The ferryboat known more commonly as Smoky Joe than by its real name, the Philadelphia, steamed three times a day for 16 years from Pier 5 Light Street across the Chesapeake Bay to Love Point.
By the time it was retired in 1947, Smoky Joe had managed to sail into the hearts of Baltimoreans and those on the Eastern Shore.
Described as a "Dumpy double-ender," the boat earned its nickname because of the telltale trail of black coal smoke that belched from its two tall funnels (reduced to one after an 1935 refit). The ferry was a perpetual smudge on the city's skyline.
Some waterfront observers wryly suggested that the ferry be called Smoky Josephine -- after the custom of referring to a vessel as "she" -- rather than Smoky Joe, but the latter name stuck.
Painted a deep red with the keystones of its owner, the Pennsylvania Railroad, affixed to its funnels, Smoky Joe earned a reputation for ice-breaking and rescuing stranded ships and mariners.
"Smoky -- 200 feet long, 65 wide, 48 years old and as graceful as a tub of butter -- has saved so many lives and towed so many disabled small boats to safety that she is known as the Good Samaritan of the Harbor," said The Sun in 1946.
One of her longtime captains, Washington I. Woodall, who died in 1939, had been called the "Chesapeake Bay Life Saving Association."
In an interview with The Sun, he said: "We pick them all up, big or small. We're glad to be able to help anybody. It's all in a day's work."
A 1946 Sun editorial said: "Some said she made more rescues than anybody could count. Others, more conservatively inclined, put the number of souls saved at 200, men, women and children.
"The heroic rescues of 'Smoky Joe' made good reading and it may be assumed that every reporter who covered the waterfront was alert to see that not one escaped him. Yet on the basis of that evidence the record of persons rescued were neither
'countless' nor 200. They numbered in all 69, of whom 50 were passengers on the City of Baltimore. Such is the record. But that is neither here nor there. Smoky Joe's immortality is as safe as that of Paul Revere and Barbara Fritchie, and for much the same reason."
A tribute in verse
Raymond Tompkins, a Baltimore newspaperman, immortalized the ferry in poetry:
Monitor and Merrimac, Goliath and his Dave --
Hist'rys full of mice an' the lions that they save --
But for real immortality (it may sound silly),
My money's on the story of the ferry boat Philly.
In addition to automobiles and trucks on its main deck bound for the Eastern Shore or Baltimore, businessmen, students and vacationers boarded for the two-hour-and-20-minute crossing.
In good weather, passengers enjoyed a picnic lunch of fried chicken or steamed crabs on the broad decks. In winter, passengers were safely wrapped in the steam-heated comfort of roomy, mahogany-paneled salons, where they passed the voyage in upholstered leather chairs.
Arrival at the Love Point Hotel meant that some travelers had reached their destination. For others, it was a transfer point to the trains of the Baltimore and Eastern Railroad, later the P.R.R., which would speed them on to Denton, McDaniel, Easton, Preston or West Ocean City.
Frigid winters and ice on the bay failed to deter Smoky Joe from its appointed rounds. With its powerful, 1,200-horsepower steam engines, the ferry cut through ice 15 to 30 inches deep while larger liners like the City of Baltimore were stalled by the ice.
However, by early 1947, with freight and passenger traffic falling off, an application was filed with the state's Public Service Commission to discontinue the ferry run.
"Smoky Joe has outlived his time," said an editorial in The Evening Sun. "Once an essential link between Baltimore City and the Eastern Shore, the ferry has lost money consistently for the last eight years. In the day of the automobile and the airplane, old Smoky Joe's faithful puffing can't keep up the pace set by his competitors. It takes two hours and twenty minutes from terminal to terminal, a distance of 27 miles.
"Smoky Joe will go into retirement with the knowledge of having served his purpose well, but the memory lingers of the good old days when the bay was alive with such vessels as this."
The ferry's last trip began at 8 p.m. Aug. 31, 1947, with 187 passengers aboard. As the vessel pulled away from the Light Street pier, its passing was noted by other vessels.
"As she moved down the harbor, she was greeted with the nostalgic 'farewell,' three blasts from the nearby Bay Belle. These signals were repeated as she proceeded down the harbor by the fireboat Cataract, the police boat Charles Gaither and the fireboat Deluge," said The Sun.
On the decks, groups of nostalgic passengers sang to the ukulele-playing of a fellow passenger. Ship's watchman Blair Collins told The Sun, "It is the saddest and yet the happiest trip we have had." Charles C. Norfolk, a Baltimore passenger, said, "I'd as soon lose a leg than lose Smoky Joe."
Scrapped in 1952
In January 1948, Smoky Joe was sold to the Delaware-New Jersey Ferry Co. for operation on the New Castle, Del., and Pennsville, N.J., run. Painted white and with its engines converted to oil burners, Smoky Joe returned to Baltimore one more time. In 1952, the ferry was taken to the Patapsco Scrap Co.'s Fairfield yard, where it was dismantled.
In a farewell editorial, The Sun said:
"Smoky Joe was more than a ferry boat. It was one of Maryland's best-known local characters, the hero of countless rescue stories, an icebreaker without peer and the best friend of lovers, fishermen and Sunday picnickers. More than that, it was the last tangible evidence of those gay but grimy days when Baltimore was linked to railroad service on the Eastern Shore and excursion parties merrily clattered their way to Ocean City in wooden coaches."
Pub Date: 9/07/97