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Ghost Ships of Mallows Bay

In September, I ticked off an item off my bucket list. I went on a kayaking tour of the 100-plus sunken ships at Mallows Bay on the Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C. The wooden and steel-hulled ships date from the 18th century through the mid-20th century. Ninety belong to the U.S. Shipping Board’s World War I Emergency Fleet of wooden steamships.

The area is the historic hub of the Mallows Bay-Widewater National Register Historic and Archaeological District and was also recently designated a National Marine Sanctuary as well. The shipwrecks have evolved into island habitats for birds, animals and fish. On our tour, we saw a mother bald eagle and her “teenager” flying overhead as well as dozens of cormorants.

We headed out to explore the bay and another small bay called Burning Bay at around nine a.m. The day was overcast threatening rain and a bit cool, but the paddling was easy. Charles County, MD, contracts with the Atlantic Kayak Company to provide the tours in two-person kayaks. Bless them because they also had equipment which held the boats steady and out of the water while we got in and out. This can be a challenge sometimes.

The most impressive wreck is easily seen and most of it is above water. It was called the Accomac and had serviced the ferry route between Cape Charles and Norfolk, VA, until it suffered a fire and was permanently taken out of commission. About 1973, it was hauled to Mallows Bay and abandoned.

Many of the wrecks were built for the U.S. Emergency Fleet between 1917-1918 as part of America’s participation in World War I. The ships were built quickly and poorly, using obsolete technology and were obsolete by the end of the war. They were brought to Mallows Bay to be burned. Bethlehem Steel later built a salvage basin during World War II to recover metal for the war.


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