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Mallows Bay in La Plata, MD

World War I derelict ship in Mallows Bay
World War I derelict ship in Mallows Bay

Shrouded in the foggy waters of Mallows Bay is an eerily beautiful sight – the largest shipwrecked fleet in the Western Hemisphere. Some 150 abandoned World War I wooden steamships have been slumbering in Mallows Bay since the 1920s.

“It’s a ship graveyard,” says Donald Shomette, a marine archaeologist and author of a book about the ships called The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.

The ships were built between 1917 and 1920 after President Woodrow Wilson’s national call to arms against imperial Germany. However, Germany surrendered before any of the ships crossed the Atlantic, and they came to rest in Mallows Bay after the U.S. government sold the fleet to a salvage company, which spent several years transporting the ships to the bay.

When the salvage company went bankrupt during the Great Depression, the deserted ships became bait for independent scrappers trying to profit from any scraps they could salvage.

“There were wildcat scrappers there at any given time, and scrap fighting broke out,” Shomette says.

Though it has the potential to be a huge tourist draw, the shipwreck site is accessible only by canoe or kayak today. Those fortunate enough to see the partially submerged vessels are left in awe of their beauty.

“The site is very fragile, but it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Shomette says. “The ships have become flowerpots and wooden islands in the water. Every ship there is an ecocenter with its own mini-environment. Some have beaver dams and eagles’ nests, and it’s an incredible habitat for bass.”

Shomette’s interest in the ships at Mallows Bay began when he was a child.

“My father took me on a boat trip there,” Shomette recalls. “It was really spooky for a kid.”

Shomette returned while in college. He filmed a documentary about the site, eventually writing a book about it.

Read more about the history of La Plata, MD.

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