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I spent some quality time recently with a wonderful old book by historian David C. Holly, Steamboat on the Chesapeake: Emma Giles and the Tolchester Line. Among the highlights in my reading was this glorious description of what it was like to board that steamboat in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and, bound for a daytrip to the famed-but-long-gong upper Chesapeake Bay resort at Tolchester Beach in Kent County, Md. The rest of this post is culled word for word from four pages of that book.

Launch Time at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

The moment of departure was a heart-thumping thrill. Three deafening blasts on the steam whistle, far up on the stack, would set babies to crying, youngsters to racing to the rail, and old folks to holding their ears. With lines cast off, the steamer would shudder deep within herself, white water would spew beneath the wharf, and the steamer would back clear of the slip.

With rudder over, she would turn slowly in reverse; then, with engines full ahead, her paddlewheels digging into the smelly harbor water, she would stem her backward movement in a frothy foam and spin about for the open channel. Behind her were the rows of white steamers at their Light Street wharves, to the right the green slopes of Federal Hill, to the left the rising skyline of Baltimore topped by the Shot Tower pointing its jagged finger at the sky.

Down the harbor she would steam, past the Woodall yards and Locust Point, past Broadway, around the battlement of Fort McHenry, past the Lazaretto and the sinister walls of the small island of Fort Carroll, Ahead lay the widening Patapsco and the open expanse of the Chesapeake.

The Open Bay Brings a State of Glorious Hypnosis

For every day tripper, the steamer ride across the Bay became a cherished memory. Sinking in a canvas chair by the rail, an excursionist would stick the toes of his shoes through the diamond-shaped holes in the heavily painted mesh, put his hands behind his head, and allow the sun, the soft breeze, and the slow pulse of the engine and the paddlewheels to bring on a state of near hypnosis.

Youngsters scampered from stem to stern on the passenger deck and gaped at the great arms of shining metal moving up and down in the engine room, visible through the cabin windows. Other passengers strolled on the hurricane deck when the wind carried the smoke and cinders over the side, and sniffed the oily smell of heated machinery coming up from the engine room through the slit where the walking beam made its arc in the sky. Some stopped at the open pilothouse door to pay homage to the officers manning the wheel.

Everyone sooner or later went to the very bow, as close to the lookout as they could get, to peer down at the prow cutting the waves and curling them back in a snowy froth. And everyone sooner or later … visited the refreshment stand near the social hall to buy ice cream, popcorn, candy, and soft drinks, which never tasted quite so good ashore, and juicy lemons impaled on peppermint sticks that were hastily purchased at the first hint of a rocking deck in the middle of the Bay. A favored few remembered the spectacle of porpoises (now a rarity in the Bay) leaping and cavorting alongside and in the wake astern.

Dancing the Hours Away

Baltimore Harbor Steamboats Library of Congress

Steamboats in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

For many, the sound of music drew them to the social hall astern on deck. A small orchestra–piano, cornet, trombone, guitar, drums–played away, and dancers glided over a floor smooth with wax. Stanchions supporting the deck above had to be steered around; luckless the boy who backed his girl into one of them. Folding chairs around the perimeter were occupied by spectators, wallflowers, and hopefuls.

During the first decade of the century the orchestra played mostly the waltz and the two-step. The Society Two-Step was popular, but the exhibition dance was the Flat Foot Waltz, in which the boy held the girl at arms’ length and the partners glided across the floor very formally, keeping their feet perfectly flat.

When the orchestra rested, piano players took over and skirts twirled to less conventional rhythms. Some strange sounds from the South–the first improvisation and syncopation of jazz–shocked the older generation. Young people started to kick up their heels on the floor, and the turkey trot was on its way. Not far behind, as the years rolled along and skirts sneaked above the knee, were the Charleston and the Black Bottom.

At each revolution of the young, their elders snorted and called it crude, even vulgar.

The Magic Kingdom of Tolchester Comes into View

Arriving at Tolchester

… For those who rode the open decks near the bow, the search for the first glimpse of Tolchester meant scanning the horizon and the thin line of the far shore to check the accuracy of the captain’s navigation in making his landfall. When the twin towers marking the beach resort became unmistakably clear ahead, even to the most unobservant passenger, the triumph of a successful crossing was lost in hasty preparations to be among the first to leave the boat when it docked.

Beating the crush at the dock and winning the race to the picnic groves for the best tables involved a grand strategy. Long before the boat approached the pier, the youngest and fleetest members of each party were dispatched to the side port on the main deck, where the gangplank would be placed. If they had the opportunity and the mate didn’t catch them, they were to leap to the wharf when the boat’s guards touched the piling, run pell-mell down the pier and up the bluff, find the most desirable picnic table in the grove, and sit on it.

The less athletic members of the party, struggling under the weight of [picnic] baskets, hampers, and jugs and constrained by starched shirts, .. would follow behind. Familiar to every picnicker was the spectacle of the steamer at the pier listing heavily to one side from the weight of passengers waiting in the crush to get off and the sight of little boys (and sometimes girls) racing madly down the dock and charging helter-skelter through the trees.

Returning to the Humdrum of Home

Tolchester Beach and Steamship

Passengers disembarking at Tolchester (Steamship Louise, not Emma Giles, but you get the idea.)

… The return of the steamer in the evening to bear them back to Baltimore … meant the end of a dreamlike day, far removed from the sidewalks, the factories, the counting houses of the city. They trudged back aboard … and settled themselves for the voyage home. The fantasy reached an end [when] the boat rounded Fort McHenry, its pulse slowed and stopped, and it drifted in the basin toward its pier. … For those who rode to Tolchester aboard Emma Giles … [the end of the sail] meant a return to the realities of the humdrum, the colorless, the uneventful.

NOTE: Steamboat on the Chesapeake is often available in the area’s best bookstores that carry used books on local history and culture. Here is online info about it.¬†And there is one more sweet photo below, so don’t miss it …

–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in April 2024. Thank you for spending time on this site!

The Emma Giles lands at Tolchester …

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