The sordid story of the ghost fleet of Mallows Bay

Burned to the water line on the Potomac River decades ago, an old boat hull rests on the bottom of Mallows Bay. In 1924, 214 hulls were towed to Mallows Bay, on Charles County's Nanjemoy Peninsula.
Burned to the water line on the Potomac River decades ago, an old boat hull rests on the bottom of Mallows Bay. In 1924, 214 hulls were towed to Mallows Bay, on Charles County's Nanjemoy Peninsula. (James M. Thresher)
By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 5:20 PM

Answer Man has spent the past three Sundays telling the stories of derelict ships that once languished on the Potomac. He feels he must close the chapter on these vessels with the story of the most massive assemblage of its kind: the ghost fleet of Mallows Bay.

It is a story that includes misguided government contracting, environmental degradation and rebirth, and floating brothels.

In 1917, German U-boats were wreaking havoc with transatlantic shipping, dispatching tons of much-needed supplies destined for the Allies to the bottom of the ocean. America could ill afford to lose these ships. That year, an engineer named Frederic Eustis proposed constructing hundreds of wooden steamships, using a design and building method that would ensure they could be turned out quickly.

William Denman, chairman of the United States Shipping Board, announced plans to build 1,000 ships. This "almost endless chain of boats" (as The Washington Post put it) would overwhelm the Kaiser's submarines.

Boatyards across the country started churning out wooden steamships. But there was a problem: The ships weren't very good. "They were obsolete before they even set sail," said Don Shomette, a marine historian and author of "The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay." "They were too small to carry any real weight, even though some were 300 feet long."

Plus, the Great War had ended.

What to do with these lousy boats, which totaled more than 200? "They tried to give them to Uruguay, and they didn't want them," Don said.

It is a sad day, indeed, when even Uruguay won't take leaky wooden steamships off your hands.

The ships cost a total of almost $1 billion to build. "They ended up selling the entirety of the fleet for $175,000 at auction," Don said.

The buyer was Western Marine and Salvage Co., a firm in Alexandria that berthed the ships at Widewater, Va. The plan was to tow them one by one to the wharf in Alexandria and burn the ships to reveal metal fittings that could be sold for scrap. "The first one up in Alexandria caught fire and burned the waterfront down," Don said. "It wasn't a good start."

The whole thing was snakebit. In 1924, 214 hulls were towed to Mallows Bay, an area on Charles County's Nanjemoy Peninsula, across from Quantico. Said Don: "You could literally walk a mile without touching the water, they were packed so tightly."

Though local watermen protested that the ships would ruin the waters they depended on, the salvage company got permission to start burning the fleet. The Post reported hordes of squealing rats leaving the ships as they were set on fire. When the price of scrap dropped during the Depression, the Alexandria firm sort of washed its hands of the affair and entrepreneurs set up shop.

"It became a free-for-all down there," Don said. "Because of Prohibition, the ships became excellent places for erecting stills. . . . The upshot was that the area became a place where a lot of unemployed men worked trying to round up whatever scrap metal they could take off. You might have 75 to 200 men in different boats."

Where there are single men and booze, prostitutes naturally follow. At least 20 Potomac "river arks" - houseboats that served as floating brothels - dropped anchor. Because Mallows Bay is directly across from the Marine base at Quantico, it is not inconceivable that Marines may have indulged in the illicit offerings.

The ships are still there, now barely more than the outlines of their hulls. Nature has taken over. Trees as high as 50 feet sprout from some ships, and animals have made themselves at home.

"There are beaver, river otter, an incredible population of bass," Don said. "I once saw six bald eagles at one time."

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