Don Shomette was about 10 years old in when he first encountered the “ghost fleet” of Mallows Bay.
He was aboard a jon boat with his father and brother, coming down the Potomac River from a shoreline campsite in the mid-1950s. It was a gray morning. The water was churning and visibility was poor. On the river, they met an old waterman setting out crab pots who asked if they were trying to find the ghost fleet.
“I’ll never forget it,” Shomette said. “The fog was so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Then this big brown bow comes rising out of the mist right in front of us.”
The big wooden vessel was one among hundreds of ships whose remains still rest in the relatively shallow waters of Mallows Bay, on the Maryland shore of the river about 30 miles south of Washington, DC.
Most are historic wooden steamships created for service in World War I, but many others lie among them — including schooners, workboats, barges, and what may be a longboat from the Revolutionary War.
The impression it made on young Shomette has lasted a lifetime, spurring him to research, paddle and promote the site to historians, archaeologists and outdoor enthusiasts.
“There’s still a sense of discovery here,” Shomette said.
Shomette is part of a team whose efforts may establish a national marine sanctuary at Mallows Bay. If they succeed, Mallows Bay would be the first national marine sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay region and earn a place among the 13 sanctuaries that exist nationwide.
National marine sanctuaries protect marine areas of special national significance. They are valued for their ecosystems, cultural assets — typically shipwrecks — or both. Conservation is an important goal, but sanctuaries may still include recreational uses like boating and fishing and provide educational programs for visitors.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration manages the program. This summer, NOAA began accepting new sanctuary nominations for the first time in 20 years. Advocates for Mallows Bay plan to submit their nomination in September.
Tom Roland, chief of Parks and Grounds for Charles County, where Mallows Bay is located, said that sanctuary status would boost tourism.
“Mallows Bay is still sort of a hidden jewel in this region,” Roland said. “There are a tremendous amount of ecotourism opportunities here and we think having national recognition will help us expand them.”
Along with representatives from Charles County government, the committee includes the Chesapeake Conservancy, Alice Ferguson Foundation, Maryland BASS Federation, Nanjemoy-Potomac Environmental Coalition, Naval Air Station Patuxent River, and the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Sub-Tribes. Maryland state agencies on the committee include the Historical Trust, Office of Tourism Development and Department of Natural Resources.
According to Roland, approximately 25 community groups have endorsed the nomination.
“People are reaching out to become a part of this effort,” Roland said.
Advocates hope that the variety of natural and cultural resources at Mallows Bay will make their nomination a strong one.
The bay is located in rural Southern Maryland, nested at the end of long roads lined by fields and forests. The land directly adjacent to Mallows Bay includes a county park with hiking trails, picnic areas and a launch for small boats and paddle craft.
The shoreline is undeveloped and the expanse of water across the Potomac is broad and often windy. Near shore is a calm inlet formed by the remains of an engineered basin that is buffered from the river by a strip of land, and a placid creek where herons swoop down and stroll through the marsh.
Though the setting is pretty, and the wildlife interesting, the ships are the focal point of Mallows Bay. It has been called the largest collection of wrecks in the Western Hemisphere. More than 100 of the vessels are wooden steamships, part of a fleet built to cross the Atlantic during World War I
It was a pivotal point in U.S. maritime history. Until then, the United States was not focused on shipbuilding, but the war created an urgent need.
“The idea was to build 1,000 ships in 18 months and we put one million men to work,” Shomette said. “We had to create schools, build shipyards, expand the timber industry and prepare the railroad.”
The result was the start of the U.S. Merchant Marine and the rise of the United States as an important shipbuilding nation. But this early effort was a huge undertaking, and the war was over before most of the ships were built. There wasn’t much use for them, because coal-burning ships with wooden hulls were quickly becoming obsolete.
Most of the ships wallowed in the James River until the government sold them to the Western Marine & Salvage Company, which planned to strip the ships of their metal components. The company moved the ships to the Potomac River at Widewater, VA. In 1925, they were dragged across the river to Mallows Bay.
