The steamboat era on the Chesapeake started in 1813 and lasted to 1937. In its heyday there were over six hundred steamboats of various sizes running on the Bay. Steamboats just didn’t happen like the simplified stories books describe it. In fact, the steamboat had its beginnings in 1802 in Paris when a mutual friend introduced Robert Fulton to Robert Livingston. Their collaboration, Fulton the mechanical genius and Livingston the lawyer, eventually led to the building of what is reputed to be the first steamboat, the Claremont. There were others who helped; it was Nicholas J. Roosevelt who came up with the idea of vertical sidewheels rotated by a shaft connected to the engine. John Stevens developed an engine of his own after studying engines made by Rumsey and Fitch. Bitter squabbles over who owned the rights developed. These patent squabbles caused the first Patent Law of the United States to be enacted in April 1870.
Edward Trippe, with help from his friends William McDonald and Andrew Henderson and for the sum of about $40,000, had the steamboat Chesapeake built by William Flanagan in the spring of 1813. Steamboat transportation was an instant hit on the Chesapeake because the roads were poor. There were few bridges and railroads were far away. Regular runs to towns all along the bay opened up the markets of Baltimore, Washington and heavily populated cities to the north to the farmers and watermen of the Tidewater area. At the peak of the steamboat era, 85% of all the oysters harvested in the world came from the Chesapeake Bay and were shipped by steamer around the world. Most often their journey started on a paddle wheel steamer.
Norton Hurd of Deltaville recalls as a 10 year old boy riding with his father on their horse drawn wagon to and from the Jackson Pier. It was really a side-less bridge stretching out into the creek for a quarter mile. It featured a hand operated draw that allowed boats access to Jackson Creek. Norton’s father used to truck goods to and from the pier. He would bring produce and other goods to the pier then truck back merchandise to stores run by S.J. Moore and Cephus Harrow. Hurd especially remembers that Jackson Creek road, the road to the pier, was paved with oyster shells which made walking a little difficult at those times he was not on his father’s wagon. Hurd liked to visit Moight Jackson’s store at the Jackson Creek pier once known as Enoch pier.
Hurd fondly remembers his overnight trips on the steamboat Middlesex. At least once a year, generally around Christmas, Hurd accompanied by his parents would travel to Baltimore to visit with his aunt and uncle. Sometimes he would make the trip alone during the summer to visit his aunt and uncle. Hurd being alone on the boat, always found the trip exciting. As a young boy he was impressed with the clean toilets and the lovely dining room. He said the food was very good and he enjoyed the sleeping on the steamboat. Hurd remembers the good times he and his pals always had when he was a little older. After attending Christian Endeavor class on a Sunday evening, they would go down to the North End Steamboat Wharf. The wharf was a kind of community social center. People would sit around chatting with friends, sharing the news and eating cheese and crackers. Impromptu wharf sings were frequent. Someone always brought a guitar. They would sing and watch as the steamboat came and people left town while others arrived. Norton said it was a good way to check out the new girls in town. It was, he said: “The event of the week.” Watching steamboats like the 176 foot Potomac arrive and depart was always exciting. Travel by steamboat was exciting and could be dangerous at times. It was not uncommon, in the very early days, for boilers to explode causing loss of lives and vessels. There were none of the electronic aids to navigation enjoyed by modern vessels. Collisions did sometimes occur in fog. Fire was the ever present danger and a concern for passengers. Writing in the book Steam Packets on the Chesapeake, author Alexander Crosby Brown wrote: “Chesapeake Bay was remarkably free of steamboat disasters and, proportionately, accidents were far less frequent than in other localities.” It was not until 1838 that the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service was founded.
In 1828 a system of “safety trailers” was tried out on the Hudson River where the steamboat Commerce towed behind it a splendidly appointed barge, the Lady Clinton, with more lavish accommodations. The advertisement read: “Why sleep on the edge of a volcano?” the system did not work out because it cut down on the steamboat’s speed. One instance where towing did work out was with the James Adams Floating Theater. This very successful floating theatrical endeavor brought shows to towns all up and down the Chesapeake Bay It inspired Edna Ferber to write the book Showboat which Going became a hit Broadway musical and the basis for two very successful films.
