Once upon a time, as the stories say, 600 elegant and graceful steamboats traversed the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its navigable rivers and creeks. For 124 years, from 1813 to 1937, the vessels transported produce and livestock, oysters, building materials, businessmen, brides and grooms, preachers, farmers and families among some 300 wharves in the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Eastern Shore and the Tidewater region, bound for the major ports of Baltimore and Norfolk.
Since 2001, The Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington has collected and preserved the artifacts of the age. Through multiple artfully designed exhibits, a series of recorded oral histories and a significant collection of relics, the museum illustrates and interprets the influence steamboats had on the economy and lifestyle of the Virginia and Maryland communities on and around the bay. Today, the museum is set to embark on its most ambitious project to date — the restoration of the pilothouse of the steamboat Potomac. The pilothouse is the largest surviving section of a Chesapeake Bay steamboat and has been named one of Virginia’s top ten endangered artifacts by an independent panel of collections and conservation experts.
Until the early 1800s, a lack of roads and bridges limited trade and travel for the communities around the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Variable wind and weather conditions made moving goods or passengers by sailing ship unreliable. Farmers and watermen had no way to transport their harvests to markets in the major ports. The first commercial steamboat in the area began service on the bay in 1813 and steam transport soon transformed the way people lived and worked. As canneries sprung up in rural communities, farmers could plant more crops and sell all of their produce up and down the bay. Watermen were no longer limited to catching only what they could sell locally. General stores could stock a wider range of goods like furnishings, medicines and clothing. The Chesapeake Bay steamboats became part of the economic and social fabric of life, linking an area that was previously isolated, and for the most part poor, to the wide world beyond. The ships brought dependable commerce, growth, prosperity, and even entertainment, to people who had found economic opportunity and travel options hard to come by, whether for business or pleasure.
Entire communities gathered with great anticipation at wharves along the bay, with eyes eagerly scanning the horizon looking for the telltale smudge of smoke against the sky that would signal the impending arrival of a steamboat, or with ears straining to hear the familiar whistle. Chesapeake Bay steamboats were of a style all their own, and they were lovely to look at, according to the recorded memories of local observers. With clean lines and streamlined profiles, they were “distinctly feminine, graceful and eye filling.”
On steamboat days, sleepy hamlets were transformed by the bustle of the wharf. Children would arrive early to go fishing and sell their catch so they could slip a few coins into the steamer’s slot machines, even when their parents forbid them to do so. Farmers, merchants and watermen would come to oversee the loading of their goods bound for markets elsewhere. Busy stevedores loaded and unloaded cargo, all the while singing and entertaining the large crowds assembled. Residents greeted big-city visitors looking to escape for a day or two to a nearby beach or amusement park, or for longer vacations at a resort or a religious revival camp on the water. Travelers would embark for trips to Baltimore, Norfolk and beyond. Families and romancing couples saved their hard-earned pennies for dinner and dancing on the boat.
And then, in the blink of time’s eye, in a shorter span of years than it took to contract, build and outfit one, the Chesapeake Bay steamboats were gone, erased from the map with very little physical evidence to show they ever existed. New bridges and railways, improved roads, and faster vehicles signaled the decline of steamboats. A fierce hurricane in 1933 destroyed many of the wharves in the region and the changing patterns and pace of transportation made it economically impractical to rebuild them. When the steamboat Anne Arundel took its final voyage on the Weems route, delivered its last passengers and left Saunder’s Wharf on the Rappahannock River, April 11, 1937, it effectively turned off the lights of an era. The romantic age of the Chesapeake Steamboats had come to an end. One by one, the remaining steamboats were decommissioned, dismantled or burned to the waterline and refitted as barges. Some of the remaining vessels were put into service in WWII. They ultimately met fates similar to their sister ships — burned, torpedoed or sunk.
The Potomac pilothouse survived thanks to a shipyard owner, Captain Ben Colonna, who envisioned using it as a summer cottage. In 1938, just before the Potomac was decommissioned, Colonna had the pilothouse and adjoining officer’s quarters removed from the boat and transported by barge to White Stone beach, where the structure became his private vacation getaway. The Steamboat Era Museum acquired the pilothouse in 2000 and brought it to Irvington, where it was on display for several years.
Today, the pilothouse sits covered in shrink wrap at the workshop of a local craftsman, awaiting restoration and placement in the museum’s main exhibition hall. The wheelhouse will have all its instruments restored. The captain’s and crew’s quarters will be outfitted to reflect the original furnishings. As the only known surviving intact pilothouse from a Chesapeake Bay steamboat, this unique artifact will represent a significant cornerstone of the museum’s collection, allowing visitors to experience how it feels to pilot a steamboat and see where a captain and his crew lived and worked. Randall J. Kipp, a local Irvington architect who designed the 3,400-square-foot museum, has prepared the drawings of what the pilothouse will look like once it is placed within the main gallery.
The Steamboat Era Museum began its journey in 1999 as an idea conceived by a group of civic-minded Irvington residents committed to keeping the saga of the Chesapeake steamboats from fading into obscurity. For decades, the memories of this idyllic period had remained fresh, in stories told on front porches, around kitchen tables, at cafes and in general stores. But, like footprints on the sandy shores of the bay, the stories began to fade away with the passage of time.
From concept to reality, the fledgling museum took planning, dedication, and quite a few volunteer hours encompassing land acquisition, construction of the building and collection of artifacts. The first evolution of the finished museum opened its doors at 156 King Carter Drive in 2001. The current executive director, Barbara Brecher, took over the helm in September 2013. In 2014, with $7,500 in donations from the community and the labor of enthusiastic volunteers, the facility was redesigned and updated, awaiting the day when the steamer Potomac comes home to its final berth.
In addition to its daily schedule of tours and talks, the museum is host to community events, children’s activities and even costumed re-enactments of scenes from the period. The facility is a designated point of interest along Virginia’s Artisan Trail and Oyster Trail. Two community-wide events anchor the museum’s annual fundraising efforts. The Irvington Crab Festival in August attracts an estimated 750 guests and serves up more than 70 bushels of steamed crabs along with music and dancing. The Holiday Marketplace, on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving, highlights the works of local artisans skilled in woodcraft, jewelry, fiber, glass and other specialties. Local authors are on hand to sign their original books and visitors can stock up on holiday gifts of candles, notecards and tree ornaments.
Chesapeake Bay steamboats are more than a story of technology, trade and travel. They are integral to the rich heritage of the region. Steamboats enabled generations of people in the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Eastern Shore and Tidewater to dream of a better life for themselves and future generations. Thanks to the efforts of The Steamboat Era Museum, the memories and artifacts of a vibrant age remain fresh and colorful. The footprints still exist for anyone willing to look and the stories are still told to anyone willing to listen.
For more information about the Museum or its events, call (804)438-6888 or visit www.steamboateramuseum.org.