Steamboats meant vacation

Way Back When

Resorts: Vacationers boarded steamers for Tolchester, Brown's Grove and Betterton.

June 19, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

"Steamboat Vacations: Excursions on the Chesapeake," an exhibition that recently opened at the Maryland Historical Society recalls an era when Baltimoreans took to the water aboard bay steamers to escape the searing heat and humidity of the city.

Carrying picnic hampers laden with fried chicken, deviled eggs, cakes and jugs of lemonade, crowds dressed in white flannels, summer frocks and wearing straw hats happily piled off streetcars holding the hands of anxious children as they made their way to the Pratt and Light street piers to board waiting steamers.

Once there, they trooped up the gangplanks of such venerable bay vessels as the Lord Baltimore, Ferdinand C. Latrobe, Ericsson, Chippewa, Tolchester, Emma Giles and Bay Belle and waited to hear the long blast on their steam whistles.

As engines began turning far below and propellers churned up brackish harbor waters, passengers settled down for the start of the voyage which took them to such exotic ports of call as Tolchester, Chesterwood, Brown's Grove or Betterton.

In its heyday from the 1890s to the 1940s, Betterton was known as "Maryland's Foremost Bay-side resort" or "the Jewel of the Chesapeake," where day-trippers or vacationers arriving by steamboat enjoyed water sports, fishing, horseback riding and dancing under the stars.

Into the lobby of Betterton's four hotels, the Rigbie, the Chesapeake, the Maryland or Betterton, porters conveyed steamer trunks and Port Said valises of those planning a longer holiday. In the 1920s, room rates were $25 a week, which included the day's three meals; cottages could be rented weekly for $15.

Until the day's end, crab houses, dance halls, beer gardens, piers, arcades and a movie house also provided ample amusement possibilities for visitors. Then the sound of the boat's whistle summoned its weary but joyous human cargo aboard again for the trip back to Baltimore.

Tolchester, with its merry-go-rounds, bumper cars and "high, wide and handsome" roller coasters, was also a popular destination.

Until the 1960s, Chesapeake Bay resorts remained segregated. As a result, resorts like Brown's Grove, on Rock Creek in Anne Arundel County, drew Maryland's African Americans. Brown's Grove, operated by Capt. George W. Brown and J. Langley, advertised itself as the "only park in the State of Maryland run exclusively for Colored People and by Colored People." It was most popular from the turn of the century until the 1920s.

African Americans steamed to the resort aboard the Avalon or the Starlight. According to H. Graham Wood and Robert H. Burgess, authors of "Steamboats Out of Baltimore," the Starlight could be identified at night, "by the electric star mounted atop her walking beam which rocked to and fro when she was in motion."

For years, underprivileged children and their parents were treated for a ride down the bay and a picnic at Chesterwood, a 37-acre, oak-shaded grove on Bear Creek, by the Free Summer Excursion Society. Organized in 1871, the society's last such trip occurred in 1958.

With the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 and the popularity of the automobile, suddenly Marylanders abandoned the old steamboat resorts for the broad beaches of Ocean City, Bethany, Rehoboth or Cape May.

Still, the steamboat Port Welcome continued to make summer calls at the old resorts until the early 1980s, when she was withdrawn from service.

In his 1909 poem "Steamboats All Stop Runnin'," Folger McKenzie, The Sun's poet in residence, lamented the long wait until the start of the next year's excursion season.

Tolchester's last excursions, and now what will we do,

So long to wait by Winter's gate till April blossoms through!

No Love Point Crowds to-morrow, no Betterton till May,

They've packed the fishing poles in dust and put the lines away.

Farewell, old fields of friendship,

Old orchards keep you sweet

Until once more the whistles

Announce the bay-boat fleet.

"Steamboat Vacations: Excursions on the Chesapeake," will continue on exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore, until Jan. 30, 2000. Call 410-685-3750 for information and hours.

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