When Western Marine went bankrupt, the company left the ships where they lay. Bethlehem Steel took on the job, but the profits were low and the ships were left behind again.
“We have seven of the eight types of steamships built in America for World War I right here, the largest representation of American maritime history in one place,” Shomette said. “And there’s still enough left to learn from them.”
The steamships keep company with other vessels left at Mallows Bay, and for years they lay above the water in such a dense group that Shomette said you could simply walk from deck to deck.
But time and weather have taken a toll. Today, the hulk of the Accomack Ferry still looms over the water — crowned with osprey nests— a striking sight from the boat launch at Mallows Bay Park. Others lie around a curve in the shoreline, mostly or partially submerged, with ragged planks on their bows and thick wooden ribs jutting from the water.
Some wrecks have become outlines of hulls that emerge only during low tide. Others have filled with sediment, and trees have taken root to make small islands in the shape of ships.
“We call those the flower pots,” Shomette said.
On one, the birds called loudly from among its tall cedars and hardwoods and the dense cover provided by its understory of shrubs and saplings. The V-shape of its prow was still quite visible.
Paddling at Mallows Bay is tricky but fascinating. Moving slowly, canoes and kayaks can navigate the shallow waters and layers of woody debris among the wrecks. The river bottom is often thick with underwater vegetation and provides a good deal of protected habitat for fish.
Shomette’s canoe shows the wear and tear from his paddles here. “This canoe has been all over the place, but every one of these scratches is from Mallows Bay,” he said.
Shomette doesn’t seem to mind, and the paddlers who increasingly make the drive to this rural section of Southern Maryland usually find it worth the trip.
As a national marine sanctuary, Mallows Bay might secure the resources to mark the wrecks with signs or produce a water trail map that helps people understand what they see.
A sanctuary designation could also provide staff to protect the wrecks from vandalism or relic-hunting — the ships are owned by the state of Maryland. Climbing is prohibited and dangerous.
The shoreline along Mallows Bay has history, too. It was once the site of a shad and herring operation, and was host to the much earlier and much longer presence of American Indians.
Mervin Savoy is tribal chair of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and a member of the sanctuary nominating committee for Mallows Bay. Savoy supports the nomination, in part because preservation and interpretation of the surrounding land could help honor the heritage of the Piscataway people.
Savoy said that the Piscataway have become mostly associated with the site of Moyaone farther upriver near Mount Vernon. But there were scores of Piscataway villages spread through a much larger area.
“Mallows Bay, before it got the English name, was always an important village site for the Piscataway people,” Savoy said.
Savoy said a sanctuary at Mallows Bay would protect the land where the Piscataway lived and create more opportunities to tell their story. “It’s very important to us that the history of the area becomes known as more than just a ship graveyard,” Savory said. “It’s been important for 10,000 years, not just for World War I battleships.”
Once NOAA receives the sanctuary nomination, the agency will review the characteristics of the site and its potential for conservation. If accepted, the nomination is offered for public comment. The full process usually takes three to five years.
A sanctuary at Mallows Bay would likely attract many partners, given that the national marine sanctuary program is administered by a federal agency; Mallows Bay lies in state waters, with state-owned shipwrecks; and a county park provides the primary access.
Sammy Orlando, of NOAA’s national marine sanctuary program, said that citizen input would be a critical part of the process. National marine sanctuaries are designed to be a “bottom-up” process, driven and defined by community needs and interests.
“No two sanctuaries are alike,” Orlando said. “They are always about the protection of resources but also facilitating uses that are compatible with that mandate. From there, they can take any number of paths — and they do.”
Most important is the opportunity to draw attention and resources to special marine environments. “With a federal designation, you have a catalyst for a lot of things — stewardship, education, tourism and the economy,” Orlando said.
Charlie Stek, chair of the Mallows Bay nominating committee, is eager to see this happen for Mallows Bay. Engaging citizens with a sense of adventure often encourages a sense of stewardship from which the entire region benefits.
“Any time you can bring additional support to this area to advance conservation, education and research efforts, that’s part of the overall effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay,” Stek said.