Ghost fleet

Just down the Potomac River below Washington and across from the Quantico Marine Base is a shallow indentation in the Maryland shore line called Mallows Bay. If you look at a satellite image of Mallows Bay, you’ll be struck by what looks like several dozen sunken ship’s hulls just at or below the surface. So what’s the deal? Is it an enemy submarine fleet lying in wait to attack D.C.? You can tell this has to have a weird story behind it, and you’d be right.

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When the US entered WW1, we needed a big increase in shipping capacity and we needed it in a hurry. With so much steel going to the war effort elsewhere, someone came up with the idea of constructing wooden ships to take up he slack. So a big wooden shipbuilding program began and the ships, mostly of 4,000-8,000 ton capacity, started coming off the ways. But the war ended and the ships soon became orphans no one knew what to do with. Over 200 ships of various sizes were sold to a private company for the scrap metal they contained. The company anchored the ships in the Potomac and towed them one by one to a yard where the metal was stripped. Each hull was then taken back and burned to the waterline so that some of the embedded fittings could be removed. But the ships were considered a nuisance and a danger to navigation, so the company bought the land surrounding Mallows Bay and moved the fleet there. The burning and salvaging continued until scrap prices collapsed. The company stopped salvage operations and locals took up the slack, stripping whatever fittings they could carry away. In the 1930s, scrap metal became more valuable and at least some of the stripped fittings found their way to Japan, where they no doubt were later returned in the form of bombs and torpedoes.

Through the years, the hulks, now resting on the bottom to prevent drifting, were being colonized by vegetation and various critters. A lot of political struggling went on  between those who who wanted the eyesores removed and those who thought stirring up the bottom would cause environmental problems. So the hulls remained and today resemble a series of wooded islands as they slowly return to nature.

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