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Guest Host: Dan Reed
If you look at a satellite image of the Potomac River, about 30 miles south of Washington you’ll see a curve in the river, packed with dozens of identical oblong shapes. At low tide, they emerge eerily from the water — a “ghost fleet” of wooden steamships dating back to World War I. It’s called Mallows Bay, and it’s one of the largest collections of shipwrecks in the world.
WAMU’s Jacob Fenston and Tyrone Turner visited Mallows Bay, by canoe and kayak, to document the unusual waterscape the shipwrecks have created. They join the Kojo Show to discuss their reporting.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Jacob Fenston Environment Reporter, WAMU; @JacobFenston
- Tyrone Turner Visuals Editor, WAMU
- Donald G. Shomette Marine Archaeologist; Author, "Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay"
Jacob and Tyrone's Reporting
If you look at a satellite image of the Potomac River, about 30 miles south of Washington you'll see a curve in the river, packed with dozens of identical oblong shapes. At low tide, they emerge eerily from the water - a "ghost fleet" of wooden steamships dating back to World War I.
DAN REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo Nnamdi. One of the largest collections of shipwrecks in the world rests about 30 miles south of Washington in a place called Mallows Bay. At low tide, the wooden steamships, which date back to World War I, emerge eerily from the water. The Ghost Fleet has now received federal protection as a part of a new National Marine Sanctuary. But how did these ships end up the Potomac in the first place? Joining us to discuss this today are Jacob Fenston, WAMU's environment reporter. Thanks for being here.
JACOB FENSTONThanks, Dan. Good to be here.
REEDTyrone Turner, the Visuals Editor for WAMU. Thanks for being here.
TYRONE TURNERThank you.
REEDAnd Donald Shomette, a marine archeologist and author of “The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.” Thanks for being here.
DONALD G. SHOMETTEThank you.
REEDJacob, for someone who's never been, how would you describe the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay?
FENSTONWell, I would say if you have a digital device in your hand, you should go to Google Maps and scroll down the Potomac River, I actually printed it out here. Because it's really amazing, if you look at a satellite map of it, you can see all of the shipwreck halls crammed together like sardines in this little cove. And it's really striking. And you can see, sort of along the shore, there's a bunch of them that are pushed up against the beach, with plants growing out of them. It's just an amazing and weird place that you kind of have to look at photos or visit to get a sense of. But there are close to a hundred shipwrecks there. As you said, it's just 30 miles from D.C., about an hour's drive.
REEDWhat inspired you to report on this story?
FENSTONWell, I got a press release about it from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation over the summer. And it is about this marine sanctuary happening. I had never heard of it. I have lived for, you know, about 10 years. And I, you know, Googled it. And then when I saw images of it, I was just, wow, this is incredible. I can't believe it's so close to D.C., and I have to go. As I told Tyrone about it, and he was immediately onboard, too.
REEDHow did you all reach these ships, in the first place?
FENSTONWell, I spent a while on Craigslist looking for a secondhand canoe. And then we found a coworker here, Chris Tylac, who had a canoe, and he was kind of enough to lend it to us. We drove down there on August 6th, and we found a date where the low tide coincided with sunset and sunrise so we could have really good light for photography, and the low tide, so the shipwrecks would be fully out of the water, and, you know, most visible. So, we drove down there, got the canoe out on the water. I also met a guy in a kayak who gave me a little bit of a tour. But, yeah, we paddled around and had a really fun time.
REEDJacob and Tyrone have put together this amazing visual project about Mallows Bay, which you can find, along with a guide on what you need to know if you visit, at kojoshow.org. Tyrone, you're the Visuals Editor at WAMU. And the visuals that go along with this project are just absolutely stunning. What were you hoping to convey in these photographs?
TURNERI think when I first saw the aerial photographs or the Google Maps stuff from Jacob, and we were doing some Googling around about the Ghost Fleet, I really had the sense that I wanted to show both the mystery and the majesty of these ships. And it was incredible. So, you know, I really wanted to go during nice light and when you could see them. Or you can see some of them during regular tides. But you really need to go during low tide in order to see a lot more of them. And just really trying to capture that feeling when we were out there in our own canoe.
REEDThere are also aerial shots and underwater video. Why was it important to show the Ghost Fleet from so many different vantage points?
