There is something captivating about gazing across a large body of water, undulating with the tide and brimming with ancient maritime stories. An early intrigue for all things nautical was encouraged by my seafaring grandfather, and since childhood I was always drawn to anything related to maritime history but never figured I could do something career related with it. This past winter, my conservation science professor, Dr. Thomas Taylor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, encouraged his students to submit abstracts for a student scholarship to the annual conference of the Association For Preservation Technology International (APTI).
Upon reading the conference’s theme Heritage on the Edge and the categories for paper submissions, I knew immediately that the underwater archaeology/maritime conservation topic was a chance for me to introduce a new audience to a little known historic site on the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland. The fact that this conference took place in the coastal city of Victoria, British Columbia just added to my determination to have a chance to present my research there.
It was a great honor to be an APTI Student Scholar, not only for the opportunity to present my paper to an international audience, but to make my introduction to many respected figures as well as fellow new professionals in the historic preservation and conservation field. The intellectual and creative atmosphere found at this conference inspired me to keep working for what I believe in and that there are other individuals who are equally interested in conservation issues surrounding rare maritime antiquities. My fascination with shipwreck sites in particular began when I read an article in Maryland Life magazine about a ghost fleet of wooden steamships close to the District of Columbia, but largely unknown to most residents.
Shipwreck graveyards exist throughout the world, a silent and submerged record of a collective past. Some are entirely underwater while others are partially visible, emerging from their final resting places jagged and waterlogged against a coastal backdrop. Mallows Bay, on the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland, is one such site. Home to approximately 150 long since abandoned remnants of many eras of seafaring vessels, the one-mile cove is estimated to contain the highest concentration of known shipwrecks in the United States, and possibly the world.
Ranging from a late eighteenth century longboat to a steel ferry of the late twentieth century, the nautical ruins protrude from the bay’s shallow waters. These vessels, the majority from a failed wooden steamship program of the World War I era, pose several interesting conservation and archaeological issues. The WWI-era vessels were anchored and torched on the bay when no other uses could be found for the outdated ships.
Secluded from view and knowledge of even most locals, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources recently opened the site as a public recreation area in the summer of 2010 and is seeking National Marine Sanctuary status from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA). Currently a boat ramp near the bay provides canoe and kayak access, but the county hopes to use the site as a low-impact year-round recreation area with camping, bird watching, fishing and boating.
Although opening the site to the public brings a greater awareness about the historical resources at Mallows Bay, the question is inevitably raised as to whether opening the site would compromise the authenticity and integrity of the site in addition to the hazardous albeit necessary measures to maintain, protect and conserve this maritime rarity. On a recent site visit in October, I found the site to be tranquil and sublime. Seeing the massive wooden hulks emerging from the water as the tide went out gave me a chill as I imagined the lives these vessels lived before left in their final resting place. Aside from a couple who prepared to canoe through the ruins, I was completely alone with the ghost fleet. I managed to get some photos but plan on returning this winter for a better view during low tide.
Overall I think having the site opened as a recreational area is a good thing. Because it is such an atypical park and historic site, people are drawn to it. Until the park site opened in 2010, the only way to access it was via canoe or kayak, a dangerous trek even for the most experienced adventurer. Safer accessibility has been introduced with a boat ramp for those wishing to have a closer look at the ghost fleet. There is also a trail that circles the area for hiking and cycling, and for the more relaxed pace there are picnic tables and park benches placed throughout the site. Signage provides visitors with information on both the historic and natural environments, which have become intertwined as nature has created ecosystems out of the ships’ remains.
In the case of this site, it is not so much about the conservation of the shipwrecks, but rather an overall long-term maintenance plan that takes into account the fragile ecosystem created by the presence of these vessels. Removal would only repollute the bay, and drive away local flora and fauna that make their home on the artificial reefs. The best way to treat the waterlogged hulks is to let them remain as they are. While submerged, they are safer than if the wood was removed and treated. The major concerns are the segments that protrude from the bay, only underwater during high tide. Over time, the continuous flux of water and air exposure will break down the wood, but as part of the overall health of the bay, leaving them to mother nature is likely the best course of action.
The ghost fleet at Mallows Bay is a source of fascination and historical significance. It is unusual not just for its high concentration of shipwrecks in a one-mile area, but also that it is historic yet in a constant state of change. Constant observation will be necessary and I look forward to continuing my site visits and working with others who are interested in learning more about the site. A Marine Sanctuary designation from NOAA would be outstanding and would be a testament to the sheer awesomeness of this maritime resource.
Caitlin Chamberlain is a 2011 graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, earning an MFA in Historic Preservation. While currently seeking employment in the field, she consults with a non-profit organization trying to redesign a vacant tuberculosis hospital and continues to research and advocate for rare and lesser-known historic sites.