Located on the Potomac River only 30 miles downstream from our nation’s capital, Mallows Bay is renowned for its diverse collection of historic shipwrecks, recreational opportunities and scenic beauty. Through a community-based effort, this Maryland treasure in Charles County is now the first national marine sanctuary in the state of Maryland and the first new designation in more than two decades.
The Ghost Fleet
This shallow embayment and the waters nearby are home to nearly 200 historic shipwrecks dating from the Revolutionary War through the present, known as the “Ghost Fleet” of Mallows Bay. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a national call to arms against Imperial Germany. What followed in the United States was a frenzied effort to build 1,000 wooden merchant ships in 18 months, as part of the greatest shipbuilding campaign in history. Today, the largest extant remnants of that fleet, over 130 wooden and composite steamships built during and immediately after the war, representing the product of dozens of shipyards across the nation, still rests on the shallow floor of the Potomac River at and near Mallows Bay.
Also contained within this region are the physical remnants of one of the most unique industrial ship-breaking undertakings in American history, and nineteenth century commercial fisheries operations, as well as Native-American, colonial, and Civil War terrestrial sites. Due to the area’s historical significance, the Mallows Bay – Widewater Historic and Archeological District was listed on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places in April 2015.
The Path to Designation
In June 2014 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the American public could again, for the first time since 2000, nominate nationally significant marine and Great Lakes areas as potential new national marine sanctuaries. Due to its historic national significance, unique ecosystems, and abundant recreational opportunities, on September 16, 2014, the State of Maryland, along with over 60 supporting organizations, submitted a nomination to NOAA recommending consideration of an 18 square mile area of the Potomac River for designation.
Throughout 2016, the Department participated on an inter-governmental committee to prepare draft designation documents, including a draft management plan, draft environmental impact statement, proposed regulations and proposed boundaries for the sanctuary. Comments on the draft documents were solicited online and through two public meetings in March 2017.
The sacntuary was formally designated on September 3, 2019. NOAA, the State of Maryland, and Charles County will manage the national marine sanctuary jointly.
Mallows Bay joins an existing network of 14 sites from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic coast through the far-Pacific. For more information on Mallows Bay - Potomac River NMS and other National marine Sanctuaries: https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/mallows-potomac/.
Photos clockwise from top left, courtesy of Duke University Marine Robotics & Remote Sensing Program, Jim D'Intino, Don Shomette and Paula Schiller.
Mallows Bay ship wreck in sidebar, courtesy of Jim D'Intino