|There were 20 tons of bolt metal per ship.|
This place is a little embayment just off the Potomac River called Mallows Bay. The day was almost cold and certainly eerily gray and misty with lots of exotic shadows. Perfect for a ghostly paddle into and over some history. The cries of a few water birds and the crash of leaves from the rare startled deer in the forest on the shore were about all we heard...except...well let me not get ahead of myself. First, here is a little history, greatly shortened for there is a whole book on this area.
We have to go back to 1917 and WWI. President Woodrow Wilson put out a call for building many more ships (ten times more) as we entered this war since we were going to move quickly and supply an American Army in Europe to defeat the Germans. Because metal ship building was too slow and expensive, an engineer suggested the building of 1000 cheaper wooden cargo steamships to send across the Atlantic and past the many German submarines. (I wondered if it even crossed the engineer's mind about the greater danger to those sailors making the crossing on these more fragile ships.) Eighty-seven shipyards across the United States from the east to the west coasts got contracts to build this armada. Bureaucratic delays and ineptitude and Germany's eventual surrender came as over 100 ships were completed with few to none crossing the Atlantic. But an additional 200 ships continued to be built as the war wound down, and even as there were charges of poor assembly, leaky design and over contract budgets, the construction continued...sound familiar?
Eventually the fleet was mothballed along the James River at a large expense to the American taxpayer and finally offered for sale 'as is.' A Virginia marine salvage company bought many for salvage of the metal, but accidental fires and sinking of vessels at their shipyard compromised nearby navigation and threatened the important shad fishery in the area. The company was forced to move to the more remote area known as Mallows Bay and a massive facility was built to rapidly move this salvage operation along. In one day a large number that had been towed to the area were torched in the shallow waters to reduce them immediately for metal salvage. I cannot imagine the water pollution that resulted and the skies filling with acrid smoke.
The area soon became a graveyard for the remaining ships buried there because the stock market crash of the 1920's brought the price of scrap metal to a new low halting salvage operations. Other entrepreneurial development near the salvage operation included bootleggers and floating brothels. They were less accessible to the long arm (paddle) of the law due to the abandoned shipwrecks making navigation dangerous in the waters. Of the 285 steamships built, approximately 152 ended up in this bay and today the remaining 80 or so lie at rest in all states of deterioration.
The area became important once again when the advent of WWII renewed the value of scrap metal, but this value was only temporary. The area was soon abandoned and now efforts are being made to keep it as an historic sight and as nature has grown to reclaim the area, an environmentally rich artificial reef has formed. There has been some wheeling and dealing of a shady nature in recent decades due to the valuable real estate. Only time will tell how protected the area will remain.
While quietly and carefully going between the sunken hulls and avoiding the dangerously protruding metal spikes that could poke a hole in our aluminum canoe, we did hear, without warning and with breath-taking suddenness, a single large explosion that boomed across the glassy waters' surface and broke the quiet air. We held our breath waiting. It must have been from the military testing base nearby, because, after a while, no helicopters or boats raced down the river toward the sound. Just a ghostly and frightening reminder of wars, I guess.
These photos were taken at high tide and I hope to return in the summer at a low tide for even more interesting shots.