Going overnight to Norfolk

Baltimore Glimpses

September 15, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

FROM its berth in the Inner Harbor, the passenger steame City of Norfolk departed every summer evening at 6:30 p.m.

It was a bustling scene: milling crowds, honking trucks, clanging streetcars, shouting stevedores.

Off for a two-day pleasure cruise aboard the stately, all-white, three-decker ship were about 80 people. Some were business people, but most were families, and there was a smattering of honeymooners.

By 5:30 the next morning the City of Norfolk would be about 200 miles down the Chesapeake Bay, docking at Old Point Comfort, Va. An hour later, the passengers would step off the gangway for a day's leisure in Norfolk.

But before that, there was a whole life to be lived shipboard, a dreamy time in another era when the pace was slower -- slower even than life aboard today's cruise ships.

First, a sunset dinner in the salon -- a leisurely meal with fine food, thick linen, gleaming silver, attentive waiters. There was a waiter, Willie Harris, whose call to dinner became legend: "Dinner-r-r-r-r-r-r!"

Then, in good weather, dancing under a starlit sky.

Passengers then retired to their cabins. They ranged in size from a closet-size cubicle to double-decker berths to spacious suites with twin beds. Many boasted polished brass and king-size chairs and beds.

After the day in Norfolk, passengers would board late in the afternoon for the 5:30 p.m. departure to Baltimore. Another good meal, more dancing . . .

From the 1930s until April 1962, the City of Norfolk and its sister ship, the City of Richmond, made the Baltimore-Norfolk run seven days a week, Memorial Day to Labor Day, and five days a week, October to May. The ships were said to carry more than 60,000 passengers during the summer season.

But both vessels made their last runs in 1962, bringing overnight steamship service in Baltimore to an end. "It's like going to the funeral of an old friend," said Capt. S. Boyd Chapman of the City of Richmond.

Many a Baltimorean who had taken the "overnight to Norfolk" agreed.

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