Letter from St. Gabriel’s Manor: Steamboat Days

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The Steamship Susquehanna plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay through the 1930's. Photo from Maryland Archives
The Steamship Susquehanna plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay through the 1930’s. Photo from Maryland Archives This story was written by Fred with the help of his wife Beth in March of 1989 and published in the original version of THE CHESAPEAKE.   Fred and Beth wrote a series of articles under the heading of Letter from St. Gabriel’s Manor.  Watch for more of their articles in coming months.

By Frederick L. McCoy
One summer when I was about fourteen, my mother arranged a steamboat trip on the Dorchester that plied the waters of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay between Washington and Baltimore. 
One evening about five pm in August, we boarded our steamer at the 7th street wharf in Washington. I was given a little stateroom and my mother and sister had another. We had a number of passengers, some just for a summer trip, others destined for the various lower Potomac wharfs.
After taking on freight for different points, we took in our lines and the paddle wheel began to churn as we backed away from the pier and made our turn to go down the Washington Channel. The pure white Norfolk boat The Southland was still at her dock as was the excursion steamer the Charles McAllister. We were soon past Haines Point and traveling south down the river.
At Alexandria we stopped for a few minutes. A bit of freight and some passengers were loaded and off we were again. It was time for supper and a Negro with a bell walked the ship announcing “time to eat”. In the diner room were long tables with white cloths and silver. The meal was served family style. Bowls of new potatoes, lima beans, and sliced tomatoes, ears of sweet corn and platters of fried chicken were in front of us.
The food was fresh, directly from the farm and it was cooked to perfection. While dining we heard the Dorchester give three long blasts on her fog horn and bell ringing for an extended period. We all knew that this was the customary procedure as a ship passed Mount Vernon where the Father of our Country is buried.
By the time supper was over the sun had set and the stars and moon were rising. We found deck chairs on the bow and watched the water separate and pass down each side of the steam boat until the great paddle wheels grabbed the wash and sent it hurling past our stern.
There are not many of us left who remember the old steamboats. I’m one of the fortunate and I find it hard to describe the times. The little wharfs were often set back well in some tidewater creek or bay and the boats were the main contact with the outer world. They brought Washington and Baltimore to the neighborhood.
Everything came or went by the steamboat. Sometime that night when were asleep in our bunks, I heard a commotion and found that we were about to tie up at a wharf. It was Colonial Beach. The gangplank was noisily slid to the wharf and farmer’s freight destined to the commission men in Baltimore was loaded. 
A cull cow or two came on board and the howling of several veal calves must have awakened most of the passengers. The livestock and produced was soon on board and we were again underway.
It was light when we made our next stop. It was Lancaster at Rock Point. I quickly dressed and was on deck before we had finished unloading ashore the freight that originated in Washington. This wharf was in Charles County, Md. in tobacco country and several hogsheads of tobacco were rolled up the gangplank by the Negro roustabouts.
We crossed the mouth of the Wicomico River to St. Mary’s County and put in at the Chaptico Wharf. It was time for breakfast and again we dined well. There were pitchers of milk with pieces of ice floating in them. There as hot oatmeal and cream of wheat. There were fried and scrambled eggs, fried country ham and country fried potatoes and biscuits. We all ate heartily.
At Bushwood Wharf, we were in a good seafood area. The cook went out on the pier to see what several boys had caught that morning. He bought some strings of Norfolk Spot fish and some soft crabs. I wonder now if these boys were members of the “dirty dozen” who lived in the area.
The children of the farms would bring vegetables from their gardens. The cook would look them over on the wharfs and only purchase the freshest and best. We would be eating the bounty of the tidewater from both the land and the sea at our next meal; all caught or picked that very morning. Our old paddle wheel steamer, Dorchester next turned into St. Clements Bay and stopped well up at Bayside Wharf.
John B. Abell had returned to the family farm and wharf after a stretch of being a commission merchant in Washington.  Here, case after case of mason jars were trundled off by the roustabouts and before we left a messenger from Guy’s Store in Clements hurried aboard to give the purser an order for more jars and sugar to be loaded in Baltimore to be delivered when the Dorchester returned on her next trip.
It seemed that the farm wives were doing more canning than usual that year.
Some said that their husbands had also found a use of mason jars.
Remember, those were prohibition days! We crossed to St. Clements, stopped at Coburn’s Wharf and off-loaded more jars and took on some hogsheads of tobacco. These hogsheads averaged about 750 pounds but could be easily rolled up the gangplank. The cask was made of native wood; several wires were wrapped around the outside and holding the head in, was a large wild grapevine nailed through the top of the sides.
