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TideWriters Tales
Travel by Steamboat ~ Part I
By Catherine C. Brooks
     Man traveled by foot, beast or boats of some type from the earliest of times. As early as Moses’ day, his mother got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. The dwellers of the upper Euphrates River traveled in little boats made of ribs of willow, over which hides were stretched, as a covering, to Babylon. They were circular in form and steered by two men who stood upright.

     From the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, most citizens traveling to rural areas on the Chesapeake Bay went by steamboat either from Norfolk or Baltimore. Schooners with their tall sails preceded the faster boats driven by steam. Foods not grown in the area—ice, fabrics and sundries for making clothing, ready-made clothing, furniture and farm machinery—included items that the boats delivered.

     The last steamboat to travel from Baltimore to these areas was the Piankatank, named for the river where it made its last stop. Early Monday mornings, delivery wagons from wholesale warehouses brought items on orders from merchants and farmers to the South as far as the Baltimore dock. Laborers loaded the barrels, crates and bags in the cargo hold in the lower part of the steamboat. With the main cargo hold filled, a wagon load of ice arrived to go in a smaller section made of metal and lined with wood. One found sawdust for insulation in the space between the two walls left by the boat builder. The passengers walked up the gangplank before departure time and settled in their cabins on the first deck.

     The Captain’s quarters sat behind the wheelhouse on the upper deck. The captain or quartermaster steered the steamboat with the ship’s wheel from the wheelhouse, following charts and a compass. Lighthouses and channel markers, called buoys, along the Bay guided the steamboat master.

     Late in the afternoon, the Piankatank pulled out of the Baltimore Harbor and traveled south while the passengers slept after their evening meal. She arrived in Virginia’s Northern Neck in the Reedville area early the next morning. Then she made calls along most of the creeks in Northumberland and Lancaster Counties, crossing the Rappahannock to Julian’s Creek in Middlesex County, and finally arriving at Fitchett’s Wharf in Mathews County about 11 a.m.

     I lived near Fitchett’s Wharf the last six years of her stops there. When the Piankatank left the Chesapeake Bay to enter Milford Haven, she gave three loud blasts, giving farmers, merchants and passengers ample time to meet her at the dock. She had to leave Milford Haven and enter Billups Creek to reach Fitchett’s Wharf.

     Mother allowed me to meet the steamboat and get the day’s mail most days in warm weather, after my fifth birthday. Fitchett’s store sat across the road from the wharf. The store served as a post office, carried staple foodstuffs and general merchandise that the steamboat delivered. The Baltimore Bargain House catalog lay at the end of the counter for one to order furniture and household items. The road stayed dusty most of the time unless we had just had a soaking rain. 

     I wanted to go ahead of the wagons and few trucks that came for their shipments or to ship farm produce or seafood. Since I usually changed my dress before I left home, I would have it downstairs ready to don. Sailor suits for girls were a fad in those years, and I received one for my sixth birthday. When I wore the snow white suit with navy middy trim, the young travelers, who disembarked the steamboat while workers unloaded and reloaded freight, gave me more chewing gum, candy and even a soda sometimes. Coca Cola® and root beer seemed to be the favorites in sodas—I liked root beer. Mary Jane candies were five for a penny; therefore, I packed my pockets with those I didn’t eat. I had a little sister at home with whom to share them.
If the Piankatank had docked as I approached the store, I could sense the excitement in the air as the white and Afro-American laborers bustled bringing freight on dollies from the cargo hold to the wharf. If the owner of an item of freight failed to appear on the scene and it didn’t go to the local store, they placed it in the wharf warehouse, with labels facing out so one could read them. Someone from the store would assist the owner in obtaining it later.

     They had closed the icehouse in 1924—before I came into the world—when Mr. Elmer Green began operating Mathews first ice plant. Yet, it still stood by the side of the road before you reached the wharf or store. There were steps that went down to a low door that opened inward. Like the room aboard the steamboat, the walls were double with sawdust between them. Below ground, the earth gave extra insulation. 
Should your stay in the country be over when the steamboat pulled from the pier nearest your host and hostess, you boarded and traveled with Captain Henry Lucas and his crew through the remainder of the run. This could make for a more exciting end to a vacation, as one would see new sites and visit more country stores.

     From Fitchett’s Wharf, the Piankatank went back to Milford Haven, stopping at Crickett Hill and Callis Wharf across the Milford Haven on Gwynn’s Island. It continued out of Milford Haven into the Piankatank River, named for the tribe of Indians that abode in the area when white man arrived. There were stops at Green Point and Grey’s Point before the end of the run at Freeport Landing. Once they had unloaded and loaded their freight, they docked for the night. 

     Freeport offered refreshments, a dance hall and rooms for those who may not want to sleep aboard the steamboat. It became a home away from home for the captain and part of the crew after 24 hours of travel. The store with these facilities stands today, selling sodas, fish tackle and other needs of the fishermen. A woman lives upstairs, who gave me much of the history of Freeport Landing.

     The next morning the captain and his crew arose early to head back to Baltimore where the passengers would once more descend the gangplank. After the crew unloaded freight, they headed for their Baltimore homes. They would return to the dock the next day to begin the schedule again. 

© 2001 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved

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