History beneath the waters at Mallows Bay
County holds event commemorating start of World War I, shipwreck graveyard
Hundreds of ships lie in and beneath Mallows Bay, artifacts of an earlier age. Arthur Willett, 91, has been on some of those ships.
“My first work experience in my life began on that ship there,” Willett said, pointing to a picture of one of the ships.
Willett spoke about his experiences, at age 10, in the “ship graveyard” at Mallows Bay in Nanjemoy, during Charles County’s 100th commemoration of the start of World War I. The event, at Mallows Bay Saturday, featured photos of the bay’s history,
kayaking, birdwatching, interactive archaeological activities and more.
The start of American involvement in World War I led to a massive shipbuilding enterprise, involving more than 40 shipyards in 17 states.
More than 100 of the ships were wooden steamships, which never saw use and were obsolete by the end of the war. The ships were towed to Mallows Bay, where they were eventually burned and scuttled.
In 1936, Willett said his father was part of a group of men paid to salvage what they could from the wrecked ships. Willett said he is the last living person to have been on the ships scuttled in Mallows Bay.
“From 1932 to 1936, it was a place of employment for about three and a half years,” Willett said. “It was during the Depression era, and people had no work, so this was a great place for them.”
Willett, 10 years old at the time, accompanied his father.
“Having nothing to do but stay out of the way, I found an 8-pound piece of brass, and, as brass was selling for five cents a pound, I made 40 cents off these ships,” Willett said, laughing.
Willett, a native of Nanjemoy, said the history of Mallows Bay has been of interest to him since 1936.
“I’ve been to the maritime museum, National Archives, anywhere I could find out more about it,” Willett said. “This is a great spot.”
Mallows Bay used to be known as Marlow’s Bay, Willett said.
“When I grew up, it was Marlow’s Bay, and it became Mallows Bay because somebody misspelled it,” Willett said.
The National Register of Historic Places application form records the first use of “Mallows Bay” rather than “Marlow’s Bay” in 1928 in War Department documents.
Other ships in Mallows Bay date back to the Civil War.
The old shipwrecks, some of which are not completely submerged, have become habitat for numerous native wildlife, including osprey, herons, bats, fish, turtles and more.
Lynne Wheeler, president of the Southern Maryland Audubon Society, said numerous avians make their home temporarily and year-round at Mallows Bay.
“It’s great habitat, for multiple species,” Wheeler said. “We really do want to protect it — this is our heritage.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has proposed declaring Mallows Bay a National Marine Sanctuary.
Kirk Pierce, volunteer diver with the Institute of Maritime History, said there’s a rich history hidden under the waters of Mallows Bay.
“There are a number of wrecks there,” Pierce said.
The Institute of Maritime History is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and documentation of archaeological remains related to maritime history, according to its website.
“We’re a volunteer group, and we support the professional archaeologists, primarily Susan Langley, the state underwater archaeologist,” Pierce said. “So we’re mostly Scuba divers, but there’s plenty of volunteer opportunities for non-divers, and the whole idea, is if we find something, we’ll report it to her.”
Pierce said volunteer divers mark out the remains of underwater shipwrecks, and note the location and type of artifacts found.
“We don’t disturb any of the artifacts,” Pierce said. “If we find something, not being experts, we don’t necessarily know if it’s important, so to be on the safe side, we don’t touch it. We describe it, or take pictures, if the conditions are good.”
Above, Nanjemoy native Arthur Willett points to one of the ships in his collection of historic photos of the ship graveyard at Mallows Bay Saturday. Below, Lynne Wheeler, right, president of the Southern Maryland Audubon Society, leads a bird watching tour at Mallows Bay Saturday.
Nanjemoy native Arthur Willett shared historic photos and stories about the “ship graveyard” at Mallows Bay during a World War I centennial commemoration Saturday.
One of the many shipwrecks in Mallows Bay.