Mallow’s Bay– Massive Ship Graveyard near D.C.

Saying the term “ship graveyard” conjures images of jagged reefs, pirates, dense fog, and a ghost or two. But what if I said that I found the largest shipwreck site in the Western Hemisphere and it was actually…pleasant. Nice, even. The name Mallow’s Bay makes the place sounds more like it belongs sandwiched between graham cracker and chocolate and less like the grave of over 230 ships.

Mallow's Bay, July 2015
    Wrecked Ship, Mallow’s Bay, July 2015

Like every other adventure I’ve stumbled into in Southern Maryland (that is, south of D.C., not Bethesda or the Eastern Shore), my SO and I spotted a green spec on GoogleMaps and said, hey, why not check it out? Summertime in Maryland is hot and swampy, and this day was no different. The Bay, located just downriver from Quantico—the FBI Academy in Virginia—stagnated in bright sun and nearly broiling heat. We parked the car, simply expecting a nice view of the Potomac. Instead, we found the rusted-out hull of a ship grounded in the middle of the water. Time and weather had eaten away chunks of the starboard side. Nearer to us, orange metal jutted from the water and concrete by the shore—the only signs of where Union troops halted passage across the river during the early days of the Civil War due to Southern Maryland’s Confederate sympathies.

Sept. 3, 1925 Washington Post Headline, page 5.
Sept. 3, 1925 Washington Post headline, page 5.

A friendly blue sign in the park announced that in 1925, the US War Department issued a permit to “ground, burn and beach in Mallow’s Bay, Potomac River, some two hundred hulls.” On the morning of November 7, 1925, on top of centuries of long-sunk Native American and Revolutionary War ships, 31 wooden steamships were set on fire. As the flames devoured the disused World War I vessels, The Washington Post reported that “a horde of squealing rats plunged into the water.” Now, the sunken bodies of these ships and many others have created their own reefs—sanctuaries for bald eagles, river otters, painted turtles and many other wildlife species.

But what is a graveyard without a few ghosts? I’d say the history of this place and the sunken hulls might make one hell of a good story. Wouldn’t you?

For another interesting take on Mallow’s Bay history and reclamation, click here.

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