TURNERWell, first, props to photographer Jerry Jackson who captured the aerial drone photography, because it's amazing. But without showing it from above, and also from below the water, you really don't get the scale of the amount of ships, the beauty of it. You really need to see that from above, from below, and from the water level. If you're paddling around, you get this great feel. But there's just so many more angles that you can see it from.
REEDJacob, what kind of wildlife did you see around Mallows Bay?
FENSTONMy first, the first thing we saw when we got there -- well, you can see the biggest, sort of most visible shipwreck is the Accomac. It's this steel-hulled ship. So, that's kind of the first thing you see when you drive up. And then the second thing I remember seeing was a bald eagle flying, you know, nesting right there. So, we saw a number of bald eagles. I don't think I've ever seen as many osprey in my life. They are nesting all over these ships. Cormorants all over the place. So, we saw a lot of different birds, which was really interesting. Tyrone has the best photograph, the best shot of an osprey I think I've ever seen. It has a big, old catfish in its talons. So, we saw a lot of birds. If you like birds, this would be a great place to go.
FENSTONAnd, supposedly, there's some beaver living on some of the shipwrecks, which we did not see. Apparently, it's a great place to go fishing. I don't know. We didn't do any fishing. But, yeah, it's really -- one person I talked to, Joel Dunn, who works for the Chesapeake Conservancy, said that the boats are sort of like, have become, like, reefs. They provide habitat and structure for animals and, you know, underwater creatures that isn't super-common within the Chesapeake Watershed. So, it's become this sort of unique, natural place.
REEDDonald Shomette, you are a marine archeologist and the author of “The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.” Can you tell us about the first time you saw the Ghost Fleet and what your reaction was?
SHOMETTEWow. When I was just a kid, 1958, my father brought me and my brother down on a camping trip in a little johnboat. We left from Mattawoman and went down the river. And, one August night, we camped on a decaying wharf and told ghost stories, of course. And we didn't know where we were going. My father knew, but I didn't. And, the next morning, it was all foggy. It was all mysterious. It was really -- you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, but we shoved off, anyway. And the first thing we did was run into a waterman, laying out his nets. And he says, you boys going to go see the Ghost Fleet? And, five minutes later, we bumped right into the very distinct protrusion above the water, which was the stern of one of the ships.
SHOMETTEAnd I came back years later when I was an undergraduate, and I produced a film. I was taking a program in cinematography. Then I came back some years after that to do a photoshoot, and ended up doing about 15 years’ worth of archeology there.
REEDYou spent the past 35 years surveying those wrecks and digging into the story of how these ships came to rest at the bottom of the Potomac. How does that story begin?
SHOMETTEWell, it begins way back in prehistoric times, because the area has been occupied by Native Americans for about 8,000 years. It goes all the way up through to today. I mean, there's a great history there of everything. The first land-sea engagements of the Civil War, the attempted flight in 1903 of Professor Langley, the Smithsonian, from an ersatz aircraft carrier. All types of things happened there. But the big thing that happened there was the deposition of the largest wooden ships ever built in the history of the world. 218 of them were brought there at -- well, in 1920s, early 1920s. And they were the product of the greatest shipbuilding effort in American history up to that time.
SHOMETTEWhen we entered World War I, we were kind of a third-rate nation, isolationists, looking inward, had no Merchant Marine to speak of. Had very little to do with the rest of the world. And when we entered the war, at that time, the Germans were sinking one out of every two ships that left the British or French port. And we asked our allies, we said, well, what can we do? We haven't got an army. We got 16,000 men. And they said, just send us ships, ships and more ships. So, we set out to build a thousand ships in 18 months, wooden steamships, and also hundreds and hundreds of steel ships, as well, to get our troops and to get supplies to Europe. And despite the political chicanery, despite infighting, despite all types of problems, we became the greatest ship-building nation in the history of the world within that period.
SHOMETTEWe ended up, on one day, on July 4, 1918, launched 95 ships in one day, as well as six destroyers. And we had stripped Great Britain -- which owned 46 percent of all of the ships in the world. So, at the end of the war, time marched on. The ships were obsolete. They had been an experiment, in the first place. And there was no markets. There was no commercial markets in the world. Everything had dried up because of the war.
REEDSo, how did they end up in Mallows Bay?
