By Carrie Villar and Sharee Williamson
In October the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac as a new National Treasure, with the ultimate goal of establishing a new national marine sanctuary. Consisting of approximately 200 known wrecks, more than 100 of them the remains of ships built to support the American war effort in World War I, the Ghost Fleet is the largest collection of shipwrecks in the Western hemisphere. Located at Mallows Bay in Charles County, Maryland—just a short drive outside of Washington, D.C.— the shipwrecks are visible from land, jutting out from the Potomac River at low tide.
When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, the Woodrow Wilson administration almost immediately undertook a rapid shipbuilding campaign. By 1917, German U-boats had crippled the world’s merchant fleet and were destroying more than 200 merchant ships each month. The United States stepped in to meet the urgent need for more ships by creating the Emergency Fleet Corporation through the United States Shipping Board.
Prior to World War I, the United States had been the second largest shipbuilder in the world, and its output had paled in comparison to that of the British. Expecting the war to last for several more years, the United States rapidly mobilized to ramp up ship production. Within days of being established, the Emergency Fleet Corporation unveiled plans for an ambitious construction program to build ships from steel, concrete, and even wood. Although wooden shipbuilding was considered passé by many—including President Wilson—others believed that wooden ships could be built quickly using the United States’ large timber reserves.
Over the next two years, 40 shipyards in 17 states around the country focused on filling the orders of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. Due to materials shortages and other challenges, by the time the war ended in November 1918, only 98 of the 734 wooden-hulled ships ordered had been delivered, and none had ever sailed into a European port. Attention soon turned to what to do with “Wilson’s Wood-row Fleet.”
Ultimately, the United States sold most of the wood and composite ships to the Western Marine and Salvage Company (WMSC) of Alexandria, Virginia. What cost the U.S. government $300 million to build sold for scrap for only $750,000. In 1925 the WMSC received permission to move the remaining hulls to Mallows Bay. Salvage activities led by the WMSC, local residents, and even the federal government during World War II continued until the mid-1940s, at which point the Ghost Fleet was largely forgotten.
Since then, the Ghost Fleet has transformed from a salvage operation into an important ecosystem for plants and animals in the Chesapeake Bay. Part of the Charles County Maryland Park System, the Ghost Fleet is well known locally and enjoyed by history buffs, birders, and kayakers alike. But the site’s nationally important history deserves wider public acknowledgment, and improving public access and visitor amenities requires additional resources.
The National Trust’s designation of the site as a National Treasure is intended to support a grassroots effort to make the Ghost Fleet the first national marine sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay. This designation would unlock new opportunities for funding and partnerships to increase public awareness of and access to the site. It would also provide new opportunities to foster educational and research programs and support increased sustainable tourism and economic development in the region.
To help build public awareness of the sanctuary designation effort, the National Trust has teamed up with the President Woodrow Wilson House to present an exhibition that tells the full story of the Ghost Fleet. The exhibition, which will be open until May 2018, explores the construction of a fleet that, once widely considered a wartime boondoggle, has become a rich archaeological and ecological treasure. This unique collaboration with a National Trust historic site to protect a National Treasure will introduce new and different audiences to the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac and build support for protecting a special place where American history, the natural environment, and outdoor recreation intersect.
Carrie Villar is the John and Neville Bryan Associate Director of Museum Collections at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and served as the interim executive director of the Woodrow Wilson House. Sharee Williamson is an associate general counsel at the National Trust.