Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River’s Ghost Fleet
Let’s start with the Chesapeake Bay’s Ghost Fleet on the Virginia side of the Bay. Origins WWII ships, known as the concrete fleet.
A few hundred feet from the beach at Kiptopeke State Park, nine concrete ships rest end-to-end, decaying under decades of seabird guano. A slew of these birds perch atop the ships now, some clinging to rusty rebar, some sitting in trees growing out of deep cracks in the concrete.
Originally commissioned during WWII, all nine of these ships were used as transport and training vessels in the South Pacific theater. Although concrete seems a strange material to build ships with, it was cheap and abundant when steel was expensive and scare during wartime. When WWII ended, the ships returned to the U.S., and in 1948 were ordered to Virginia where they were partially sunk to act as a breakwater for the increasingly busy Cape Charles ferry terminal.
When the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed in 1964, the ferry service ceased, but the ghost fleet stayed on as a breakwater for the beach, and as a haven for marine life.
Today the ships provide a unique backdrop to the swimming beach, and as a popular fishing spot. Take a walk out on the pier at Kiptopeke close to sunrise and see a dozen or so fishermen in their small boats and kayaks floating in the shadows cast by the concrete hulls.
HOW TO SEE IT:
Kiptopeke State Park is located on Virginia’s eastern shore near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. There is (as of 2020) a $7 per day vehicle fee to visit the park, but I recommend booking a campsite at the park and spending the night so you have plenty of time to catch the early morning and evening light.
You can see the fleet from the fishing pier, but if you want to get up close you’ll need a watercraft of some sort. If you have your own kayak or SUP, park in the main lot next to the pier and put in at the kayak launch just to the right of the boat launch or from the south beach (to the left of the pier).
The park rents kayaks and Stand-Up Paddleboards from the camp store during the summer season. See HERE for 2020 equipment rental rates. They don’t list their exact summer season dates so I would assume Memorial Day to Labor Day. If in doubt, call or email.
Kissing Cousin Maryland’s Potomac Ghost Fleet
Imagine kayaking the tranquil waters of a secluded cove on the lower Potomac, binoculars in hand, in search of bald eagles, great blue herons, and osprey. As you float along, you spot weathered wood and rusted iron jutting out from the water—they look almost like ribs.
You’re looking at some of the approximately 200 shipwrecks of the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac. Located in Mallows Bay near the Maryland town of Nanjemoy, the Ghost Fleet is the largest and most varied collection of historic shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere, spanning over three centuries of American shipbuilding.
Mallows Bay is now the most prominent feature of the new Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, the first national marine sanctuary within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Designated in 2019 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary is the first designated sanctuary in 19 years.
Race to Greatness in World War I
Most of the ships in the Ghost Fleet date back to World War I, when the Wilson administration undertook a rapid shipbuilding program to prepare the United States for war. While World War I began in 1914, the United States did not enter the conflict until April 6, 1917. By that time, German U-Boats were destroying the world’s merchant vessels at the unprecedented rate of more than 200 per month.
Once the United States entered the war, the Wilson administration shifted swiftly into action. On April 16, 1917, the United States Shipping Board created the Emergency Fleet Corporation to ramp up ship production to meet this urgent need.
The Emergency Fleet Corporation created an ambitious plan to hastily construct steel, concrete, and wooden ships to support the war effort. These ships were built in 40 shipyards across 17 states. Wooden steamships were specifically designed to serve as a merchant fleet that could be constructed quickly using the United States’ large timber reserves. But delays and shortages kept the best timber from arriving at shipyards, and many of the shipyards that received contracts were understaffed, underbuilt, and underpaid.
By the end of the war, only 98 of the 734 ships that had been ordered were delivered. Of the 98, only 76 could carry cargo, all were troubled by mechanical failures and construction problems, and none had sailed into a European port. After the war, the Shipping Board appointed a special committee to sell the inactive and incomplete ships. What had cost the U.S. government $300 million to build was sold for scrap for only $750,000.
Western Marine & Salvage Company in Alexandria, Virginia, purchased the majority of the ships for salvage and brought them to the Potomac. The company had determined that they could gain approximately $10,000 worth of scrap from each ship—but deciding what to do with the ships’ wooden hulls posed a problem. Eventually, the hulls were moved to Mallows Bay to be burned and beached. On November 7, 1925, 31 of the ships were burned. It was the greatest destruction of ships at one time in US history.
By 1931, the Western Marine & Salvage Company had transported 169 hulls into Mallows Bay, but the Great Depression and a resulting decline in scrap values lead the company to abandon the project. The remaining hulls were left to local scavengers to attempt to salvage whatever materials could be found.
When World War II began, attention returned to the Ghost Fleet. In 1942, the Salvage Section of the Metals Reserve Company, a company organized by the federal government, issued a contract to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation to recover any remaining metal from the fleet. Bethlehem Steel worked at the site until 1945 and transported salvaged material to a facility near Baltimore to support the war effort.
After 1945, the Ghost Fleet was largely forgotten until a company named Idamont, Inc., purchased the land and lobbied to remove the remaining hulls in the 1960s. Scandal erupted when it was revealed that Idamont was a straw company for the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) and that they planned to build a power generating station nearby at Sandy Point.
The House Committee on Government Operations, considering for the first time the ecosystem that had developed, declared that the removal of the ships was unnecessary, and the Ghost Fleet has been providing a habitat for plants and animals in Mallows Bay ever since.
The Ghost Fleet of the Potomac is a unique natural habitat, primed for exploration by scientists, tourists, fishermen, and outdoor enthusiasts. The fleet is located just 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., and a boat ramp gives visitors easy access to the fleet and other destinations along the Potomac River.
Charles County, Maryland, manages a day-use area at Mallows Bay Park, and the bay is a site along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. It’s also a premier location for bass fishing and a bird watcher’s paradise. Unique habitats have evolved above and below the waters of the Ghost Fleet, and the fleet’s hulls have become a home for birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and mammals. The Ghost Fleet is the perfect spot for heritage tourism, and it has potential for new archeological discoveries and opportunities for scientific research.
To protect this culturally and historically significant area, the state of Maryland, with the support of Charles County, Maryland, submitted a nomination in 2014 to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to consider Mallows Bay a National Marine Sanctuary. Aside from helping to protect these fragile historic resources, the designation will also create a management plan that includes educational and interpretive strategies designed to encourage sustainable tourism at the sanctuary.
A New Marine Sanctuary
In July 2019, local community partners, national conservation and preservation groups, and recreation and education advocates celebrated the designation of a new national marine sanctuary at Mallows Bay in the Potomac River. It was the first such designation in 19 years.
While the National Trust named the Ghost Fleet a National Treasure in 2017 to reflect its cultural and historical value, local community partners, national conservation and preservation groups, and recreation and education advocates all worked together to achieve this game-changing designation. Now as a marine sanctuary, it will enjoy further recognition and attention that connects the local community and new visitors to this unique place.