This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison
State Underwater Archaeolgoist, Maryland State Historic Preservation Office
Maritime Archaeologist, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program
Mallows Bay and its environs in Charles County, Maryland, as well as tidal portions of the Potomac River, are situated approximately thirty miles south of the nation’s capital (Figure 1). Although renowned for the fleet of nearly one hundred World War I-era wooden steamships which forms its nexus, the region is home to diverse other shipwrecks and vestiges of the cultural history enhanced by scenic beauty and recreational opportunities.
The Maryland Historical Trust (MHT), which houses the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), has long recognized the importance of Mallow Bay’s cultural heritage, and it was formally recognized by the National Park Service as the Mallows Bay-Widewater Historic and Archeological District in the National Register of Historic Places on April 24, 2015 (Figure 2). The District is considered nationally significant under the main criteria A, C, and D: A. sites/areas that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; C. that embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; D. that have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory. For Mallows these are:
A. Association with the World War I U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet and the related
C. The fleet represents the largest assemblage of wooden and composite steamships in the world and a substantial component of the entire U.S merchant marine fleet built between 1917-1922;
D. Archaeological sites provide information on vessel design, use, and adaptation along with shipbreaking and salvage operations, site formation processes (taphonomy) and landscape alteration. The District encompasses over 11,000 acres within Maryland State waters and, although Maryland claims the Potomac waters to the mean low water mark on the Virginia shore, there are some areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Virginia and cooperative management to include these is a future goal.
History of the WWI Fleet
The U.S. Shipping Board’s Emergency Fleet was a civilian endeavor to ferry supplies overseas to Allied nations and serving forces. Supplies were short due to aggressive U-boat activity. The response was the decision to produce 1000 ships in eighteen months to meet this need. The magnitude of this effort becomes clear when considering this would surpass by about four times the total blue-water shipping of the U.S. for the previous six years combined. While there was a metal-hulled sector, mostly constructed on the Great Lakes, those built completely of wood or wood and metal strapping, called composites, were created at 70 shipyards using nine designs. These yards were on the West, Gulf, South and East Coasts demonstrating the nation-wide aspect of this project. In addition, when the contributing industries such as lumbering, metal extraction, smelting and engine construction are taken into consideration, the level of industry and employment of those not actively in the theatre of combat becomes apparent. This turned the U.S. into the shipbuilding powerhouse of the 20th century.
This shipbuilding effort also had a profound effect on the U.S. Merchant Marine. While America has always had merchant mariners, the need to have mariners sufficient to man 1000 vessels all trained to the same standards led to a fluorescence of a formal Merchant Marine.
The Fleet’s obsolescence was due to a number of factors; the war ended before the majority were completed; many experienced problems during sea trials having been built so rapidly and some with green wood which led to leaking and leaking when the steam engines caused them to shake; they were not as fast and carried less cargo than anticipated, and they were outmoded by returning metal-hulled vessels with diesel engines. Partially completed vessels were finished and those already completed had cost between $750,000 and $1 million dollars each. Some vessels were sold off to businesses that used them for coastal shipping; some of these ended their days in Curtis Bay near Baltimore. The majority were finally sold, after several unsuccessful efforts, for the cost of one vessel to the Western Marine and Salvage Company for breaking and most of these ended their days in the Potomac River at Widewater and in Mallows Bay as discussed below.
History of the Mallows Bay Region
All aspects of the region’s heritage are evident at Mallows Bay. This section of the Potomac River forms part of the traditional homeland and cultural landscape of the State-recognized Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe of Maryland. Evidence for the depth of American Indian occupation of this area of the Potomac, from the Archaic Period to the Post¬-Contact Period, is provided both through archaeological investigations and cultural traditions of the Piscataway people. The Piscataway have identified Mallows Bay and Liverpool Point as areas of significance within their cultural landscape (Strickland, Busby and King 2015:45). It is very likely that Nussamek, one of the villages visited by Captain John Smith during the summer of 1608, is in the area. However, no archaeological sites have yet been identified in a submerged context.
