What Can You Do with a Ship When It’s Retired?

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Queen Mary (Turbo steamship : 1936)
Caught by the famed photographer Keith Beken of Beken of Cowes, Queen Mary (1936) sets out for New York for the last time. (From P0001.003, Photographs of Steamships, Motorships and Ocean Liners)

Welcome to the New Year, dear readers! I hope you had a peaceful, restful, enjoyable holiday, which now is finally drawing to a close. As usual, this past season while I took a rest from work, I watched movies. I did not watch, however, one of my childhood favorites, that old Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye chestnut White Christmas.  But I thought about it when processing a curious part of MS0528, the Herbert Beazley Ocean Liner Ephemera Collection. That section we named, “Repurposed Ships.” You see, in the film Bing goes on television to ask his old Army buddies to come to Vermont for Christmas, to help out their former commanding officer who now operates a ski lodge. To introduce the idea, Bing croons, “What can you do with a General, when he stops being a General? Oh what can you do with a General who retires?”

Beazley’s liners

Herbert Beazley was all about ocean liners. A small series within his sprawling collection concerns ocean liners that are no longer ships. Many of you will know about one of them, the Queen Mary, now a hotel in Long Beach, California. Since 2018 another former Cunarder, Queen Elizabeth 2, has joined her as a floating hotel in Dubai. Beazley also collected material about the ongoing proposals to repurpose the United States.   Read more

The Votes are In!

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Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships
Advertising in favor of Key West ballot initiatives

Last month, I reported on a set of 3 ballot initiatives to change the city charter of Key West (https://blog.marinersmuseum.org/2020/10/a-maritime-issue-on-the-ballot/). Those initiatives sought to establish limits on the size and cleanliness of ships visiting the port of Key West, Florida. As you’ll recall, there were good, valid arguments on both sides of the issue. And during the campaign, as in all American campaigns since the early days of the Republic, passions flew a little high and a little mud got thrown. Americans are a pretty rough-and-tumble bunch!

Election results

Well, as I said, the residents have cast their votes! Bonnie Gross of the Florida Rambler reports that all those ballot questions passed by about 60% in favor of the changes. That means that, if the changes are allowed to stand, the City of Key West will limit the total carrying capacity of ships to 1,300 people.   Read more

A Maritime issue on the ballot!

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Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships
Advertising in favor of Key West ballot initiatives

Actually, the maritime issue isn’t on our Newport News ballot… it is on the ballot of Key West, Florida. However, the future of cruise ships in the world of Covid-19 may be on the minds of many citizens of port cities that welcome them.

Cruise Ships Face the Voters

This week I was on vacation in the Florida Keys — our first outing since the pandemic struck! I was very excited and pleased to get away from work (which I LOVE!) and the non-stop election coverage (which I love rather less). So when we arrived in Key West, I was taken aback to see the intersection of both the elections and my maritime life on signs all over town! Here is one of them:   Read more

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.

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.

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.

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!

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 (catalogs.marinersmuseum.org, 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