From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
WWI Now: Daniel Basta on the "Ghost Fleet" of Mallows Bay
In August 19th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 136, host Theo Mayer interviewed Daniel J. Basta, Doughboy Foundation board member and accomplished scientist and diver. Mr. Basta shed light on the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay, an armada of ships scuttled by the U.S. government in Maryland after the war. Today Mallows Bay is a National Marine Sanctuary, a protected area for wildlife and human recreation- and something that connects contemporary Americans to the Great War. Read on to discover this unique and powerful outdoor destination. The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: When America entered the war in 1917, the country was totally unprepared for prosecuting an overseas war at scale. Even before the US joined the war, the Shipping Act of 1916, signed by President Wilson, created a five member United States Shipping Board, the USSB, to create a subsidiary corporation to build ships. In fact, the US effectively nationalized the ship building industry. We needed tonnage fast. So under the Ship Building Board in 1917, they started to mass produce a fleet of cheap, small wooden steamers at about 3000 tons each, rather than larger, state-of-the-art, oil burning steel ships at 8000 tons. Well, that nationalized push to build ships and get our boys material over there did get a lot of ships built fast, but they weren't designed or built for the long term. So having served their purpose, or not even put into service, over 200 of them were scuttled and sunk right after the war.
A lot of this happened in a small bay on the Maryland side of the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland. With the scuttled ships protruding partially out of the water, the area became known as the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay. It's considered the largest shipwreck graveyard in the Western Hemisphere, and has recently been designated as one of the most interesting National Marine Sanctuaries in the United States. Now this designation was the result of a large number of people who felt passionately that this heritage site should be a National Marine Sanctuary, including our next guest. Daniel J. Basta is a board member of the Doughboy Foundation and has also enjoyed a colorful and illustrious career, including as the Director of the National Marine Sanctuary System, which is within NOAA, the government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dan, welcome to the podcast.
Dan Basta: I'm happy to be here, Theo.
Theo Mayer: So Dan, before we get into the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay, I'd like to give our listeners a bit more insight into you and your career. You've got three engineering degrees, you've written books, papers, you've been an official government duty diver, you've run all sorts of programs. How did all of that lead you to the involvement with getting Mallows Bay designated as a National Marine Sanctuary?
Dan Basta: Well, the question that I would like to shed a light on is, how did I even get to understand that something like Mallows Bay had value? I didn't always know that Maritime Heritage, places like Mallows Bay and shipwrecks were such powerful motivators and connective tools to Americans and people everywhere around the globe. It was an accident of programming in the early 2000s, when being a person who was interested generically in shipwrecks, we uncovered a shipwreck in Massachusetts Bay that we knew was relatively important. We didn't realize it was the Titanic of New England.
Theo Mayer: Dan, what ship was that?
Dan Basta: That was the Portland. Discovery did a film on that shipwreck as well. It was the SS Portland, it was a steamer between Boston and Portland, Maine. It was lost in the Great Storm of, I think, 1901 or '02. Everybody died.
Theo Mayer: Wow.
Dan Basta: It brought more attention to the things we did than anything ever before. We knew it was important and we had a very modest Maritime Heritage program, but I didn't fully understand the connective tissue that this permitted. We had TV stations from all over the country. It was like, "Uh-oh. We have run into something." That formed in my mind, the way in which Maritime Heritage could be a means to an end to connecting people, expanding their views of their environment and their society and their culture. Mallows Bay is one of those and is the only one in Chesapeake Bay of its kind. It's the only one on the East Coast of its kind.
Theo Mayer: How did you come into the project and the Ghost Fleet?
Dan Basta: After the experience in New England, I created the Maritime Heritage program. I would hear lots of things. People would pitch me ideas about things. I was always interested in the greater Chesapeake Bay domain. I accidentally ran into this story and began conversations to learn more about it. I made a couple of trips. Don Shomette, who's the "father," quote, of the story of Mallows Bay, came to my office and we began to put together the ideas of what Mallows Bay could do for the larger picture that I was trying to affect. Forty shipyards around the country were involved. That's 40 major communities you could reach out to and connect with, 17 states, and all the places that built all the equipment that was on those ships. It's an integrated story of shipbuilding, of crisis, of American resolve and the Great War.
Theo Mayer: What does it mean to be designated as a National Marine Sanctuary? What's the result?
Dan Basta: There's more in federal jurisdiction in National Marine Sanctuaries than all National Parks combined, but it's all underwater. It's hard to compare and sell stories the way you do with the National Park Service. But if you become a National Marine Sanctuary, such as Mallows Bay becomes, it begins to bring assets to the table that the community begins to take advantage of. Typically there's research programs. There's education programs that are not possible to fund by state and local authorities. It's often an infrastructure investment. It changes the nature of the community and the environs because it is a National Marine Sanctuary. It provides economic opportunity. It provides business development. When you are talking about Mallows Bay now with the community, you're also talking about other issues, because that's what a sanctuary does. You're talking about the ecosystem that it supports. You're talking about its role, in this case, in the lower Potomac and the Bay, and now you're connecting to other organizations.