Possibly located in Liverpool Cove at the back of Mallows Bay may be the remains of a patriot longboat used by Protector, a Virginia Flotilla galley, which anchored near Mallows Bay so its men could join forces with the Maryland militia (Shomette 1996, 206-207; NRHP 1992, Sec. 7, 3). On July 23, 1776, the patriots from Protector arrived in Mallows Bay aboard two longboats and were quickly set-upon by Lord Dunmore’s Loyalist Flotilla which was led by Virginia’s deposed governor James Murray, the Earl Lord of Dunmore, and manned by loyalists and freed slaves. Dunmore entered the Potomac to try and secure water for his crew and to “harass and annoy the Enemy by landing at different places” (Shomette 1996, 206-207; NRHP 1992, Sec. 7, 3). Dunmore’s fleet exchanged gunfire with the local patriot militia and attempted to seize both of Protector’s longboats. The patriot forces retreated, but before they fled, they smashed a hole in the bottom of one of the longboats to prevent its capture.
During the Civil War, Camp McGaw was sited above the bay and recently a shipwreck suspected to date to the Civil War was confirmed to be an armed Civil War vessel known lost in the area. In addition, Commercial fisheries were prevalent throughout the nineteenth century including significant sturgeon fisheries and caviar canning near Liverpool Point which forms the downstream edge of Mallows Bay. Historical records indicate that three sturgeon skiffs, Black Bottom, W.S. Childs, and Edythe, were abandoned in the area in 1926. These ships were built in 1888 in Philadelphia and imported into the area via train by Captain Morgan L. Monroe who used them in his sturgeon fishing and processing operations. These skiffs were the last “foreign vessels” to gain popularity on the Potomac (NRHP 1992, Sec. 7, 5).
Another workboat, the two-masted pungy schooner Capitol, was involved in the first recorded maritime tragedy in the area. In 1896, two pungy schooners, Capitol and Dove, were sailing in tandem when they were swamped during a storm off Sandy Point. Dove and its crew were eventually saved but all personnel aboard Capitol, including the Captain, perished and the ship foundered (NRHP 1992, Sec. 7, 5). The remains of at least one centerboard canoe are found in Liverpool Cove. These vessels were common workboats from the 17th through the 20th centuries and have a unique shell-first design. For shell-first construction, the frames, which only provide lateral support for the ship and do not dictate its shape or form, are only added to the vessel after the hull has been assembled (Shomette 1996, 331). Near the centerboard canoe lies the remains of a centerboard schooner (Wreck No. 114 in Shomette 1998) which has a flat-bottomed sharpie configuration. It might be the largest sharpie on record in the Chesapeake and the only one archaeologically documented on the Potomac River (Shomette 1996, 333).
Other intangible but important aspects of the area include the first use of hot air balloons in North America for military surveillance during the Civil War, tethered to purpose-built barges. Samuel Pierpont Langley catapult-launched his successful heavier-than-air experimental flight from the roof of his “houseboat laboratory” at Widewater on May 6, 1896. On a more infamous level, John Wilkes Booth’s escape route from Washington, DC to Virginia passes through the area.
The majority of the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation vessels were brought to the Potomac in 1922 by the Western Marine and Salvage Company when it purchased them to break them for scrap in Alexandria, VA. Other vessels, some unfinished hulls, from the fleet ended up in the Neches and Sabine Rivers, TX, the James River, VA, and Curtis Bay, near Baltimore, MD. Originally moored off Widewater, VA, the vessels would break loose in storms becoming hazards to navigation or catch fire and response often came from the U.S. Marine Corps base at nearby Quantico. The company was subsequently required to corral the hulls and did so in Mallows Bay; cramming one hundred nearly three-hundred-foot long ship hulls into a half-mile wide embayment. The Company suffered various financial ills and finally failed permanently during the Great Depression, with most of the vessels still present.
