`Ghost fleet' to haunt park along Potomac

Fish, fowl, kayakers bring promise of new life to maritime graveyard in Charles County

December 05, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

ON THE POTOMAC RIVER -- Susan Langley glides her kayak up to the slouching wooden hull of a shipwreck and tugs a wooden peg out of a wall of planks encrusted with barnacles.

All around the archaeologist, the rotting ribs of more than 200 ships jut from the murky waters of a shallow bay near Nanjemoy in Southern Maryland.

She's exploring one of America's largest maritime graveyards - nicknamed "the ghost fleet of Mallows Bay" - which will soon be turned into a public park and wildlife area.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Monday incorrectly reported that state archaeologist Susan Langley pulled a wooden peg out of a decaying shipwreck in a bay off the Potomac River. In fact, the peg was already protruding from the hull when Langley touched it, and she did not remove it from the ship.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Look at this! Wooden nails, practically the oldest technology in the world," said Langley, who studies historic sites for the Maryland Department of Planning. "It's amazing they were still using them in World War I, when this cargo ship was built. It shows they were trying to save metal for the war effort."

The creation of the 1,921-acre Nanjemoy Natural Resources Management Area - at a cost of more than $7.5 million to the state and federal governments - is a victory for residents of Charles County, who fought off plans to build a nuclear power plant and a gravel mine along the shore.

The area could open next year with a public boat ramp, hiking trails, picnic shelters and a kiosk featuring historical information, said Tom Roland, chief of parks for Charles County, which is a partner in the effort.

Boaters in kayaks and canoes will be welcome to paddle among the decaying hulks, perhaps guided by pamphlets and numbered markers, Roland said. Now, a locked gate and private land make the wrecks inaccessible to most people.

Most of the ships were dumped in the bay after World War I, when a government contractor created a junkyard to get rid of surplus cargo vessels.

But some remains are much older. Some are believed to date to the Revolutionary War, while others include a World War II patrol boat, a steel passenger ferry that operated into the 1960s and a menhaden fishing vessel abandoned in the 1980s.

Preserving the wrecks and the forested shoreline around them will save the largest stretch of undeveloped property along the Potomac River south of Washington. It is an area that is rapidly being devoured by subdivisions and sprawl, neighbors say.

"The opening of this wildlife area to the public is really a happy ending to a situation that could have been much worse, with a nuclear power plant or a gravel mine," said Gloria Heisserman, a neighbor who helped lead the conservation effort. "To have this much land preserved for the public is really something special."

Matt Bucchin, a planner for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said his agency started working with the federal Bureau of Land Management about four years ago to buy an area about 1.2 miles long and a half-mile wide.

Much of the land had been owned by Pepco, the Washington power company, which had proposed removing the wrecks and building a nuclear power plant near the site in the 1970s, Bucchin said.

"It's an interesting area not only because it has cultural and historical value, but also because so much vegetation has grown up around the ships that they've become part of the natural ecosystem," Bucchin said.

Over the years, the dump evolved into a breeding ground for striped bass, white perch, catfish and blue crabs, Bucchin said. Great blue herons, ospreys, egrets, otters, beavers and deer have taken up residence on decaying wooden shells that have sprouted trees and look like islands.

Donald G. Shomette, a historian and maritime archaeologist, describes the history of the area in his book The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake.

Perhaps the first boat was abandoned on this forested shoreline on July 23, 1776, when a group of British loyalists from Virginia exchanged gunfire with a group of patriots from Maryland, Shomette wrote.

The patriots fled, smashing a hole in the bottom of their longboat to prevent its capture. Over the next century and more, other vessels were abandoned in this remote inlet, including log canoes, schooners and fishing boats.

During World War I, the U.S. government created the Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corp. to build a huge "bridge of wooden ships" across the Atlantic Ocean. The idea was to produce cargo ships to supply U.S. allies in Europe faster than German submarines could sink them.

Taxpayers paid about $1 billion for the construction of 296 wooden steamships, each about 240 feet long. But because they were built hastily, the "emergency fleet" turned out to be too leaky, small and slow to do the job. By war's end, in 1918, not a single ship was deemed seaworthy enough to make it across the Atlantic.

"We built these ships to save France and England from starving," Shomette said. "But they turned out to be a huge white elephant."

Two hundred and fourteen of the wooden steamships were hauled to Mallows Bay, where a company started to scrap them for parts. But the company folded, and local residents picked over the vessels' skeletons.

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