The steamers of Brown’s Grove

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It appears I’m writing a series on excursion steamboats! Who knew? I suppose it’s the working from home, the inability to go anywhere, that makes me long to board a steamer and head for a waterside amusement park!

Steamer Avalon, built in 1888 (from MS0573, Harlan & Hollingsworth Company Plans)

But I know why I am writing about this one. I want to help keep our president Howard Hoege’s pledge that we would work hard to “awaken in every corner of our communities a sense of a shared maritime heritage that transcends race, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomics, and all of the ways in which we sometimes feel different from one another.” So I’ll focus on a rather special excursion steamer, owned and operated by Captain George Brown, that took African Americans of the Baltimore region to Brown’s Grove Amusement Park. Special, because in the 1910s until Brown’s Grove burned in a tragic 1938 fire, it was the only excursion steamboat and amusement park combination entirely owned and operated by African Americans. Brown said it was the only such combination in America.

Captain Brown’s steamer Avalon, deck plans (from MS0573, Harlan & Hollingsworth Company Plans)

The Captain and his steamers

An entrepreneur who owned the steamer and the Grove, George Brown came to Baltimore practically penniless in 1893. He managed to save money, while just an apprentice, toward the charter of his first steamboat, in 1906 or 1907. His idea to do so came from being forced, by Jim Crow law, to ride in a railroad baggage car from the Eastern Shore back to Baltimore. He wanted to create a first-class transportation experience for African Americans. From there, he built a steamboat line that lasted several decades. One of them was Avalon, a side wheeler he bought in 1929.  Here are some architectural renderings of her, built by Harlan and Hollingsworth and held here in The Mariners’ Museum Library. We also have her spec book from the builders. In 1937 she was renamed Federal Hill, also pictured below.

Captain Brown’s big steamer Avalon, loaded with passengers on excursion (from P0001.003, Photographs of Steamships, Motorships and Ocean Liners)

Brown owned other steamers that went to the Grove on Rock Creek besides Avalon. Here is also a picture of Starlight, for example, and of the same ship when she was named Granite City, also owned by Brown.

George Brown’s steamer Granite City, her decks alive with passengers to Brown’s Grove (from MS0091, Elwin Eldredge Maritime Papers)
Captain Brown’s steamer Starlight in 1915. (from P0001.003, Photographs of Steamships, Motorships and Ocean Liners).

Not pictured here is the first steamboat Brown ever chartered, the Dr. W. J. Newbill. That boat had been owned by another black steamboat entrepreneur, Hansford C. Bayton, who owned 5 steamers on the Rappahannock River. But that is another story.

Brown’s Grove Amusement Park

I know very little of Brown’s Grove. Since it was destroyed in 1938, anyone who has first-hand recollection of it is now very much up in years. George Brown established it in the 1900s about 13 miles from Baltimore by water, in Anne Arundel County on Rock Creek, via the Pamlico River. From what I read, it had a roller coaster, bathhouse, picnic grove, carousel, a merry-go-round, a midway, and refreshment stands, and much more. It was not the only park for African Americans around Baltimore during Segregation. I have read about other places — Sparrows Beach, Highland Beach, Carr’s Beach –but none sounded so complete and elegant as Brown’s Grove. The real novelty, however, was the steamboat!!

There are some pretty hilarious stories about how Brown on his steamboats and other African American park owners kept order among the huge crowds (observers have said that Avalon‘s capacity was between 900-1500 people). Apparently Brown himself patted down patrons and removed weapons, and locked the rowdy up below decks in the steamer! Another owner evidently made loudspeaker announcements warning any troublemakers that they’d end up so flattened they “would  need a stepladder to look over the end of a dime!” They brooked no nonsense.

A great legacy!

African Americans can be justifiably proud of this part of their history!  What a wonderful community they created in the shadow of the despicable Jim Crow laws! What a beautiful thing they did for themselves, to board a steamer owned by one of their own, to visit a beautiful park in which they could feel safe, and to take that steamer back home under the stars, dancing on the deck!

July 13, 1937. Steamer Federal Hill, the former Avalon, bringing African Americans back to Baltimore. Note the Bromo Seltzer Tower in the background. (from MS0091, Elwin Eldredge Maritime Papers)

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