Dozens of rusty spires protrude from the tea-colored river like rows of tombstones in an underwater cemetery. I feel like I am paddling toward a mirage—the ethereal remains of the 291-foot long USS Accomac seem grossly out of place—the hulking vessel a relic from an era long gone. It’s eerily quiet on the water, other than the sound of the ripples lapping against my kayak—utterly still. Overhead, the sky is a rambling swath of steely clouds, and with the sun scrubbed out, the watery vista is like some sort of grainy Instagram filter.
A nesting osprey has laid claim to the bow of the nearly century-old Accomac—_issuing a shrill warning from her perch as I approach the towering vessel—like something out of Coleridge’s _Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Someone has scrolled ‘REMEMBER’ into the side of the decaying ship, in rusty block letters. Once tasked with ferrying 1,200 passengers and 75 cars at a time across the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the Accomac is now just one of the many vessels left to languish in this shallow tidal stretch of the Potomac River—now one of two locations being considered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for marine sanctuary status.
Located about 30-miles due south of Washington, DC, on a map, Mallows Bay appears to be just another insignificant cleft in the shoreline, nothing more than a run-of-the-mill local boat launch—and indeed, even on a long weekend, I have the entire bluff-fringed inlet nearly to myself. It’s so slow the park attendant even offers to help hoist my kayak off the car, just to make conversation.
But, beneath the shallow water of this forgotten inlet lies the largest collection of decaying ships in the entire country—nearly 200 vessels, including a Revolutionary-War-era longboat and most famously, the bulk of an ill-fated ghost fleet from the First World War.
In the spring of 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, President Woodrow Wilson already knew all too well what was happening to America’s European allies. On the water, they were being ravaged by German submarines. One of America’s most critical contributions to the war effort would be ships—lots and lots of ships—both to compensate for all the vessels being decimated by German U boats, and to tote American troops across the hostile Atlantic Ocean. Wilson’s declaration of war meant America would have to churn out sea-faring vessels at an unimaginable rate. And in order to do so both as expediently and inexpensively as possible, an engineer named Frederic Eustis proposed a novel plan—the 1,000 steamships of Wilson’s emergency fleet should be built of wood, not steel.
Shipyards nationwide were pressed into service to the produce the colossal steamships, yet despite the massive effort, the fleet intended to save the day was ultimately late to the party—by the time the hulking wooden vessels were ready to set sail, the Germans had surrendered and the war was over. The hastily-built armada was obsolete from the get-go, and instantly, the U.S. Government was faced with the opposite predicament—suddenly, the country needed to dispose of a massive flotilla, not build one.
By 1920, the 285-ships of Wilson’s emergency fleet sat rotting in Virginia’s James River, and after a failed attempt to gift the ships to Uruguay, a locally-based buyer, the Western Marine and Salvage Company purchased the decaying vessels. But, like a horrific comedy of errors, the very first ship hauled to the Alexandria harbor to be scrapped caught fire and burned down the dockside.
Despite the protests of local waterman, in 1924 the Western Marine and Salvage Company bought a tract of land in rural Maryland, and relocated the ill-fated flotilla to Mallows Bay. However, before any lucrative scrapping could begin in earnest, the stock market crashed, making the decrepit ships again obsolete, and plunging Western Marine and Salvage into bankruptcy. During the Great Depression, men desperate for income flocked to Mallows Bay to try their luck harvesting parts from the festering fleet. And during the final years of Prohibition, so many rogue scrappers were drawn to the area there were reportedly nearly two-dozen moonshine stills nestled in the leafy shoreline and even a handful of floating brothels.
At the outset of World War II, efforts to salvage scrap from the ghost fleet were suddenly deemed economical again, and the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, a giant of American industry, was contracted by the government to break down the vexing vessels. Ultimately, even the Bethlehem Steel Corporation failed to turn a profit from the flotilla, and after leaching money into the effort with little return, by 1944 the endeavor had been abandoned.
When politicians, salvage companies, and rogue scrappers failed, nature took over.
The decaying ships have now been reclaimed by local flora and fauna—transformed into islands of life. Knotty trees have sprouted from the sunken relics, and species nearly eliminated in the name of human progress—bald eagles, osprey, snowy egret, and great blue heron—have returned to claim the wrecks. Underwater, the sunken vessels are also ecological hubs, attracting the species most sought after by local anglers: striped bass, channel catfish, white perch, and notoriously hideous snakeheads.
Later in the afternoon, instead of returning to the boat launch, I decide instead to peel off to the right and paddle one of the inlet’s slender arteries—Mallows Creek. I can’t seem to make myself leave the water yet. Within seconds, a slender northern water snake glides past my boat. Red-bellied cooter turtles plop into the water from their sunning perches, and bald eagles crown the canopy above, scanning the shallow water for the telltale flash of silvery scales. Drifting further down the creek, I watch a blue heron’s lanky lift-off, fish jump, breaking the murky surface, and the creek-side vegetation becomes so dense a tick drops onto my knee from a tangle of branches overhead. Slowly, the blanket of floating vegetation threatens to swallow the bow of my boat. I paddle as far as I can—until the watery channel becomes too narrow to go any further—and nature closes in on me.