When I was girl, I played in a strip mine, a place I walk in my dreams to this day. It was a small mountain of industrial waste, but I didn’t see it that way.
The crumbling heap of coal spoil rose like a steep wall across the road from my great grandparents’ cabin in western Maryland. On one side, an access path curved up to the top under a shady arch of trees. My cousins and I would race up the path with the sounds of a nearby creek growing muted as we climbed. We were warned off the steep roadside face of the slag pile, and we vowed to avoid the big pit of orange water that filled a dangerous ravine at the back edge of the mine. Otherwise, we were free to roam.
This was no flat, dead plateau. On the crest of the mine, nature was creeping back. Small trees and scrubby grasses were clutching at the coal waste. In truth, it was a desperate grasp for life in a place where nothing truly lush would ever grow again. But there was magic in the effort. Random mounds made a maze of places to explore, with paths cut between them where kids and rabbits and birds scrambled through the brush and brambles together. But instead of soil, blackened slate rubble passed under our feet. It was a strange landscape shaped by industrial forces on a rural road to nowhere, polluted and abandoned, but oddly beautiful and undeniably fun.
I took a mental trip through my strip mine earlier this month while visiting another Maryland place where industry (and government too) created a pile of waste and walked away. In a similar twist, nature has pushed back and people are enthralled.
It’s been called the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay — a romantic name for hundreds of shipwrecks clustered along the Potomac River about 30 miles south of Washington, DC. Its origins are anything but romantic. At least 152 of the vessels are wooden steamships, part of a fleet built to cross the Atlantic during World War I. The war was over before most of them were built. And their wooden hulls were almost obsolete from the moment the project began.
Most of the ships wallowed in the James River until the government managed to sell them to the Western Marine & Salvage Company — which, ironically, aimed to strip the mostly wooden ships for metal components. The ships were moved to the Potomac at Widewater, Virginia. In 1925, they were dragged across the river to Mallows Bay.
Western Marine was the first of two companies to leave the job unfinished. It went bankrupt and left the ships where they lay. Bethlehem Steel tried again two decades later, but gave up when the profits were low. They left the ships behind, too.
And so the rotting hulls of Mallows Bay took on new life, in ways that were never intended. During low tide, they rise above the water, now joined by the hulks of schooners, workboats, barges, and what may be a longboat from the Revolutionary War. Some are skeletal; others have chunks and large sections surprisingly intact. Mallows Bay groupies can name them and tell their stories.
Over time, the wrecks and the local ecosystem have developed a happy relationship. Sediment on the river bottom invades and fills the wooden frames. Some are topped with trees and shrubs where herons, eagles, and other shoreline birds have an undisturbed retreat. A few look like islands that are simply shaped like ships. Fish love the sheltered nooks beneath the water.
Although the water is thick with debris, paddlers and anglers have sought out this site for years. It’s not well known — Mallows Bay is at the end of several rural roads and until recently had no convenient public access. For some, I imagine, the isolation was half the adventure. And as one fisherman told me, if you snag your line in Mallows Bay, at least it’s fun to see what you’ve snagged on.
Mallows Bay Park, part of the Charles County park system, opened in 2010. There’s a ramp for small boats and paddle craft. From here you can easily paddle around a spit of land to explore the ship graveyard yourself. Word is spreading. An April clean-up drew more than fifty volunteers. And some Ghost Fleet enthusiasts hope the site will be nominated as a National Marine Sanctuary — quite a coup for a site that was not only a maritime scrap yard, but an abandoned scrap yard at that.
It’s a little disturbing that the failure of corporate responsibility (and incredibly flawed government planning) can spawn a place so fascinating and lovely. Yet places like Mallows Bay, and the bizarre corridors of my western Maryland strip mine, couldn’t have been planned. They couldn’t grow on land or waters protected from human use. They evolve from strange circumstances, and sometimes we like the results.