Photo of the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay via
Guest Post by Sajni Patel. On September 20, 14 students in the Scholars Science, Technology and Society program went kayaking in Mallows Bay, which is on the Maryland side of the Potomac River in Charles County, MD. Sajni is a freshman from Chantilly, VA who plans to double major in marketing and psychology but joined STS because she wanted to be involved in science, technology, and research. Sajni says that she loves Scholars because, “It gives me the benefits of a smaller community in an otherwise huge school.”
From a distance, Mallows Bay appeared to be just another lake or pond, scattered with algae and green shrubbery emerging from small islands of random debris. But when I got closer, when I hopped in a kayak and started paddling through the bay, I noticed that the debris wasn’t just any regular, abandoned waste—instead, it was the remnants of decades-old, abandoned ships.
Exploring this graveyard of ships with my STS field trip group was a memorable experience filled with both amazing and frustrating moments. Because it was a windy day, propelling the kayak through the waves was difficult and even exhausting at times. On top of that, being a beginner, I almost flipped my kayak, and at one point was soaked with grimy bay water. However, when I finally reached the shipwrecks, the struggle was absolutely worth it. The sight of the ship relics had an almost haunting beauty. The rusted metal spikes and the tall, decomposing wooden hulls were surrounded by silence. This shallow bay gave me shivers, and I imagined that it undoubtedly had a notable history that was completely unfamiliar to me.
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had a tall order to fill for his British allies; he needed 1,000 ships in a record time of 18 months. To complete this task, President Wilson approved the greatest shipbuilding project of the time—the construction of 1,000 wooden ships, to be paid for in American tax dollars. However, this huge project soon became a huge failure, and the United States was only able to build around 290 inadequate ships, most completed too late to be used in the war. Initially, the useless ships were docked in the James River, at an expensive cost of $50,000 per month. So, after World War I, the United States government sold the ships to be scrapped to a company called Western Marine & Salvage Company (WMSC). WMSC failed to finish scrapping the ships due to many issues: protests from concerned citizens and especially watermen, costs of relocating, and the Great Depression. Eventually, WMSC went bankrupt and was forced to abandon the remaining 170 ships at Mallows Bay in 1924.
Over a decade later, at the onset of WWII, the US government, foreseeing metal shortages, called upon Bethlehem Steel to collect scrap metal from the Mallows Bay ship remnants because the price of metals had skyrocketed. However, the project proved too expensive, as the salvaged metal failed to cover the cost of the process. So Bethlehem Steel terminated the project and over 100 ship hulls remained in Mallows Bay.
Thinking about the history of Mallows Bay, I realized what I had come on this field trip to learn about. I realized that technology and its impacts and future depend a great deal on society and social and economic circumstances. In the case of the ships still lurking between the waves at Mallows Bay, technology was created for an urgent societal issue—World War I. However, when the ships, the technology, weren’t efficiently built, the need for them diminished, and they went from being touted as an essential component of a war effort to useless in the span of several years. However, over the next 20 years, societal circumstances shifted to make the metal scraps of the ships valuable again. Specifically, when WWII changed the US economy, demand for metal parts increased, and Bethlehem Steel invested in the ships. So why didn’t WMSC or Bethlehem Steel finish selling the parts? The answer has almost nothing to do with the ships themselves, and everything to do with an interaction among science, technology and society.
In the 1920s, WMSC experienced a great financial loss when local protests about water quality and damage to fisheries in the James River caused them to relocate the ships to Mallows Bay and eventually cease their project all together. The watermen of the area refused to let WMSC destroy an ecosystem that would hurt their fishing and boating industries. So, a clash of environmental science, society, and technology led to the ships being brought to Mallows Bay. But even here, the watermen and other local citizens did not approve of the ships being torched and scrapped in the bay; and this, along with the huge societal and economic downturn during the Great Depression, caused the scrapping project to be ceased.
When Bethlehem Steel took over, it was faced with the constraints of other technology and costs. It didn’t have the technology to salvage the metal scraps in a cost-efficient way. Scrapping the ships would have created a significant loss of money for the company—economically, Bethlehem Steel could not have taken advantage of the metals left in Mallows Bay.
Though I understood that unfortunately (for the scrapping companies), many environmental and economic concerns in society prevented technology from being recycled, my experience at Mallows Bay caused me to realize that that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think it benefitted society by creating a place that is currently teeming with greenery and wildlife, and is a beautiful, rare place where history can truly be observed. After WWII, people began to rethink the “Ghost Fleet.” Locals realized that it might ironically hold environmental benefits and began advocating for its protection. It’s not an area that I would want to be ruined. So thankfully, because of the influence of science and society on technology, Mallows Bay remains protected and undisturbed, a picturesque place where anyone can go kayak and connect with the history that it reveals.
For historical background on the ghost fleet of Mallows Bay, this post is indebted to marine archaeologist and historian Donald Shomette’s detailed account, accessible here.