Not Your Average Joe

Posted on
Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs

Joe

Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs would be the first to tell you that she was “never a little girl.” Born February 1, 1900, in London, Joe was the first child of American heiress Frances Evelyn Bostwick (the second child of Jabez Bostwick, a founding partner of Standard Oil). Her legal father was Captain Albert Carstairs of the Royal Irish Rifles, or, at least, we think. Captain Carstairs re-enlisted in the army one week before Joe’s birth. He and Evelyn divorced soon after that, and some suggest that he may not have been Joe’s biological father.

Joe’s mother, who went by her middle name, Evelyn, was “fed by alcohol and heroin,” according to biographer Kate Summerscale. She was known for her string of lovers and husbands. Joe’s favorite was Count Roger de Périgny, who was much more of a buddy than a father. The Count shared many of his hobbies with his new stepdaughter, some much less wholesome than others. The most important, however, was his love of things that go fast. In fact, de Périgny had one of his racecars modified so that 16-year-old Joe could drive it. The relationship between Evelyn and Roger, unsurprisingly, did not last.   Read more

Noone asked me…

Posted on
Image credit: Marc Nucup

…but I thought I would volunteer an annotated list of some of the maritime history books that I have found myself pulling off the shelf (again and again) for reference during my twenty-year tenure at The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

The Story of Sail by Veres László and Richard Woodman (Chatham Publishing: 1999) is a dense volume of over 1000 scale drawings of (you guessed it) sailing vessels. A wealth of details about sails and rigging are complemented with great drawings of the vessels themselves all backed by a thorough bibliography.   Read more

The steamers of Brown’s Grove

Posted on

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?

Posted on
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

A Manuscript Volume

Posted on
Title Page.
VF145 .I6 Rare O (Mariners’ Museum Library and Archives)

The call number is VF145.I6. The work is entitled Instruction d’artillerie, 1818-1839. The volume was first encountered as a partially cataloged item in the Museum Archives and encountered purely by happenstance. The 38 centimeter-tall bound manuscript’s text is hand lettered, done in a bold style with almost mechanical precision. 

The book’s decorative embellishments are folksy, yet almost modern in their whimsy. The drawings are superlative. Perhaps the work was copied from another source, but never allow that consideration to detract from its wonder.    Read more