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New National Marine Sanctuary For Shipwrecked Vessels Is A 'Time Capsule'

At a bend in the Potomac River, about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., there's a fleet of "ghost ships" — shipwrecks that rise eerily from the water at low tide. It's one of the largest collections of shipwrecks in the world, and they're now part of a new national marine sanctuary.

Most of the ships date back to World War I. They were part of a massive wartime shipbuilding effort. In the days after the U.S. entered the first world war, the nation began a program to build an emergency fleet of 1,000 wooden steamships in just 18 months to ferry supplies to the Allies in Europe. But none of the ships made it to a European port: By the time they were built, the war was over. The ships were sold for salvage. They were towed up the Potomac River, picked over for metal parts and then burned and sunk in the river.

While the burning and salvaging wrought havoc on the environment, the area has now given rise to a unique ecosystem: Ospreys nest on the ships, and trees and shrubs grow out of them. And increasingly, tourists are exploring the wrecks by kayak and canoe.

"It's a really cool place to kayak around," says Joel Dunn, president of the Chesapeake Conservancy. "It's like Disney World for kayakers."

Mallows Bay is the 14th national marine sanctuary in the U.S. — it joins places such as California's Monterey Bay, Michigan's Thunder Bay and the Florida Keys.

"This is one of the most unique pieces of U.S. history," says Sammy Orlando, a regional coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the marine sanctuary network. "This is a time capsule."

Donald Shomette, a marine archaeologist who spent much of his life studying the wrecks of Mallows Bay, says even though the ships didn't make it to Europe during World War I, their construction had a lasting impact on the United States.

"We became the largest shipbuilding nation in the history of the world," Shomette says.

Copyright 2019 WAMU 88.5

Jacob Fenston is WAMU’s environment reporter. In prior roles at WAMU, he was the founding producer of The Big Listen, interim managing producer of Metro Connection, and a news editor. His work has appeared on many national programs and has been recognized by regional and national awards. More importantly, his reporting has taken him and his microphone deep into muddy banks of the Anacostia River, into an enormous sewage tunnel, and hunting rats in infested alleys. His best story ever (as determined by himself) did not win any awards, even though it required recording audio while riding a bicycle the wrong way down the busy streets of Oakland, Calif.