Free excursions took people away from hard times

March 10, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Sam Downey is the man with the answers. The Baltimore County gentleman knows the saga of the steamer F.C. Latrobe, Chesterwood on Bear Creek and the life and times of the Free Summer Excursion Society.

"I was about 10 years old. We drove to the foot of Broadway in a 1927 Nash four-door open touring car. In those days, closed cars were for invalids or sissies," Downey said.

Docked just off Thames Street was the F.C. Latrobe, a city-owned side-wheeler built in 1878. She was a relic in the 1920s but still served Baltimore valiantly until 1958. She was scrapped in 1959.

"She emitted the blackest of black smoke. If I recall, the smokestack seemed to be made of cast iron. She was not sleek and beautiful but was a broad vessel," Downey said.

Baltimoreans called the Latrobe the ice boat because she was designed to break up the ice in the harbor and the Patapsco River. Her prominent smoke stack carried the letters HB for Harbor Board and was normally berthed at Pier Seven, President Street, due east of the new Christopher Columbus Center.

In the summer, the Latrobe was available for political outings and the eight or nine trips on summer Thursdays given by the Free Summer Excursion Society.

"I went along because my aunt was a friend of one of the members of the women's auxiliary of the Free Society," Downey said. "The trips the society sponsored were absolutely free but the group raised all the money for the boat trip and the lunch served on their own."

The story of the Free Summer Excursion Society is one of those charming Baltimore tales wherein good-hearted people found a way out of some hard times:

"At the close of the War Between the States there was much poverty in Baltimore. The city was filled with refugees. There was no work to be had. Thousands of poor people were in real want. . . . The Free Summer Excursion Society was organized to provide outings for mothers and children of the byways and alleys who otherwise would never get a breath of fresh air or good, wholesome food," wrote Baltimore historian Carroll Dulaney in the old Baltimore News-Post in 1937.

The society was founded in 1871 by John T. Ford, the theatrical manager responsible for Ford's Theatre on West Fayette Street, Ford's Theatre in Washington (where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated) and Philadelphia's Academy of Music. He was a major figure of his day and was known for his honesty.

In its first years, the society's outings were held at bucolic Hall's Springs where Harford Road crosses Herring Run. Today, the site is a city park nestled between the Mayfield and Lauraville neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore.

In 1880, Richard D. Fisher leased a 16-acre section of his estate on Bear Creek (the body of water that separates Dundalk from Sparrows Point) to the society, which named it Chesterwood after a son named Chester drowned in a swimming accident. From 1880 until 1958, Chesterwood was the setting for the society's Thursday picnics. The society paid a rent of one cent a year.

In May and June of each year, the group's female members walked through the city's neighborhoods, distributing free excursion tickets to needy families.

These chits were printed in red, white and blue -- the colors of the three Chesterwood pavilions where the free lunches were distributed. The tickets were also good for free fares on the streetcars to and from South Broadway.

"There was swimming and bath houses at Chesterwood. It was a fine summertime spot," Downey recalled.

The Latrobe left port at 8 a.m. and returned at 6 in the evening.

Baltimore was racially segregated at this time. Certain designated Thursdays were for black children and their mothers. The other days were for whites.

The Latrobe steamed out of the harbor for the summer excursions until 1958. Her longevity contributed to keeping the outings going. Ship historians credit her charcoal iron hull for her exceptionally long life because it had a higher resistance to corrosion than steel. It must have also been effective when she rammed harbor ice.

In 1959, the F.C. Latrobe was nominally replaced by the Port Welcome, a non-ice breaking excursion boat. The rental fees for the new vessel were much higher than the antique Latrobe. The society appealed to City Hall for help. The city declined. Thus ended the Free Summer Excursion Society.

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