Celebrating a New Sanctuary

Planning Assistance in Action

By Susan Langley, State Underwater Archeologist
Maryland Historical Trust

On the frosty morning of November 9, Governor Larry Hogan, Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Robert McCord, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Charles County Commission President Reuben Collins II, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Under Secretary of Commerce Dr. Neil Jacobs, and NOAA Rear-Admiral Tim Gallaudet were joined by about 400 representatives of organizations and agencies, as well as individuals and community supporters, to formally recognize the establishment of the Mallows Bay – Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary, officially established September 3, 2019, is the first in almost 20 years, the first in Maryland, and the first in a riverine environment.

This amazing achievement is the result of many years of hard work. In 2014, a steering committee made up of representatives from MHT, NOAA, DNR, Charles County, and the general public began laying the groundwork for the nomination: organizing community interest and support, researching the nomination criteria, and guiding the nomination through the correct processes. It was very much like the children’s folktale “Stone Soup,” in that all the players contributed what they could, and we succeeded!


Governor Hogan and Senator Van Hollen look on as Mario Harley offers a blessing at the sanctuary dedication. Photo credit: Matt McIntosh, NOAA

For its part, MHT submitted a successful nomination of 18 square miles, including Mallows Bay and a segment of the Potomac River, to the National Register of Historic Places as the Mallows Bay – Widewater Historical and Archeological National Register District. The public chose the footprint of the National Register district as the sanctuary’s preferred boundary, encompassing 145 known historic vessels. Other historic and prehistoric archeological resources within the sanctuary represent Native American heritage, fisheries, transportation, and aspects of every major conflict from the American Revolution to WWII.

The stated goals of the Mallows Bay – Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, derived through input from the community, are “to protect and conserve the fragile remains of the Nation’s maritime cultural heritage” while “expanding opportunities for public access, recreation, tourism, research, and education in the Mallows Bay area of the tidal Potomac River.” To achieve these goals, MHT retains control and management of the historic and archeological resources, including the issuance of research permits. MHT staff are currently working with East Carolina University to facilitate a graduate student field school in 2020, and a Louisiana museum has already asked to share materials as they research one of the vessels built in that state.


Kayaking at Mallows Bay. Photo credit: Matt McIntosh, NOAA

Kayaking remains the best way to visit the sanctuary and cruise amid the “ghost fleet.” Working with MHT, DNR, NOAA and Charles County staff, the Chesapeake Conservancy developed a paddling map in 2019. To facilitate tours, MHT created marker buoys for several of the vessels and coordinates with Charles County to deploy and maintain them. The Conservancy is currently developing an audio-tour, for which MHT has supplied content. MHT staff frequently guide special tours of the site, alongside local providers and other organizations such as REI, the Potomac Riverkeeper, and the Smithsonian.

Beginning in 2014, the partners joined the Accokeek Foundation in a Potomac-wide trash clean-up that included Mallows Bay. Now so successful that registration is required, the event is held annually, usually in April in association with Earth Day. Two high schools and one elementary school in Charles County have been active through NOAA’s Ocean Guardian program, the National Association of Black Scuba Divers’ Diving with a Purpose, and Junior Scientists in the Sea. As MHT and the other partners begin to implement the sanctuary’s management plan, many of these current activities will continue and many more will be developed. Stay tuned!

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