Steamboats forged through the bay and into history

Jacques Kelly

August 26, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

On an August night during the 1930s, H. Graham Wood liked nothing better than to borrow his father's Buick, drive to Federal Hill and watch the maritime show unfolding in the harbor.

It was better than fireworks. One by one, the Chesapeake Bay excursion steamboats glided up the Patapsco to berths on Light Street. His park bench seat gave him a view of the old Emma Giles, Express, Annapolis and Cambridge. Each blasted a throaty steam whistle.

As night fell, the generators outlined their white wood sides with electric light bulbs. The paddlewheels slapped the water.

The bay's steamboats were far from merely picturesque summertime attractions. They hauled the Chesapeake region's produce and freight -- tobacco, peaches, strawberries, potatoes, live animals, farm machinery, equipment, fertilizer and, of course, seafood. And while these boats were picturesque, many were owned by the transportation giants of their day -- the Pennsylvania, Southern and Atlantic Coast Line railroads.

Baltimore's bay boats have been a lifelong passion of Wood, former chief of First National Bank's trust division. Wood was born in 1910, the height of the steamboat era, when some 35 of the bay's rivers and creeks were served by dozens of boats whose home port was Baltimore.

His first trip out was the summer of 1914. The boat was the Cambridge. The destination -- Ocean City; the power, steam, first across the bay to Claiborne, in Talbot County, then by coal-fired locomotive to Ocean City.

"I remember looking over the rail and seeing nothing but sea nettles," he said.

Not long thereafter, he began accompanying his father, an official of the Hoskins Lumber Co., on buying trips to the Eastern Shore and Tidewater Virginia. Father and son, they rode all the boats to places such as Snow Hill, Salisbury, Denton and Fredericksburg, Va., in search of stands of loblolly pine, the tall tree so prized for bridge pilings.

"There was nothing quite like it. Waiting on a country wharf for what seemed like hours before sighting the smoke and then the steamer's stack over the willow trees," Wood recalled.

When other children were fascinated by railroad locomotives, or fine engines or baseball players, Wood idolized the steamboat.

So, one day in 1918, he put his first copper penny on the counter of a store at St. Paul and 25th streets. It was a chromo-tinted postcard of the Annapolis. Over the years, Wood has collected ** 3,000 bay steamer photos, timetables, broadsides and paintings. His Bellemore Road home's third floor is a museum of what was once Maryland's floating mass transit fleet. He also is the co-author, with Robert H. Burgess, of the 1968 book, "Steamboats Out of Baltimore."

His collection documents the steamers' evocative names -- the Ida, Louise, Joppa, Minerva, Jane Moseley, Three Rivers, Avalon, Queen Anne, Gratitude, Corsica, Minnie Wheeler, Helen and Maggie.

Wood, a 1932 Johns Hopkins University graduate, went to work for $15 a week in the Great Depression. He recalls a steamer trip to the small, isolated river wharves of Virginia. He shared a stateroom. For $6.50, he got his fare, two nights on the water, and four meals, including two suppers, a lunch and a breakfast.

No wonder people still talk about the meals they had on these boats. Wood produced a Chesapeake Line menu. A $1 dinner consisted of: "pin money" pickles, Little Neck clams, vegetable soup, panned perch with hot corn cakes, sirloin steak, new potatoes and buttered beets, asparagus salad, rye bread, peach Melba, pound cake, assorted cheeses and coffee.

As long as the Eastern Shore had rutted, oyster-shell paved roads, the steamboat was dominant. But trucks, and better highways, ended that. So did the 1933 hurricane, which knocked out some of the old wharves and landings.

The absolute end was gradual in arriving. The Old Bay Line's overnight service to Norfolk continued until 1962, long enough for national magazines to have discovered it as a curiosity it was.

Wood was at his First National desk one June day in 1969 when he heard a report the last mothballed bay boat was on fire.

"There was just a wisp of smoke trailing out of her," he said. Within minutes, the old District of Columbia was a floating bonfire.

And, 11 years later, Harborplace would open precisely where the boats once left for Abell's Landing, Tappahannock and Onancock.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.