U.S. to create sanctuary for 'ghost fleet' on Potomac

It may be one of Maryland's least known historic places, but the Obama Administration is putting Mallows Bay back on the map.

When he first paddled down the Potomac River near Mallows Bay a decade ago, Charlie Stek was struck by the beauty of the area — and by the centuries of history resting under his kayak on the riverbed below.

The shallow water off Charles County is home to the nation's largest collection of historic shipwrecks, including some that date to the Revolutionary War and others that make up a "ghost fleet" of wooden steamships that were hastily built during World War I.

The Obama administration recognized the historic and ecological significance of the site Monday by moving to create a 14-square mile National Marine Sanctuary on the river, the first such designation the federal government has made in 15 years.

"I was blown away coming to this area — the incredible beauty," said Stek, a former aide to Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes who was instrumental in pushing for the designation. "But there's also a story here."

If approved, Mallows Bay would join 14 other marine sanctuaries in the United States — from the Florida Keys to Thunder Bay in Lake Huron — which fall under the oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The marine graveyard, visible at low tide and on satellite imagery, is about 30 miles south of Washington.

Whether the public will notice change on the water remains to be seen, but supporters said they hope the designation will bring additional resources to encourage public access. One idea is to install a kayak trail in which some of the ships could be marked with signs noting their historical significance.

Some sanctuaries have visitors centers and most have staff, though potential federal funding would come later, from a government that has been tightening its belt in recent years.

State and county officials said they do not intend to limit activity such as fishing. Pilfering from the ships is already barred by state law, but supporters said the designation will add teeth to enforcement efforts — and NOAA has its own police agency that monitors similar sites.

"We're hoping for greater recreational access," said Thomas C. Roland, the Charles County parks chief.

The proposal is open for public comment through January.

President Barack Obama announced the decision to move forward with the designation at Mallows Bay — as well as another site in Lake Michigan — in a video played Monday at an international conference on the world's oceans taking place in Chile.

"Our economies, our livelihoods and our food all depend on our oceans, and yet we know that our actions are changing them," Obama said.

"These actions," he said of the designations, "will protect waters of historic and natural importance."

About 100 of the ships scuttled at the Potomac River site were built as the United States entered World War I. Under a controversial program initiated by President Woodrow Wilson, the government ordered 1,000 wooden steamships, at roughly $1 million apiece, to build a "bridge" of ships across the Atlantic Ocean at a time when German submarines were sinking Allied vessels.

The ships were built along the East Coast, as well as in ports in other parts of the country. Nearly 100 were christened on a single day in 1917 — a major achievement for a nation that, since the Civil War, had usually focused more on internal expansion than international endeavors requiring a navy.

"It was the greatest shipbuilding effort in the history of the world," said Donald G. Shomette, who wrote a book on the vessels, "The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay."

But the program also ran into trouble early on, including a slower-than-expected production schedule. Few of the ships sailed, and their coal­burning engines were quickly rendered obsolete when diesel power plants were introduced.

By the time the war ended in 1918, no one wanted the vessels.

"At the end of the war, there was no market … and so they parked them," Shomette said. "They couldn't give them away by the end. They opened up bids for them three times, and nobody even showed up."

The ships were salvaged for parts and then scuttled.

Over the decades, other ships were dumped at the site, including the Bodkin, a 243­foot submarine chaser. The 291-foot ferry Accomac, built in 1928 to carry 1,200 passengers and 70 cars across the southern Chesapeake Bay, also rests at the site.

Preserving the wrecks and the adjacent forested shoreline has been a goal of residents for years. Much of the land had been owned by Pepco, the Washington power company, which had proposed building a nuclear power plant near the site in the 1970s.

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, nominated the site to be a National Marine Sanctuary last year, noting that, if approved, it would be the only one in the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary.

"Mallows Bay is a beautiful area of the Potomac River with national significance and outstanding and unique historical, archaeological, cultural, ecological, conservation, recreation, and educational qualities," O'Malley wrote federal officials in September 2014.

"The associated marine and terrestrial ecosystems are among the most ecologically significant and undeveloped in the tidewaters of Maryland," he added.

State officials said Maryland continues to support the designation under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Kelly Collins, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said Mallows Bay provides habitat for striped bass and other aquatic species.

"It's just a fantastic place for fishermen and kayakers, and other ecotourism," she said. "The designation will bring more attention to the area."