This held the pressed tobacco securely in the cask.
Down St. Clement’s Bay we churned and made a turn into Breton Bay. Our first stop was Abell’s Wharf and then Leonardtown. Several ox carts had come down the hill to deliver this and that to the boat and soon Model T. Ford truck were used and freight to Baltimore was trundled aboard.
Her at Leonardtown, the county seat of St. Mary’s County, certain traditions were upheld. On the hill above the wharf at Tudor Hall, lived Colonel Swann, and elderly gentleman who usually met each boat. He was seen coming slowly down the steep hill using his cane.
He was dressed in summer white and wore a large southern type hat, a southern gentleman of the old school.  He saluted Captain Bohanan, and they had a few pleasant words. He then found a bench and a watched the loading and unloading. This gentleman lent a bit of class to the day. The roustabouts completed their task.
Whenever there were people watching they would go into a little dance as they pushed their two wheel trucks. Dinner ‘lunch’ was served about this time and we enjoyed the spot, soft crabs, spring chicken and vegetables which the cook had purchased that morning.
Dropping down to the river, we saw the Islands, St. Margaret’s, St. Catherine’s and the famed St. Clement’s where the pilgrims to Maryland first landed.
The Dorchester fireman threw on extra coal and the black smoke came pouring from her stack and the paddle wheels seemed to churn harder and harder as we headed down the old Potomac River. We rounded Piney Point and there were at the end of the long wharf, tied up at Tolson’s Hotel. Several families disembarked for a few days stay. 
There was a nice sand beach there and bathers and sun lovers were enjoying it. We admired the wool bathing suits and the ladies showing their figures to perfection however most of the children’s cotton suits guaranteed to be dry like hung rags. Passing St. George’s Island we turned into the beautiful St. Mary’s River and made the run up to th3e old Capitol of the State, St. Mary’s City. We tied up under the hill.
This was indeed a deserted village. Here was no town, only a girls school, the St. Mary’s Female Seminar. As we dropped down the St. Mary’s River, we looked back and could see the tall obelisk monument dedicated to the first Governor Maryland, Leonard Calvert. It was he who brought the first settlers to this land.
Suddenly, the Captain turned to starboard. There was a wharf at the old plantation of Portobello.
Someone had hoisted a broom up a pole on the end of the wharf which indicated there was freight to be picked up. At the wharf we found one crate of old hens and group of children.
The children rushed aboard and made straight for the ice cream chest. Shortly they happily went ashore licking their nickel cones. The steamboat was their only source of manufactured ice cream.
We wondered how much begging they had engaged in to get their treat, their mother culling her old hens so they could entice the steamer to stop there. Our next stop was at Grayson’s Wharf on St. Inigoes Creek.
Here the water was very deep right up to the bank and the wharf was almost on shore. The big trees in the yard of the very old “Cornwally Cross” Manor shaded the wharf.
Leaving Grayson’s we circled the Jesuit Priest’s farm on St. Inigoes Manor and soon were at the mouth of Smith’s Creek. Here livestock was loaded, sheep and cattle.
One rambunctious steer was giving the roustabouts trouble. Two had a rope attached to his horns and were on each side of the animal. Another was at the rudder (tail). They were putting  on a big show for the passengers. The back man would twist the tail and the steer would leap and bellow. Finally he was loaded and the passengers gave applause for the show. The Dorchester now crossed the wide Potomac to Virginia and proceeded up the Coan River so far that it finally ran out of water.
There was a wharf at the bottom of a hill. I wondered how we would get out of this narrow headwater. I soon found out. A man and a small boat were put over he played out a little line as he rowed to the other side of the water.  He pull in the line was attached to a hauser. He made several loops around a tall loblolly pine. The other end was attached the steamboats stern post. The vessel back and soon she had maneuvered a turn. The hauser was hauled in and the steamer churned down toward the mouth of the river. Bottom sediment was stirred up and we left a dark wake.
There was a large wharf at the mouth of the river and a cannery was busy her at Lewisetta. They were working around the clock because this was the peak of the tomato season. We loaded hundreds of cases of canned tomatoes to be taken to Baltimore. Finally as the sun sank behind the hills of Virginia’s Northern Neck, we pulled into the Potomac. At dusk we rounded Point Lookout and headed north up the Chesapeake Bay. 
Next morning we woke up at the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.
It had been a good trip.

Fred McCoy The CHESAPEAKE photo

The late Fred McCoy in 1988 on the edge of his farm on the Potomac River. THE CHESAPEAKE photo
Passengers alight from a Steamboat onto the Broomes Wharf at St. Mary's City.

This steamboat worked on the Potomac and Patuxent and this photo comes from the collection of Malcom Morris of Chingville. This photo was provided courtesy of Malcom Morris and shows a Steamboat tied up at Leonardtown Wharf in the 1930’s. Passengers alight from a Steamboat onto the Bromes Wharf at St. Mary’s City. Passengers alight from a Steamboat onto the Bromes Wharf at St. Mary’s City.
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