Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay

By Nancy J. Farrier

Doesn’t that sound like a modern-day movie about pirates. When I think of ghost fleet, I picture tattered sails, a dark night and fog. I hear the creak of wood in the ocean swells, and the phrase, “Shiver me timbers,” comes to mind. 

1936 Aerial Photo of Mallows Bay
War Department, Army Air Force
Wikimedia Commons
The real ghost fleet of mallows bay has nothing to do with pirates, but everything to do with a large bay filled with more than 200 discarded ships. Most are from the World War I era, but some date as far back as the Revolutionary War. How did these vessels come to be there?

This story starts in 1917 when President Wilson declared war and the United States needed to provide troops and supplies in the European theater of World War I. They were sorely lacking in ships to provide transport and to take goods across the ocean. The naval vessels we had were needed for combat, so an alternate plan was devised.

President Wilson approved a plan to build a fleet of ships made of wood, steam
Partially submerged ship, Mallows Bay
Photo by F. Delventhal
Wikimedia Commons
ships to cross the ocean with goods. They could be built faster and cheaper than ships made of steel. More than 80 shipyards around the country were to be used in building the ships. Large orders for timber were placed and the building began.

The original plan called for 1,000 ships to be built. However, by the fall of 1918, only 134 were completed and about twice that were only half completed. By the time the war ended in September of 1919, a little over 260 had been put into service and only a few of those made it across the ocean to complete a voyage.

Ships in Mallows Bay
Photo by F. Delventhal
Wikimedia Commons
With the end of the war, the price of steel lowered and it became more plentiful. There was no longer a need for wooden vessels. Besides, the ships that had been completed turned out to be poorly constructed. They were leaky and unreliable. 

The United States took a huge loss when they sold most of the ships to a salvage company in 1922. Each ship cost between $700,000 and one million to construct, but they sold 233 ships for $750,000. The salvage company had a huge problem trying to figure out where to dismantle the wooden boats. A couple of them caught fire near the dock areas, causing damage to the surrounding area. 

The ships were moved to Mallows Bay, off the Maryland coast. In 1925, a plan
Ship in Mallows Bay
Photo by Amazur, Wikimedia Commons
was enacted to burn the ships and salvage the metal parts after the wood burned away. In November, fires were set on 31 of the ships in the Bay. It was reported that hordes of rats leaped from the burning ships.

Over the years, salvage companies have gone bankrupt and left the ships sitting there. Several times the area has been reviewed to see what can be done with the more than 200 ships resting there. In recent history, it has been noted that the wooden boats have provided an ecosystem of their own. The area is now being preserved for the wildlife that lives among the ghost fleet. 

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for the post!

  2. Great post, Nancy. I'm a native of Maryland, but was unaware of this area and its ships. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Linda. I hope you can visit the area some time. I would love to go see this.