SHOMETTEWell, they were sold at auction to a firm of California attorneys called Western Marine and Salvage, to be salvaged for what metal was in them. And it became the greatest ship-salvage project in the history of the world, carried out partly at Alexandria. And then the ships were brought back down to hulls. And what wasn't salvaged was anchored across from what is now Mallows. And they had a big ship fire, by accident. And the waterman said, get them out of our area, and move them across the bay. And they did. And they moved them to Mallows Bay. And there they lay, after the onset of the Depression. They came the subject of Wildcat Salvers, who fought each other with guns. That's my ship, get off of my ship. And they were interesting things there. There were floating brothels.
SHOMETTEThere was 26 stills that moved around from time to time. And the consequence was that when World War II arrived, there was only about a hundred vessels. And, well 150. And the Army, or the federal government authorized the salvage of some of the metal, because we needed the metal. Bethlehem Steel came in and did it on an industrial scale. They built a giant burning basin, which was unique of its time. And they would float in ships, close the gates, pump the water off, and burn them down dry. And then they gave up on that, after a while. And the war ended, and there they sat. And they have become islands. They have become their own mini-ecosystems. And Jacob was talking about the ships close to shore with trees growing out of them. We call them the flower pot wrecks, because they've got their own ecosystems. Beaver River Rotter, sometimes deer living on board, some of them are rookeries. It's a pretty unique and beautiful place.
REEDWe'll have to continue our conversation after a short break. Please stay tuned.
REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking about the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay. We've got some tweets in. Elizabeth says: the Woodrow Wilson House here in D.C. has an awesome exhibit on the Ghost Fleet at Mallows Bay. Go see the show before it closes. Jess says: I just wrote a book on D.C. Weekend Getaways, and Mallows Bay was definitely one of the coolest places I discovered in a year of research. I think you can see some of the ships on certain flight paths into D.C., as well. And Richard called in to ask: is there any way to see the Ghost Fleet other than in a canoe? A charter or a group excursion, perhaps? And what are the options for those of us who can't navigate the trip on our own? Jacob Fenston, you took a canoe out to Mallows Bay for your reporting for WAMU. How else can you see them?
FENSTONYeah, there are a lot of group tours. So, I interviewed a woman who owns the company called Atlantic Kayak. And they do regular tours in the warmer months. Some of them are sponsored by Charles County, Maryland, which is where the shipwrecks are actually located. So, there are lot of options, once the weather warms up there. I know REI also does tours. So, actually, I wrote a little story. Today, which if you look at our website, you can find a little bit more detail about this, WAMU.org. But, yeah, there's definitely guided tours, group tours, if you don't have your own boat. It is a little bit harder to see. I think you can see some of them from the shore.
SHOMETTEYeah. You can see a number of the ships from the shore. There is a walking tour, walking paths around the park area. Which, by the way, was a Civil War base, where 5,000 Union troops were based. But you can take the walking tour, and it takes you down by the Burning Basin, and it takes you down to Liverpool Cove. One of the ships is actually right up against the shore, Liverpool Cove. In the Burning Basin, there are a number of shipwrecks. Two of them are the World War I ships. One is one of the barges that was used to salvage them. And one is an old Coast Guard boat that was sold and to become a sea scout boat back in the '30s or '40s. And there's obviously observation posts. There's a telescope you can look at around and see some of them from the shore.
REEDDonald, we mentioned one of the most prominent wrecks in Mallows Bay, which, in fact, is not from World War I.
REEDIt's newer. Could you tell us about the Accomac.
SHOMETTEYeah. The Accomac is a steel vessel. You can get an idea of the size of the wooden vessels, because she's very close to the size of the wooden vessels. But she was built right after the war. And she was a passenger ferry used in Galveston. Used up in Buzzard's Bay off of Cape Cod. And then brought to the Chesapeake. She's had several different names. One of her names was Virginia, Lady Virginia. She was the last Kiptopeke Ferry before they put in the Bridge Tunnel. And she was brought to Mallows about 1973 and partially scrapped. But she's just one of the unique vessels that we have there. She served time in World War II, carrying strategic materials from South America. I've seen eight generations of osprey have grown up on one end of her, which is rather unique.
SHOMETTEAnd she sits very close to a Four-Masted Schooner, which you can only see in extremely low water, which was one of the last four-masted schooners built in Maine.
