clean-Up at or call 202-973-8203. To sign up as a volunteer at Mallows Bay, send an email to

About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors enjoyment of the Chesapeake region. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Lara Lutz


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Tom Fellowes on April 02, 2014:

Nice story Lara! I've heard about ship graveyards in the area, but never Mallows Bay.

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