Residents from southern Maryland began salvaging the steamships as a means of deriving income during the depression and this wild-cat period continued until the outbreak of World War II (Figure 3). At that time the Bethlehem Steel Corporation determined to undertake shipbreaking on-site to recover metals needed for the war effort. It constructed a lock-like burning basin at the back of the bay. However, after reducing about a dozen hulls to scrap, it pronounced the endeavor not to be cost-effective and operations ceased (Figure 4). Not only do the hulls and burning basin remain, there are also vestiges of marine railways, donkey engines, barges and other associated shipbreaking detritus and artifacts. In a combination of traditional boat disposal methods and the litter philosophy of if-someone-leaves-litter-it’s-alright-to-add-to-it, other vessels accrued in Mallows Bay throughout the twentieth century, the last being the metal-hulled ferry Accomac (ex.Virginia Lee) as recently as 1973.
As numerous plans and schemes for their removal failed or crumbled in scandal, the vessels remained and began to become integral parts of the landscape and play an important role in the environment (Figure 5). As recreational uses increased, such as bass fishing, bird watching, and kayaking, heritage tourism and general visitation has increased commensurately adding the most recent dimension to the maritime cultural landscape.
National Marine Sanctuary Nomination
Since the Mallows Bay National Register of Historic Places Historic and Archaeological District nomination focuses on the WWI-era vessels and the efforts to reduce them, the decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to re-open nominations for new National Marine Sanctuaries was welcomed as an opportunity to address the other significant historical and natural aspects of Mallows and Bay and its environs. NOAA’s nomination process has been reinvented to mandate nominations be the result of a community-driven effort. The key agencies in the State of Maryland formed a steering committee to develop a nomination and ensure as many representatives of the community as possible were included and more than one hundred fifty groups, organizations, agencies and individuals responded in support of the establishment of a sanctuary. The main agencies are the State Historic Preservation Office as the stewards of the shipwrecks proper and all heritage resources, the Department of Natural Resources as the managers of the State’s bottomlands and living resources, and Charles County government as the manager of the land base in the form of the County Park at Mallows Bay. The steering committee worked diligently to ensure the nomination for the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary was submitted on September 6, 2014 to coincide with the initiation of global commemorations of the centenary of World War I. On January 12, 2015, NOAA officially accepted the nomination into its Inventory for consideration, and on October 6, 2015 President Obama announced that the process to establish the Sanctuary would go forward and the announcement was placed in the Federal Register on October 7, 2015 to begin the public comment period. Two public scoping meetings have been held with resounding support for the Sanctuary, and the comment period continued until January 15, 2016 when the Steering committee, now the Partnership Committee, began the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and draft Management Plan taking into consideration the suggestions, questions, and concerns expressed online, by post, or at the public meetings.
The DEIS and Management Plan will provide the means not only to better protect, manage, and interpret the WWI flee, but also to extend these to other heritage resources, natural resources, educational outreach, and recreational activities. The potential of the proposed Sanctuary as a living laboratory is enormous. To paraphrase Aristotle, at Mallows Bay the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
References and Additional Sources of Information on Mallows Bay
Federal Register Notice:
Mallows Bay National Marine Sanctuary nomination:
Mallows Bay Park
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
National Register of Historic Places.
2015. Nomination for the Mallows Bay- Widewater Historic and Archaeological District. http://www.nps.gov/nr/listings/20150424.htm.
Shomette, Donald G.
1996. Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake. Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, MD.
1998. Shipwrecks of Mallows Bay: Inventory and Assessment. The Mallows Bay submerged cultural resource survey. Prepared for the Maryland Historical Trust. Crownsville, MD.
Strickland, Scott M., Virginia R. Busby, and Julia A. King.
2015. Indigenous Cultural Landscapes Study for the Nanjemoy and Mattawoman Creek Watersheds. Prepared for the National Park Service, Annapolis, MD. St. Mary’s College of Maryland, St. Mary’s City, Maryland.