Mallows Bay Ship Graveyard a Map for Rhode Island

Site suggests the future for Bold Point’s wrecks.

Mallows Bay, a remote stretch of the Potomac River in Maryland, 30 miles downriver from Washington, D.C., is the largest ship graveyard in the nation. It contains over 230 individual MallowsBaywrecks, including over 100 steam vessels manufactured during World War I. This site, which is currently on its way to becoming the newest National Marine Sanctuary in the U.S., may provide some insights for the cluster of historic vessels recently discovered near Bold Point in Providence Harbor.

“I believe your Rhode Island site would really make a great pilot project for a landscape-based approach to conservation,” said Susan Langley, Maryland state underwater archaeologist, during her presentation on March 17th as part of the Coastal State Discussion Series sponsored by Rhode Island Sea Grant.

To date, 29 historic wooden-hulled vessels from the 19th and early 20th centuries have been discovered off of East Providence’s Bold Point in Providence Harbor. Among the discarded vessels are the remains of Mount Hope and Bay Queen, two of Rhode Island’s most prominent 19th-century steamboats. In addition to the wrecks, the remains of the first floating dry-dock in Narragansett Bay, as well as pier pilings once used to support nearby marine railway operations, have also been identified.

SS Mount Hope

SS Mount Hope, largest passenger steamboat

Cultural history doesn’t end at the water’s edge. Shipwrecks are not all there are to marine studies,” said Langley, noting that the National Register of Historic Places is considering adding the concept of “Maritime Cultural Landscape” as an additional category. “A shipyard is the perfect example in that there are wrecks, docks, in [Rhode Island’s] case a dry dock, marine railways, the pickling pond (brining pond), the actual yard itself…they are part of a maritime landscape too. We want to integrate land and shore/littoral and water and look at them as a cultural whole, and Providence is just the perfect … pilot project for this.”

David Robinson, a marine archaeologist from the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, who uncovered these vessels, joined Langley in the discussion describing the historical significance and potential future for the site off Bold Point.

“You can compare changes in [ship building] technology and design over time all from this one site,” he said. The placement and condition of each wreck and structure, he added, provides rich detail about the marine industry activities that have unfolded along the harbor banks in the past.    

Green Jacket Shoal, Providence Harbor

Green Jacket Shoal, Providence Harbor

Robinson and Langley described several parallels between the Mallows Bay and Bold Point graveyard:

  • Location: In water bodies that are recovering from decades of environmental neglect.
  • History: Wrecks and artifacts offer details to the histories of their respective maritime cultures and practices, as well as events that shaped the local communities.
  • Time:  These vessels will not remain intact forever and communities now must decide what roles they will have in the future. The improved water quality in Narragansett Bay will accelerate the decay.

“[The wrecks] are in the various stages of becoming part of the natural environment,” said Langley. “That is a very critical part of their role. They are serving as a platform for additional scientific research of plant and wildlife there onsite.”

Robinson agreed that these vessels offer environmental benefits by providing new habitat, but that there are looming challenges with marine debris removal efforts.

“It’s understandable to want to remove certain parts of the site,” he said, referring to state efforts to clean up hazardous debris in the bay. “But we need to consider that these are the new homes of pioneering species that have returned to the bay.”  At the same time, the wrecks and pilings will continue to break up and present hazards to navigation.

This raises the question of what is considered historically relevant and what is considered hazardous to the health of the bay and surrounding communities, which will be the basis for the state moving forward to develop a management plan to balance those concerns.

And just like Mallows Bay, Bold Point will be the focus of additional research to aid these management decisions.

Dr. Susan Langley and David Robinson speak at Coastal State Discussion on March 17, 2016.


Evan Ridley and Meredith Haas | RISG Communications