The steamers of Brown’s Grove

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

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!

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.   Read more

Pandemics and … Soupy Island?

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A boy on the dock, perhaps waiting for his turn to go to Soupy Island! July 4, 1937. Eldredge Collection, MS0091.

Updating records for our online catalog (, in case you’d like to know), I came across a curious image of an excursion steamer and a rather heartwarming story I’d like to share with you. It’s the story of how a city in the midst of the tuberculosis pandemic and periodic cholera outbreaks, came to help its poorest inner-city kids. It’s the story of a place called Soupy Island. The steamer is the Elizabeth Monroe Smith.

As you know, American cities in the 19th century and into the 20th century were often great places for communicable diseases to break out. The density of the population, the lack of medicines, the influx of immigrants from other places, all made the likelihood of outbreaks to be much higher than out in the countryside. Philadelphia was no exception to this.   Read more

May flowers bring … Pilgrims???

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Model of Mayflower
Mariners’ Museum model of the merchant vessel Mayflower (1606-1624)

The rainy weather this last week of April caused me to make an idle remark to my husband about April showers bringing May flowers. With a sly look on his face, he asked me what May flowers bring.

Now I am the youngest child of 2 youngest children and have no children of my own. I had absolutely no clue he was talking about the groan-worthy second grade joke about Mayflowers bringing Pilgrims. I can see you now, gentle reader, wincing at the memory.

But beyond the famous Pilgrim-carrying ship of the early-17th century, there were lots of ships named Mayflower, some with storied pasts, and other just beautiful to behold.    Read more

Ice Boats on the Delaware River

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Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emmanuel Leutze (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Every American know the glorious painting by Emmanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”. It is one of the most inspiring paintings of the American Revolution, showing the heroic Washington standing on the prow of a small boat crossing the ice-choked river on Christmas Day in a surprise attack on the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey. What strikes me, as a weather guy, is the extent to which the river in that painting was already iced over! Not just iced over, but there were small bergs in it!









I suppose that was rattling around in the back of my mind when I was working on photographs of Ice Boats No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, operated by the city of Philadelphia. According to the City of Philadelphia’s records, “The purposes of the Trustees of the City Ice Boat(s) was to operate a vessel on the Delaware River which would be instrumental in breaking the ice during winter months and ensuring a free and open passage on the river to the Port of Philadelphia.”

The Delaware is one of our most important rivers in terms of tonnage of freight carried. It is also one of our last free-flowing rivers, with no dams or impediments. So if it ices over so badly in the winter, as early as December 25, why don’t we hear about ice breakers moving up the river to open up the ports of Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington, and others? Because the river doesn’t ice up as badly as it once did!

In 1907, Philadelphia disbanded its Bureau of Ice Boats, established in 1837, and turned the vessels over to the Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries. The City’s records indicate that the boats were eventually used only for dredging, ” due to the gradual disappearance of ice from the Delaware River.” Wow!

Is this perhaps a really early harbinger of human-caused global warming? Well, probably not, it seems. Washington’s crossing of the river, the inception of the Philadelphia Ice Boats, all of those really cold winter scenes we see from the 18th through early 20th centuries, are part of a climatic period called “The Little Ice Age”. One of the particularly cold periods came around 1850. Modest cooling, climatically speaking, but cooling. It is tempting to see the rapid industrialization and pollution of the Delaware Valley as the cause of this warming.  My reading of the climate science, however, seems to indicate the two are unrelated. In these days of super-hot summers in so many places on Earth, many of us wish we could have a return of another Little Ice Age!


Rum, Buggery and the Lash

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For Pride Month, I wanted to think about the countless hundreds of unnamed gay and lesbian sailors who lived and worked on board Navy ships in the days before our rights were broadly recognized and respected. I owe them so much as an out and proud American citizen! Their honorable service and their refusal to stay silent anymore contributed heavily to the ultimate court decision that gave us our rights.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Winston Churchill’s quip that British Royal Navy tradition consisted of nothing but “Rum, buggery and the lash”! It appears that Sir Winston himself denied he ever said it, saying when asked about it that “I wish I had said it!” It also appears that the origins of the expression itself are lost in the annals of naval lore.

Drunkenness and sodomy were indeed often greeted by the lash in Royal Navy ships from the 1660s onward. Sodomy, i.e. same-sex acts, was specifically the subject of Article 29 of the Articles of War. The prescribed punishment for an Article 29 violation was death, and indeed sailors of Royal Navy ships were executed for these violations up until the 1820s. The 1749 version of the British Articles of War states: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by sentence of a court martial.” (See the book by N.A.M. Rodger).

Not so in the American Navy. John Adams drew up the equivalent of the British Articles of War, known as the American Articles of War of 1775. According to “The Background of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” prepared by the Judge Advocate’s General’s School of the US Army, these American Articles were based on the British Articles of 1765 and on the Massachusetts Articles. John Adams, it seems, had a horror of matters regarding sexual practice and chose not to include any mention of any homoerotic acts. Captains were left to deal with alleged incidents on their own. Indeed, there are vanishingly few cases in which captains or other officers chose to bring cases like this to any trial. Usually they preferred to just let it drop, or send the accused home, or punish them for some other charge. (B.R. Burg, “Sodomy, Masturbation, and Courts-Martial in the Antebellum American Navy,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 23, no. 1).

The kind of official quiet on homoerotic love among shipmates, a sort of Victorian version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” comes to an end in the early 20th century. From then until the Defense of Marriage Act was found unconstitutional in 2013, gay and lesbian sailors and officers were hounded out, given “blue” or dishonorable discharges, allowed to serve only to have pensions and their GI Bill benefits revoked, physically and verbally assaulted, outed to their friends and relatives, investigated by the FBI, and far worse. This Gay Pride Month, we in the GLBTQ community celebrate the remarkable changes since 2013 that have made our lives, and particularly those of many of our serving personnel, so much better. Battles remain to be fought for true equality within the Armed Forces and without, but we already stand on the backs of heroes! Happy Pride!!!!!