By Bill Whitman
We are drifting back to an earlier time, let’s say the year 1800. All of the many rivers and creeks reaching inland from the Chesapeake are the roads. Virtually all traffic flows in and out of the creeks, rivers and up and down the Bay on boats. There are no engines, so everyone is sailing, rowing or paddling along these water roads. On land, there is horseback and stage travel on dirt roads, but only one or a few people at a time move over land. There are no trains yet.
On the water, big sailing schooners 80’ to 100’ or more in length are visiting most of the rivers and creeks in the Bay, picking up lumber, tobacco, fruits, vegetables & livestock from farmers, all to be taken to Baltimore, Richmond , Norfolk and beyond the Bay to Philadelphia & New York to be sold. All of these cities were founded 60-70 years earlier (1730-1740). For the return trips from the cities, the schooners load tools, clothing and textiles, furniture, dishes, pots and pans, everything that their country customers desire. But they are at the mercy of the wind and weather, and schedules can’t be counted on.
The age of steamboats on the Chesapeake begins about 1813 when the first rotary steam engine is placed in a boat in Baltimore. Over the next 50 years, steamboats virtually replace schooners for moving everything from farm to city and city to farm. An increasing number of steamboats are carrying freight and later thousands of passenger on regular schedules with much shorter, and reliable transit times. By about 1875, passenger excursions aboard steamboats are becoming popular too and resorts are being built along the shores of the Bay. Tolchester Beach is one of the biggest. Bay Ridge near Annapolis flourishes for a while and Chesapeake Beach is popular. Families, and often women and children,
are anxious to escape hot and dirty Baltimore in the summer. Trips to Annapolis, Galesville, St. Michaels and many other places are arranged and boarding houses (hotels) are built to accommodate them.
A Steam Engine
You could say that the story of the Emma Giles steamboat actually began 34 years before she was built with the launching of the steamboat Alice C Price in 1853 in New York. That boat, during the Civil War, was chartered to the Union forces and sent south. On June 19th, 1864 Alice C Price hit a mine, called a torpedo back then, in the St. Johns River in Florida and sinks. She remained on the bottom of the River until 1865, when the war ended. Her owner went down to Florida, raised her up and salvaged her boiler, engine and other parts, shipping them back to New York, where the refurbished engine was put into a new steamboat named the Nelly White, so named because the owner, Robert Cornell White had a 5 year old daughter named Nelly. That boat steamed in the NY area for nearly 20 years until she was bought in 1882 by the Tolchester Line of Baltimore for the growing Chesapeake Bay excursion trade. Four years later, on August 5th, 1886, an hour and a half after midnight, Nellie White collided with a 2 masted schooner near Sandy Point Lighthouse, was run toward shore to try to save her but she sank in 11’ of water about where the Bay Bridge is now. Her engine, boiler and a number of other parts were salvaged and put into a new steamboat under construction in Baltimore, the Emma Giles. Her construction was financed by E. Walter Giles who had a five year old daughter named Emma!
The Maryland Steamboat Company was the first to send a steamboat to Western Shore Rivers as early as 1832. Around 1870, the Samuel J. Pentz took over routes to Annapolis, South, Rhode and West Rivers with three landings on West River (Shady Side, at the end of Steamboat Road, Galesville and Chalk Point). The Maryland Steamboat Company bought the property on Chalk Point. The Tolchester Line purchased the route in 1891 and Emma Giles took over, leaving Baltimore early in the morning, stopping at Annapolis, then the South, Rhode and West Rivers, back to Annapolis and home to Baltimore late in the evening. This schedule was kept usually Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The Chalk Point property is now owned by Bill & Elsie Whitman. Ruins of the old steamboat landing pier are still visible off the point and a huge timber from the pier sits as a bench in the yard, washed ashore in a storm as the pier fell apart after being abandoned in the 1930’s.
Emma Giles is the first composite construction steamer built in Baltimore or perhaps anywhere
and she is very strong. 4 inch thick wood planks are through-bolted to iron framing and beams. 4 iron keelsons run the length of the vessel, joining one another at each end. In addition, two iron plates run around the frame and beams at the turn of the bilge, forming a truss of great strength. She is a medium sized boat, 185’ long, 50’ wide. The average draft when loaded with coal, freight and passengers is 7 feet. The engine with a single piston riding through a vertical cylinder more than 3 feet in diameter has a 10 foot stroke, driving a 20 ton diamond-shaped walking beam which turns the two paddlewheels. The paddlewheel boxes are 10 feet wide and 25 feet tall. The bottom of the paddlewheels are generally 3 feet or more submerged and can drive the boat at about 12 miles per hour. Emma Giles has no overnight accommodations and spends her life on the upper Bay.
She can carry 1,050 passengers and quite a lot of freight that is loaded forward. Besides her passengers, she picks up tobacco, produce, including watermelons, peaches, tomatoes, watermen’s harvests and a few cattle, oxen, sheep and pigs. She delivers the goods stocked in local stores and discharges excursionists who will populate the boarding houses in season.
David C. Holly, in his book Steamboat On The Chesapeake observed that “of all the steamers of the Tolchester line-and, indeed, of all the steamboats in the century-long white procession down the Bay- none surpassed the Emma Giles for sheer affection bestowed upon her by devoted lovers through the years”. She served the rural landings of the rivers south of Annapolis steadfastly in nearly all weather for 40 years. Everyone that could, would head for the landings when they heard the steamboat’s whistle to watch the spectacle of the boat’s arrival, docking, unloading and taking on a new compliment of passengers, livestock and freight.
Eventually, hard surface roads on the western shore and rail lines on the eastern shore had the steamboat companies struggling to survive. In 1930, the service from Baltimore to Annapolis, South, Rhode and West Rivers was reduced to 2 days a week and two years later the entire route was abandoned. A few years after that, Emma Giles’ topsides were stripped, her engine and boiler removed after 83 years of service in three vessels. After nearly fifty years of solid service as a steamboat on the Chesapeake she was turned into a barge, her hull enduring another 20 years of hard work.