REEDJacob, for many decades Mallows Bay was, effectively, a junkyard. But how did it go to becoming a Marine Sanctuary?
FENSTONThat's an interesting story, and one that Donald also played a part in. But I think, for a long time, it was forgotten. It was just this sort of dumping ground that, you know, the ships were left there. And then they were forgotten. There's this very interesting photo, which is actually in Donald's book, but it was the photo from the Washington Star in February 1948. And it shows a bunch of, it shows the shipwreck sort of stuck in the ice. And the caption explains that the newspaper photographer had been in a flight over the river to take pictures of these icebreakers. And he noticed this and had no idea what it was. He took a picture, then called around to officials, local officials. And nobody could tell him what it was, nobody knew.
FENSTONAnd then the caption says: it's an infrequently seen reminder of the waste of war. Which is just amazing to me that it was like, no, they're just there. It's just, you know, it's just, you know, the wreckage of war. And we don't know what it is. So, I think that kind of speaks to how much it was just forgotten for years. And then they were sort of an eye sore, you know, there were various efforts over the decades to get rid of them. In the '60s, there was, I think there was a plan to build a gravel mine there. So, you know, they wanted to get them out so barges could come in. Then there was another plan to build a nuclear power plant there. Again, they wanted to get them out so that they could, you know, bring in the equipment to build that.
FENSTONSo over the years there were efforts to sort of, quote-unquote, “clean up” the cove there. They didn't happen, for various reasons. And then, you know, they started sprouting trees. They started hosting all this wildlife. And there have been various local groups and nonprofits who've been, in the recent years, to get NOAH designated as a National Marine Sanctuary.
REEDTyrone, tell us a little bit about the biodiversity of Mallows Bay. When you and Jacob took your kayak out in the water, what did you see?
TURNERWell, like Jacob said before, you know, we got out there, and bald eagles were there, and osprey carrying fish. And there was just a number of nests and gulls and all kinds of bird wildlife. And you see fish jumping. You see other things. It's just really a rich, rich environment to paddle around in. And if you just sit still there, it'll really kind of envelope you, and you can kind of pick out instead of, you know, if you're paddling around, you might not here everything that's happening. So, it's really worth it just to go out there and just sit still for a little while.
REEDJacob, a federal agency introduced hydrilla to clean up the Mallows Bay area. What exactly is hydrilla? And what role does it play?
FENSTONYeah, hydrilla is an interesting phenomenon, and sort of controversial. But, yeah, it's an invasive species that was, it came here from South East Asia. It's, like, an aquarium plant. You know, it'll look familiar from a journey to the pet store. But if you look at the aerial photos of Mallows Bay, it's like, especially in the summer, it's just this matt of green. It can make it hard to get around. Like when we were paddling around at low tide there's areas you can't get to because of the hydrilla is just clogging it. But it's also been found to have been associated with the return of water fowl. And so it's something that some birds eat, and also it provides habitat for some like clams and things that the birds will eat. So, it's actually has sort of helped the resurgence of wildlife, in a way.
FENSTONBut it's also not native, and, you know, potentially could crowd out other submerged aquatic vegetation. But, yeah, I found a story in the Washington Post from the '80s, when it was first appearing and people were very concerned about it. There was this big problem. But, in a way, it sort of has played a role in the ecosystem that the native grasses, you know, which died off because of pollution, haven't been able to play. So, it has had a role, and it's kind of beautiful too in the photographs.
REEDSo, Mallows Bay is one of only 14 National Marine Sanctuaries in the country. What does that designation mean?
FENSTONI mean, it's sort of like -- or people say it's like a national park, underwater. So it's, some of it is like prestige and recognition. So, people around the country will hear about it and know about it, and come to visit. There are in other National Marine Sanctuaries there are Visitor Centers. There's like a much more of sort of an organized experience for people who come to visit. Right now, it's kind of, like, you can go. They have these nice maps, that are waterproof, that you can get. But it's not like, you kind of have to figure it out on your own a little bit. So, I think the marine sanctuary designation will bring together the various, you know, government agencies and other groups involved and potentially lead to some, there's been talk of a visitor's center. So, I think a lot of it is just about the recognition.
SHOMETTELet me just add that it is actually a joint partnership with the State of Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Historical Trust, and NOAA. And there will be a community participation, in terms of advisory group. So, unlike a lot of the other marine sanctuaries, it's kind of a partnership.