Theo Mayer: Well Dan, how unique of an environment is Mallows Bay?
Dan Basta: Well, it's pretty unique. The ships themselves, the 100 odd shipwrecks, have formed an infrastructure for an upper Bay ecosystem that didn't quite exist as robust as it is now due to the presence of those ships there. It provides habitat, it provides predator/prey context where prey can in fact hide within the matrix of the shipwrecks. It is a Maryland park by the way, so you can go and kayak it. They have some interpretative signs at Mallows Bay. I have done that. It's right across the river from Quantico in Virginia. It does a lot for you but you've got to embrace it and make it so. You can't just draw the lines on the map and say, "Okay, we're done." It's the programming and the connectivity, the community, that really creates the difference. For the Great War, it's a wonderful story.
Theo Mayer: If I wanted to experience it just as a citizen, are there other ways that I can learn more and experience it and see it?
Dan Basta: Well, there's a lot of stuff now available on the NOAA website regarding that. The state of Maryland has a website as well. There is a landing and a parking lot already accessible to Mallows Bay. When it's designated a sanctuary, other infrastructure begins to come to the place that allows better access, major educational program connectivity that doesn't exist right now. It's to be enjoyed, it's to be understood, it's to be interpreted and it has to drive that from this local community fabric, which is why it's being designated. The state of Maryland, Charles County and other local entities have been tremendous in their support. In fact, I would submit that they now own it more than the federal government does. It's theirs.
Theo Mayer: How long did it take as a project? How does something become a National Sanctuary?
Dan Basta: Well, there's an Act called the National Marine Sanctuary Act. It's an independent Act of Congress. There's a specific process you have to go through in order to get into the designation process. It took about 10 years to do this. You have public meetings requirement, there's a federal register notices, there's environmental impact statements.
Once it goes through the agency, it passes all the litmus tests there. It then reaches what's called a Federal Environmental Impact Statement status, FEIS, which is the final statement about all the input from everyone, the pros, the cons, and the decision by NOAA or in this case, the Department of Commerce has delegated that to NOAA, to put out the final statement. Now that final statement came out in June.
The law says that within 45 consecutive days of Congress, if Congress does not intercede, it will automatically become a National Marine Sanctuary by law. That is in November. It will be the first fully new Marine Sanctuary in 20 years. So in that 20 year period, it was very difficult to try and create a totally new place. A Maritime Heritage one, such as Mallows Bay, it doesn't really create many conflicts. There are some issues about, "Will that prohibits fishing in this 18 square mile area?" The answer is no. But the compelling story and the community support overcame all of that. You mentioned that there were 200 odd ships made. None of these ships in Mallows Bay ever sailed to sea, really.
Theo Mayer: Oh, really?
Dan Basta: By the time they were completed, the war was over. They're all wood. If you didn't know they were wood and you saw them when they were built, you'd think they were iron-hulled steamers. They look exactly like a steamship. Well, why are they wood? Huge, huge shortage of iron ore and steel. You could not get enough iron ore and steel to build the ships projected necessarily to bring all the Americans and all their supplies and all the wherewithal to the Great War. So they were made out of wood. That's why they're also a great habitat because wood decomposes and creates all sorts of nooks and crannies for creatures and biota. But none of them actually went to France.
Theo Mayer: Interesting. So Dan, as a closing question, from your point of view, what does Mallows Bay have to teach us about World War I, about America, and about the marine environment?
Dan Basta: America, even today, was determined by what we did in during that period. Mallows Bay is symbolic of much of that. It was part of the changing fabric of an awakening America, but it also says that when we completed that conflict, we began to demobilize quickly. That meant that all of these ships that were built to great expense were towed up the Potomac River to be disposed of. They never were completely disposed of. There were lots of operations around Mallows Bay of contractors who had government contracts to deal with this.
Theo Mayer: Were they doing salvage?
Dan Basta: Absolutely. That area around Mallows Bay was full of salvage equipment and cranes and all sorts of stuff to try and get some value back out of these vessels. It never was fully completed, but it's that view of ramp up, ramp down. Clearly we learned that ramping down put us in a difficult position 20 years later with World War II.
Theo Mayer: Dan, thank you so much for coming in and telling us this story.
Dan Basta: Thank you for having me Theo. I continue to look forward to the great work of the Commission.
Theo Mayer: Dan Basta, former Director of the National Marine Sanctuary System, board member of the Doughboy Foundation and marine expert. We have links for you in the podcast notes.