Bay museum to house historian's collection


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December 02, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels announced this week that it had acquired the maritime collection of Robert H. Burgess, the noted bay historian and writer, who died three years ago.

It is believed to be one of the largest and most significant private collections of Chesapeake Bay maritime memorabilia in existence.

"This is the most important acquisition in the history of the museum," museum curator Pete Lesher said yesterday. "It's a huge shot in the arm for us, and the neat thing is, the collection is so large that it could have a museum all its own, and complements what we already have."

In addition to photographs, manuscripts, notes for newspaper articles, marine hardware and planks of wood from abandoned or scrapped vessels, there are about 100 nameboards and trailboards as well as carved wooden billetheads and figureheads that once graced the bows of sailing vessels.

Also included in the Burgess collection are wooden carvings from bay schooners, pungies, bugeyes and skipjacks. There are also nameboards from ferries that once carried passengers and automobiles as they steamed back and forth from Sandy Point to the Eastern Shore in the days before the Bay Bridge.

"It couldn't have found a better home," Lesher said.

Burgess was born and raised in Baltimore, the son of a marine engineer, and grew up listening to the stories of his father's seafaring friends.

Even as a youngster, Burgess sensed during the 1920s and 1930s that the bay's commercial maritime culture, then a mixture of sailing and steam vessels, was about to change. And armed with a Brownie camera, he was determined to record what would soon fade into history.

"I think I realized then that the most fascinating vessels I saw would soon be gone," he told The Sun in 1962.

Even though Burgess was not a trained historian, by 1941 he had accumulated a wealth of knowledge that earned him the position of curator of publications at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va.

After serving in the Navy aboard a destroyer escort in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to the museum, where he was curator of exhibits until retiring in 1978.

In addition to his museum work, Burgess followed a busy research and writing regime, and for years, his stories of bay steamboats, vessels, storms, lighthouses and characters were a fixture of the old sepia-toned Sun Magazine.

In 1968, he teamed up with fellow bay historian, H. Graham Wood, and co-wrote Steamboats Out of Baltimore, a work that recalled the majestic coal-fired steamers with their baritone steam whistles that daily transported passengers and freight up and down the bay in pre-highway days.

"He observed their last days, and when they were being broken up, would try and gather relics," Lesher said. "As far back as the 1930s, he went up a Virginia creek to where the Bohemia, a two-masted schooner built in 1884, had been abandoned, to salvage some ironwork and its anchor stopper."

Nothing escaped his eye, whether it was a plank from the sailing vessel Purnell T. White that now rests in the deep off Hawkins Point or a piece of marine hardware or woodcarving from another vessel.

The builder's plate of the Maryland Steamboat Co.'s Talbot, which had been built at Sparrows Point, was a rare item that caught his attention.

The builder's plate had graced an oak panel in the vessel's grand saloon, and it was rescued from oblivion by Burgess as the vessel sat in the breaker's yard waiting for its fate at the hand of workers armed with acetylene torches.

"All of the pieces he collected from hulks were carefully photographed and documented in his hand. So many artifacts lose their context, their story, when they go through the marketplace," recalled Lesher, who often visited Burgess' Newport News home.

"Bob lived in a tiny cinderblock home, and it was just full of his collection. He'd pull pieces out from underneath his sofa or off the top of a bookshelf," Lesher said. "His collection was so special to him that he needed to live with it."

Museum founder Vida Van Lennep had made overtures for years to Burgess, hoping one day that her museum would become the collection's permanent home.

"He left his thoughts for his children where it ought to go," Lesher said.

An overview exhibit of the collection will debut early next year, and a permanent exhibit is being planned, Lesher said.

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