REEDI have here an announcement that the dedication of the Mallows Bay Sanctuary will take place this Saturday, the 9th. And the ceremony is open to the public. You can find more information at WAMU.org. We've also got a call from Charlie. Charlie, you're on the air.
CHARLIEHi. I have a canoe, and I'd be interested in touring Mallows Bay. And I'm looking at a map of, actually, an atlas of Virginia. But I'm wondering where the best place to put into the river is?
FENSTONWell, there's a boat ramp right there at Mallows Bay and Charles County. So, if you can find that on the map. There's also -- I was looking at a map this morning. So, Wide Water State Park, which is in new Virginia State Park, is across the river. You can paddle, it's like five miles or so I think. But you could paddle across the river for a little bit more of an adventure. Small Wood State Park is where we camped when we went. And that is a few miles up the river on the Maryland side. And there's a boat ramp there, as well. So, I think you can find a few different options for sort of creating your own adventure to get there. But there is a boat ramp right there, if you want.
SHOMETTEIt's a canoeing kayak launch specifically. Plus, a small boat launch ramp there. It's free, too.
REEDIt's always fun when it's free. Donald, you're very much a historian on all things local. I'm wondering if you could tell us about your next book.
SHOMETTEOh, actually, it's just coming out. It's called “The Anaconda's Tail: The Civil War on the Potomac Frontier.” And it's a story that has never been told. Nobody has ever focused on it, because there were no huge battles. There was one, when the Confederates attempted to take Washington and free 20,000 prisoners at Point Lookout. But that's coming out very soon, next week.
REEDIf I'm not mistaken, you also made a short film about Mallows Bay when you were in school.
SHOMETTEYeah, I did. Actually, we've done quite a bit of filming down there with different newsgroups, as well. And Maryland Public Television came down there. We've had quite a bit of filming down there. Which is good, because this is an evolving place. This is mother nature reasserting herself, and that is one of the most unique environmental things that's happening there.
REEDIs there anything that you all would want listeners to know about Mallows Bay that we haven't covered, or that they might want to look out for when they go to visit?
FENSTONYeah. I mean, I think the history, sort of knowing about the history of it really made it more of a rich experience for me. Then I learned more about the history after we went. But I think, you know, if you want to look at the story I wrote, and some of Terrance's photos. Or, you know, buy the book, which I've got right here, that Donald wrote. It's got amazing detail and all sorts of anecdotes. So, I think sort of reading up on it a little bit before you go will really make it way more interesting. And seeing what these ships looks like, like, you know, we have some of those archival photos on our story. But seeing what they look like when they were being launched. I mean, all this, you know, fanfare really made me the experience that much more interesting for me.
REEDWe've got a call from E.W. E.W., are you there?
E.W.Yes. How you doing today?
REEDWell. How are you?
E.W.Good. I just wanted to say that I believe I've been there. And it's right near that Nanjemoy area, of Nanjemoy, Maryland. A very refreshing area. It looks good. A lot of wildlife and it inspires me to hear this show to go back down and check it out.
REEDAwesome, thank you for calling. Any parting thoughts?
SHOMETTEJust come on down on the 9th , 9:30 in the morning 'till 11:00. And there's going to be some kayaks there that are not being charged to use. You can go out and take a look yourself.
FENSTONI was also going to jump in here and say, the song which you heard during the break earlier was called “Launch the Lifeboats.” I found it on the Library of Congress website, the sheet music. And it is from the day which Donald alluded to when 94, 95 of these wooden steamships were launched, 4th July 1918. And it was this, you know, a big day of ship launching. They wrote a song about it. And I got a Kojo Nnamdi producer to record the piano music, a former coworker to sing it. And I thought it was pretty fun to hear that.
REEDAwesome. Jacob Fenston is WAMU's environment reporter. Thanks for being here.
REEDTyrone Turner is the Visuals Editor for WAMU. Thanks for being here.
REEDAnd Donald Shomette is a Marine Archeologist and author of “The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.” Thank you for being here.
REEDThis segment about Mallows Bay was produced by Julie Depenbroch, and our conversation about TPS was produced by Margaret Barthel. Coming up tomorrow, a new report calls for reforms to the District's criminal justice system that pivots away from incarceration. And we'll have a candid look at the lack of diversity in the region's medical marijuana industry. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo.
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