Inside the foyer of the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, VA, 200 small white lights illuminate a map of the Chesapeake Bay. Together, they trace a constellation along the estuary’s shorelines, meandering up its rivers and marking ports of call for the large fleet of steamships that traversed these waters for nearly 150 years.
“Once people see the map,” said Barbara Brecher, director of the museum, “it makes perfect sense to them that the steamboat was the engine of commerce, life — virtually everything.”
If you follow the history of the Chesapeake Bay steamboat era, you’ll learn much about the Bay region as a whole. The rise and fall of these vessels between 1813 and 1962 is, in many ways, the story of lives and communities connected by water and enhanced by the power of steam.
Beginning in the early 1700s, French, English and U.S. inventors sought to develop steam engine technology that could be applied to ship propulsion. One of these, an American named James Rumsey, was encouraged by George Washington and successfully tested a small steam-powered boat on the Potomac River near Shepherdstown, WV, in 1787. It carried 15,000 pounds of stone and several passengers at 3 miles per hour.
But it wasn’t until 1807 that Robert Fulton’s North River Steamboat of Clermont took to the Hudson River to demonstrate the commercial viability of steam-powered boats.
Six years later, in 1813, the side-wheel steamship Chesapeake made its first voyage carrying people and cargo from Baltimore to Annapolis. The steamship era on the Chesapeake was under way.
Within a few short years, multiple steamship routes provided connections between the growing cities of Baltimore; Washington, DC; Norfolk; and many towns along the Chesapeake’s rivers.
Steamships were immediately popular because, unlike wind-powered vessels, they were predictable.
“Imagine a Chesapeake Bay with no bridges, paved highways, cars or rail lines,” said Jack Shaum, steamboat historian and author of Lost Chester River Steamboats: From Chestertown to Baltimore.
Before steamships, Shaum said, travel between the Bay’s many points and peninsulas involved two options: going by horse or carriage over bumpy, rutted and often muddy roads, or sailing on boats at the whim of wind and weather.
Steamships made it possible to plan a trip from Tappahannock, VA, to Baltimore to see a doctor or visit relatives — and return the next day with medicines, dry goods and dresses not available in rural areas.
“Night boats” ran between Baltimore and Norfolk, delivering mail, passengers and cargo on a set schedule. Express lines traveled both day and night with fewer stops, but others visited many ports along their route. The steamship run between Baltimore and DC could be a 36-hour trip that made as many as 25 stops along the Potomac River alone.
Along with providing more travel options, steamships changed life in Chesapeake communities in other ways. They provided a reliable means to get produce, livestock and seafood to buyers, which allowed farmers and watermen to take advantage of larger markets — and city dwellers to enjoy everything from fresh oysters to ripe strawberries.
Vegetable canneries and seafood houses sprouted up along the rivers and smaller bays, transforming small riverfront communities into social and commercial centers.
As soon as the sooty smoke from the tall stack of the arriving steamship could be seen in the distance, passengers headed to the city gathered at the wharves, and dockworkers or “stevedores” readied bales of cotton and bins of grain.
By the time of the Civil War, there were 30 steamboats operating out of Baltimore alone. Many were commandeered for use as military and supply transport during the war. Some were used to exchange prisoners between Maryland and Virginia, which were separated by war as well as water.
At the height of the steamship era, there were more than 20 steamship lines and 500 steamships traveling the Chesapeake Bay.
The construction and technology of the steamships evolved over time. Powerful side wheels propelled nearly all of the steamships in the Chesapeake region, although a few small stern wheel boats were used in shallow waters. Side wheel steamships dominated until the late 1800s, when screw propellers took over.
The original steamships were constructed entirely with wood but, as technology progressed, hulls were constructed from iron and then steel. No matter the hull type, the superstructure was usually built of wood, which was cheaper and lighter.
In the beginning, the steam engines were powered by wood. By the late 1850s, most had converted to coal. Only a few of the steamships began using oil in the 1920s to run their massive engines.
When railroads became the new engines of commerce and travel, the lines terminated at major steamship ports like Baltimore, Washington and Norfolk, providing still greater connections for people and products within and beyond the Chesapeake region.
Trains from the north arrived in Baltimore and transferred passengers and freight to steamships that made the overnight passage to Norfolk, arriving in time to meet trains headed south. Other trains traveled down the Delmarva Peninsula, crossing the mouth of the Bay at Cape Charles. Connections were also made with coastwise and trans-Atlantic ships.
In time, railroad companies bought most of the steamship lines, which gave them more control over the flow and timing of people and freight.
