Elisha Lee didn’t make her way to the Eastern Shore until rather late in her life. Built in 1892, she arrived in Cape Charles (Va.) Harbor on St. Patrick’s Day of 1944. World War II was going strong at the time. With so many military bases housed in Hampton Roads, there was a slew of traffic running to and fro across the Chesapeake Bay into Cape Charles.
Elisha Lee came in to help handle those crowds. The 315-foot-long ferry had been built in the famed Delaware shipyard of Harlan and Hollingsworth. They were the biggest employer in Wilmington at that time, constructing not just elegant big boats but also some of the fanciest and fastest racing yachts around. The firm called in an all-star to design Elisha Lee. Archibald Cary Smith was the man who basically invented the practice of creating the equivalent of blueprints for boatbuilders, planning the construction process out meticulously on paper rather than eyeballing everything as you went along in the shipyard.
Elisha Lee spent most of her younger years in New York, running a route between the Big Apple and New Haven, Ct. She worked in Newfoundland for a while as well. Once she finally arrived in Cape Charles, people on the lower
reaches of the Eastern Shore fell in love with her pretty quickly. They would board her in pre-dawn darkness and then spend a day visiting the shops and restaurants of big-city Norfolk before boarding her again after nightfall for a return trip.
Here is the writer Patricia Joyce Parson, a Cape Charles native, reminiscing about one such trip in her charming book, Portrait of a Town: Cape Charles, 1940-1960.
“The predawn fog was starting to lift. From the deck of the SS Elisha Lee, we could see Father below on the dock where we had been waiting in the early morning chill for the gangplank of the Cape Charles ferry to be lowered. He had driven Mother, my sister Jane, and me the few blocks from our home …
“The year was 1944. I was eight years old, and Jane was six. We were making one of our infrequent trips to Norfolk to buy clothes for the coming autumn, and here we were on deck, dressed as if we were going to church. All around us, sailors in white uniforms settled in the deck chairs like a flock of alighting seagulls. … They had come on the overnight train from Philadelphia and beyond to be deployed at the Norfolk Naval Base, or aboard one of the warships anchored in Hampton Roads …
“When the cars were finally loaded and the bustle of releasing the ferry from its moorings had ceased, we went inside for cocoa and doughnuts that Mother purchased from a white-coated waiter. [Then] we hurried back out on deck to watch the sunrise. … [After that,] with nothing to look at except endless water …, we soon got bored until, much to our delight, the grey humps of several porpoises broke the surface and then slipped beneath the waves.”
The trip to Norfolk took three hours.
“Battleships, aircraft carriers, and destroyers crammed the harbor [in Norfolk], along with smaller escorts and tenders. … When the ferry finally docked we walked a block or two over to Granby Street.
“Our first stop was Hofheimer’s Shoe Store, which contained something wondrous: an X-ray machine, into which you could slide your foot and, peering through a viewer, actually see its bones within the outline of your shoe. Unaware of the danger of overexposure to X-rays, we children took turns pushing each other aside so we could look into the machine.”
The trio stopped at a pair of department stores, first Ames & Brownley and then Smith & Welton. They had a lunch in the tearoom at Smith & Welton. The girls each ordered a pimento cheese sandwich, then followed that up with ice cream “served in little silvery cups with lace paper doilies underneath.” More shopping and wandering followed after lunch. By the time the trio climbed back aboard a ferry for the return trip to Cape Charles, it was after dark.
Such excursions rank as indelible memories among a whole generation of Cape Charles and Northampton County residents. The Elisha Lee played a central a part in that tradition until 1953. Early that year, the vessel was slated to undergo a mandatory Coast Guard inspection. There was a sense around town that at the advanced age of 61 years, she was going to flunk the test. Plus, rumors had been going around for some time that her owner, the Pennsylvania Railroad, was looking to discontinue its ferry operations in Cape Charles. (A competing ferry service had started up a few miles from town, at Kiptopeke, in 1950.)
The inspection of Elisha Lee was scheduled for Feb. 28, 1953. That morning, in preparation for the likely outcome, crew members unloaded extra restaurant supplies and office furniture from the old vessel and moved them into storage in a building near the Cape Charles Harbor. When the time came for the vessel’s final run to Norfolk, the captain went out of his way to bid a fond farewell to the people of Cape Charles, tying down the cord he used to blow his horn so that it blared for five full minutes straight.
All the vessels in the Cape Charles harbor responded by blowing their whistles, too.
Elisha Lee flunked the inspection. The estimated cost of bringing her back up to code was $600,000. Instead, her owner sold her to a shipwrecker in Baltimore for $19,000, and she lives on today only in some old photos like the ones you see here and the memories of her former passengers over the years.
–posted by Jim Duffy on March 16, 2018 and updated in September 2023 for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore. Thank you for spending a little time with this story and on this site.