The Mallow's Bay Ghost Fleet: A Specter of Bad Decisions?
Updated: Oct 14
It’s surprising how unrestricted Mallows Bay is to explore, once you set out onto the calm, shallow water. The most prominent of the World War I era shipwrecks at Mallow’s are easily visible, even at high tide. On most days, the iron struts provide plenty of purchase to ground your boat temporarily to study the forms and reflections of these quickly constructed wooden naval vessels. As long as you don’t mind a few scuffs in your own high density polyethylene hull. Aside from the most cautious of paddlers, I imagine it'd be near impossible to leave Mallows Bay without at least one new scratch or ding. My own hull had scores of them by the end of the morning. Each of them well worth it.
Exploring Mallows Bay does come with a slight risk. It’s not the “take a wrong step and plunge to your death” kind of risk, but the area should be explored with a bit of caution. And you're up to date on your shots. Looking around, aside from the bass and blue catfish, tetanus is likely the most prevalent organism to be found in Mallow’s Bay. It’s also an area I would avoid in a freshly painted wooden hull of your own- or one of those fancy new foldable kayaks.
I climbed out briefly to stand atop the remains of this steamship. Not for any real reason other than to feel like a World War I merchant marine. I don’t feel much like Kate Winslet, to be sure. There’s no titanic presence about the Mallows Bay remains. They remind me mostly of dinosaur skeletons in a watery bone yard. Or those flying spaceships which destroyed New York in The Avengers. Or, one ship in particular, a certain ram meant to breach the walls of Minas Tirith.
There’s no magic iron hammers either. But there are thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of rusting iron struts dotting the entire embayment. Once I set my eyes to scanning the shallow bottom, it wasn’t hard to find a loose piece lying free in the shallow water. “Are these artifacts?” I asked myself, As I gently pulled one from the muck. Did I miss something? Is there no sign saying “keep off” “DANGER” or something similar?
It’s worth pointing out that as a conversationist and explorer of the region, I understand the importance of leaving the landscape as you found it. There's no real reason to decide to climb out onto the almost sunken islands. But on the other hand, there's no real reason not to (again, besides and up to date tetanus shot). If time is any indicator, this is an opportunity that won't be around much longer. The open water of Mallow’s has this unrestricted temptation to explore, and the easily navigable water trail around the bay in fact encourages it. Launching from the kayak ramp, I immediately felt like an amateur archaeologist. It’s a unique offering to be able to explore history in such an open venue, and through such a unique mode of exploration.
I imagine there’s few other places which provide the amount of open access to pieces of maritime history as Mallows Bay. There’s in all honesty a total lack of concern for the ships’ remains. I’d be willing to bet that in another hundred years, there won’t be much to see at all. The consensus here seems to just let nature run its course. I guess this is in part to the relative insignificance of the ships themselves.
The construction of the ships was a gaffe, by most accounts. None of the World War I era wooden steam ships which were scuttled in Mallows ever saw the theater of the Atlantic. In hindsight, many historians would wonder if they were ever suitable for use in the first place. These were outdated wooden ships buiilt to serve the US Navy in the era of steel- built to survive in the Atlantic amidst German U-Boat submarines. Or maybe not survive. I wonder if part of the logic behind building wooden ships in the era of the steel industry was a strategy of attrition.
The ships which never saw use slowly collected barnacles in Potomac shipyards before the decision was eventually made to scuttle and burn the ships in Mallow’s Bay. After salvage operations were finished, the ships were largely forgotten.
And in that, I think what’s most impressive about the park isn’t the history of the vessels themselves, but the history of what’s happened since the vessels were scuttled. The hulls have been reclaimed by the wild, almost indistinguishable in certain areas from natural islands. The ships were burned to the waterline almost 100 years ago now, and in another 100 years I’d be willing to guess that only the iron struts will remain. The wildlife that’s flourished in Mallow’s is a testament to the Earth’s ability to turn lemons into lemonade. Everything that is to be enjoyed about the shoreline is the result of the Chesapeake and Mother Earth stepping in with a salve and forgiving us for our carelessness. Like a dandelion growing from the concrete. Or, really, a lotus from the mud. Mallow’s Bay is a reminder that, like the great Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way”.