One of the more famous stories of how steamboats were involved in the Civil War is the story of a Confederate Officer named Richard Thomas, generally referred to as “Zarvona.” He became known as the “French lady” when disguised as an elegant French woman. He along with crew of accomplices seized the passenger steamer St. Nicholas as part of their plan to raid the sloop of war USS Pawnee. There was any number of steamboats calling at towns on the Northern Neck. Steamers named Piankatank, Potomac, Virginia, Lancaster and Calvert made regular trips. A familiar sight on the bay was the 200 foot side-wheeler Middlesex. Built in 1902 by Neafie and Levy of Baltimore, for the Weems Line: her speed was estimated to be 16 miles per hour. Loaded with 50 tons of coal and a net cargo of 250 tons, she could travel at 14 miles per hour. The boat drew 8 feet of water. She had forty-one elegantly appointed staterooms and was renowned for her cuisine served in a dining room located midships aft of the stack. In one account passengers, who frequently traveled on the Middlesex claimed the food to be: “The most delicious and bountiful they had ever consumed.” In January 1911, she was completely overhauled at the Newport News Shipbuilding yards and emerged with thirty additional staterooms. She was one of approximately twenty other steamboats in operation on the bay.
One of the routine procedures carried out by steamboats like the Columbus and the George Washington in 1834 was a passenger transfer while both steamboats were moving out in the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The boat ahead would slow to where she had just enough forward movement to maintain steering. Then when the gangways were aligned, the ships were tied together bow and stern and moved as one vessel long enough for the passengers to transfer from one ship to the other.
Captain Floyd Ward of Deltaville fondly remembers being a passenger on the 300 foot steamboat District of Columbia run by the Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Company. He was 16 years old on a class trip to Washington. Ward said they boarded the steamboat at Hampton and road it up the Potomac River to Washington DC. He described it as very exciting. Whistles blew, bells rang, the engines roared, and they slept on wooden benches as he and his classmates were transported to a whole new world outside of Deltaville. Despite the fact that his encounter with the steamboat District of Columbia occurred nearly 70 years ago, the trip is a vivid cherished memory for Captain Floyd Ward.
Steamboat captains who sailed on the Chesapeake Bay were well respected members of the community and often became legendary for their exploits. Captain Archibald Mitchell Long, 1867-1948, started his long life of service on steamboats as a very young man. He was in fact, one of the youngest captains to sail out of Baltimore Harbor. He served on a number of steamboats but his longest tenure was 27 years as Captain Archie of the steamboat Potomac.
The steamboat Anne Arundel made the last run on the Rappahannock River in September of 14, 1937. Captain J.C. Davis made this request to management: “Let me load the vessel with all my loyal patrons, family and friends and take one last voyage and say farewell to all my stops along the way.” Steamboat travel had been rapidly declining since the 1930s. Storms in 1933 destroyed many of the wharves used by steamboats. Some were rebuilt but an ice storm in 1937 dealt the final blow. New highways, freight trucks and passenger car trucks caused the end of an era.
Thanks to the vision of three men: Alexander Fleet, Jimmie Lee Crockett and William Gresham, the cherished history of the steamboat era in the Northern Neck from 1813 to 1937 has not only been lovingly preserved but celebrated at the Steamboat Era Museum at 156 King Carter Drive in Irvington, Virginia. The Steamboat Era Museum is dedicated to preserving the history, artifact and memories of this romantic era that was so much a part of the Northern Neck. Beautiful ship models, photographs, historical information, video taped oral histories, artifacts and much more make this an outstanding museum. This modern museum is a wonderful destination for adults and children to learn about the heritage that is so much a part of the history of the bay. In 2012 volunteers contributed nearly 3000 hours of their time to make the Steamboat Era Museum an exciting place to visit. Under the direction of Terri Thaxton, it provides an educational and fun experience to some 1,500 visitors each year. You can learn more about this exciting repository of the history of a time when everything and everyone that traveled around the bay traveled on a steamboat. Visit their interesting website at www.SteamboatEraMuseum.org. Call for information at 804-438-6888. Exciting things are happening at the museum. As this is written and in cooperation with the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, skilled model craftsmen are creating a new diorama that depicts six stages of the steamboat Piankatank being built in a turn of the century Baltimore shipyard. It is expected to be at its permanent home in the Steamboat Era Museum by the spring of 2013.
At the Steamboat Era Museum you may, if you allow your imagination to take over, be transported back in time when steamboats were a familiar sight, a time when folks liked to cuddle up close beneath the silv’ry moon while sailing down the Chesapeake Bay.