The early 1900s ushered in the “golden age” of steamships on the Bay.
Steamship lines consolidated and increasingly catered to their passengers, competing to offer comfort, luxury and safety. While lower levels still carried freight, upper levels on some steamships offered paneled sitting areas and expansive stairways. Passengers relaxed under stained glassed domes, enjoying the more leisurely and elegant way to travel. The grander boats boasted fancy private staterooms with brass bedsteads and sinks with running water.
Some steamboats catered to city dwellers escaping the summer heat at Bay beaches like Tolchester Park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which was just a 2-hour steamship ride from Baltimore. Boats serving these venues could be huge. The Dreamland, a large side-wheeler, could transport several thousand day-trippers at one time.
By the 1920s, some steamship lines offered theater productions and “moonlight melody cruises” for dinner and dancing.
Other steamboats were permanently moored at the end of long wharves that reached far into the waters of the Potomac. These strategic locations helped Virginia patrons avoid their state’s strict gambling and drinking laws, by patronizing floating casinos in Maryland waters.
By the 1930s, the end of the era was in sight. Roadways had improved, and cars and trucks were an easier, more economical way to connect communities. The great hurricane of 1933 destroyed many of the old steamship landings, and there was little incentive to rebuild.
Bridges replaced ferries on the major Bay and river crossings. The Bay Bridge in Maryland connected the Western and Eastern shores in 1952, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel crossed the mouth of the Bay, connecting the Delmarva Peninsula with Norfolk in 1964.
Little-used steamships were commandeered for duty in World War II — some were transformed into unlikely seagoing vessels that transported troops and freight across the Atlantic. After the war, some were converted into barges or sold to foreign countries.
Steamships also became less important for recreational boating in the postwar era, when an economic boom made personal pleasure boats more affordable.
As a child in 1954, Jack Shaum rode the City of Richmond out of Baltimore, launching his lifelong love of steamships. But by then, their era was coming to a close. Most of the steamships still on the Bay were either tied up at wharves or rarely used. Many were lost to fire or sank. In April 1962, the City of Norfolk completed its last commercial run between Norfolk and Baltimore.
Despite the great number of steamships that traveled the Bay, and their influence on Bay communities, none survive today. Few signs of their bustling ports remain, either. Crooked pilings march from the shore of Tappahannock into the Rappahannock River like soldiers from a forgotten war. Farther upstream, the privately owned 1901 Saunders Wharf — one of only three original steamship wharves remaining in the Bay — can be seen from the vantage of boat or kayak.
The Choptank River Heritage Center in Denton, MD, is housed in a replica of an 1883 building at the historic Joppa Wharf, which includes a warehouse, passenger waiting room and steamship agent’s office.
Emperor’s Landing Park in the town of Vienna, MD, was the site of steamboat wharf on the Nanticoke River. A few miles downstream, the remains of the Lewis Wharf steamship landing spike the water’s edge on the Nanticoke’s western shore.
Museums help to tell the steamship story through permanent and rotating exhibits and archived materials available upon request. Passengers pilfered towels, plates and silver from the steamships as “souvenirs,” and these can often be seen in museums, such as the Calvert Marine Museum in Southern Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD, displays the bandstand from Tolchester Beach, a steamship destination. The Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, VA, has materials that can be viewed online and currently exhibits a model of the 1906 steamship Jamestown. The Chesapeake Beach Railroad Museum in Chesapeake Beach, MD, showcases how guests once flocked to the area by steamship and rail.
The Steamboat Era Museum is the only museum devoted entirely to steamships on the Chesapeake Bay. Located in Irvington, once a busy steamship port on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, it’s a small, modern building fashioned after a railroad station at a steamship wharf. Exhibits, artifacts and ship models convey a sense of the era. Oral histories from local residents make stories from this time come alive.
The museum is also planning to restore the pilothouse and quarters recovered from the Potomac. Built in 1894 to transport passengers between Baltimore and the Potomac River, it collided with a freighter in the fog in 1936. The hull was transformed into a barge, and the pilothouse structures were brought ashore. The museum acquired them and plans a full restoration in 2018.
Although steamships defined life along the Bay for more than a century, the Potomac pilothouse is a rare surviving fragment of one of the actual ships.
It’s amazing that so little of the vessels themselves survive, given their numbers and influence. “It’s easy to not know the steamships even existed,” said museum director Brecher.
Their stories and images live on, though, feeding the imagination of those curious about the great steamship era on the Chesapeake Bay.