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

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!