Chesapeake Bay Steamers
There is no more powerful a geographic source of American history than the Chesapeake Bay.
English settlers first touched ground in the new country on the southern shore of the bay in 1607. Ending their ocean journey in what is now Virginia Beach, they sailed across the lower bay and up the James River to create the Jamestown Settlement. Other settlements followed soon thereafter, some of them becoming the small towns of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries that are pictured in this book. The cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia have their origins in the 1620s, and the upper bay cities of Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland not long after that. The bay that lay between them from north to south was at once dynamic and temperate, expansive enough to offer great bounties of food and exploration, but small enough to allow the formation of a community of towns, cities and resorts that worked together on a quality of life unlike any other in the new country.
The first stirrings of American Revolution and government took place in this watershed. The decisive naval battle of the Revolutionary War was played out not far from the site of the first 1607 landing, as the French prevented the British from entering the bay in 1781. And the bay would go on to know war very well: the War of 1812, the Civil War, the projection of American naval power out of the bay and into the battles of World Wars I and II.
Through all of those years, water and land blended together into a basket of produce and seafood for the entire East Coast. The cities developed commercial connections between Europe to the east, and the rest of developing America to the west. In the early 1800s the new technologies of motor driven power set themselves out on the water in the form of steamboats that drew the bay community even closer together while consolidating its commerce with the rest of the world.
The bay steamers first moved through the water with side paddlewheels linked to steam engines beneath single smokestacks, and they used their freedom of easy movement to cover the long distances between north and south relatively quickly. They began to connect with railroads east and west, and by the mid-Nineteenth century there seemed not to be a river or inlet in which they did not travel. As boats, they ranged from engineering marvels to infuriating contraptions. They belched black smoke, often collided and frequently sank. They switched owners and took on new names at the drop of an anchor. But they brought a way of life to the region that allowed its people to live almost as much on the water as they did on the land.
Near the end of their era, many were drafted into distinguished service in international waters during the Second World War. Some were shot at by submarines, and one in particular played a storied role in the troubled history of post-war Europe. Their steam driven screws propelled them just past the middle of the Twentieth century, but not fast enough for the rush of modern times. Transportation needed to move more quickly now. Bridges crossed parts of the bay that before could only be crossed by boats, and railroads that had met the boats at the water stopped running. The steamers reconfigured themselves to carry automobiles, but the cars and their drivers preferred the highways. Finally, one night in Norfolk, they disappeared into history. What’s left of them rests in the photo and ephemera archives of the libraries, museums and historical societies of the large cities and small towns of the bay.