Shipwrecks in Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary
Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The Shipwrecks of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary

an old war-time poster encouraging ship building
Image courtesy of Library of Congress

The sanctuary boasts a diverse collection of historic shipwrecks dating back to the Revolutionary War, but is most renowned for the remains of over 100 wooden steamships known as the Ghost Fleet. The ships were built for the U.S. Emergency Fleet between 1917-1919 as part of America’s engagement in World War I. Their construction at more than 40 shipyards in 17 states reflected a massive wartime effort that drove the expansion and economic development of communities and related maritime services. Although nearly 300 ships were built, the war ended before the fleet was complete. Some of them carried cargo to Hawai‘i and elsewhere, but none made it to the theater of war.

Merchant Mariners

black and white photo of a ship launch
Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Ship building during World War I brought about the formalization of merchant mariners. Although merchant mariners already existed in the United States, the building, operation, and maintenance of hundreds of new vessels meant that significantly more skilled mariners were needed.

After the War

black and white aerial photo of mallows bay ghost fleet
Image courtesy of National Archives

The war ended before the ships could be used and many of them were scuttled to the Potomac River for the purpose of salvaging scrap metal such as engines, steam boilers, and propellers. The Ghost Fleet was partially dismantled through three separate shipbreaking and metal salvage periods from the 1920s through the 1940s.

Western Marine and Salvage Corporation bought most of the ships and kept them in the Potomac River near Mallows Bay. They would take a few at a time to Alexandria to break them down for scrap metal. Those remaining in the Potomac would occasionally catch fire, break loose, and become hazards to navigation, so the company was ordered to corral them and they burnt a large number of them to the waterline before floating them into Mallows Bay. Western Marine and Salvage Company went bankrupt during the Depression era, which opened the door for local communities on both sides of the river to salvage the ship remains and derive needed income.

At the start of World War II, Baltimore’s Bethlehem Steel initiated the third and final shipbreaking period, lasting only two years. About 100 of the ships remain in the sanctuary today.

Ships as Valuable Habitats

An osprey perched on a shipwreck
Photo: David J. Ruck/NOAA

Nearly a century of natural processes have gradually transformed these ships into ecologically valuable habitats. The overgrown wrecks now form a series of distinctive islands, intertidal habitat, and underwater structure critical to fish, beavers, and birds such as ospreys, blue herons, and bald eagles. Although the sanctuary does not manage or regulate these natural resources, the unique blending of history and ecology attracts and captivates visitors.