by Henry Lane Hull
Growing up, my parents provided me with many great travel opportunities, the most memorable of which remains our overnight voyage from Washington to Old Point Comfort aboard the steamboat District of Columbia.
The ship was part of the Baltimore Packet Company, better known as the Old Bay Line, that provided passenger and freight service up and down the Chesapeake Bay. The District of Columbia had been built in Wilmington, Del., for the Norfolk & Washington Steamboat Company in 1924, and when that company went under in 1948, the Old Bay Line acquired the ship, then valued at $269,000. The hull was steel, and the interior was appointed with oak and mahogany, all quite elegant.
The District of Columbia was a huge vessel, 300 feet in length, 52 feet in beam and capable of accommodating 600 passengers, as well as serving for transportation of freight.
We boarded at the terminal on Maine Avenue on the Washington waterfront, my father driving our car into the opening on the side of the ship where it was parked by attendants. We went up to our stateroom, which had a private bath and comfortable beds, but the excitement of the trip diminished any desire to sleep.
We set sail about 6 p.m., and after touring the decks, we had dinner in the dining salon, an enormous room, with tables set with linen cloths. The meal was worthy of any five-star restaurant, and we lingered at the table enjoying the surroundings as well as the views. After we finished, we toured the decks again, staying up until midnight to join others to watch as we passed under the Potomac River Bridge. Having crossed the bridge countless times, this trip was the first passing under it, although years later we frequently passed under it in our own boat trolling for rockfish.
The bridge behind us and after passing the lights of Colonial Beach, we retired to our stateroom and went to bed, only to rise a few hours later to watch the entry into Hampton Roads and to enjoy breakfast onboard. The Chamberlin Hotel was the dominating feature of the skyline, and we docked next to it at the Old Bay Line pier, driving the car out of the hold and on past Fort Monroe.
The company closed the Washington service in 1957, restricting its range to the Baltimore–Hampton Roads route until 1962, when it ceased operations after 122 years.
The District of Columbia was sold, taken to Massachusetts, renamed the Provincetown and served out of Boston to ports along Cape Cod. Later it fell into disuse and was towed back to Baltimore Harbor, where it languished for years with various groups hoping to see its restoration.
All these years later the trip remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. Living in the Northern Neck where smaller steam vessels were such a part of the daily life and economy of the region, I wish we could see a reappearance of the steamboats plying our waters. The Chamberlin Hotel is now a residence for seniors, and its outdoor Olympic-size pool is filled with soil and covered with a crop of grass. The rooms are nicely finished one- and two-bedroom apartments.
No traces remain of the massive steamboat dock with its large frame office in the middle abutting the hotel’s east side. The thick, creosoted timbers of the dock were impervious to the heavy freight containers that crossed on them. In the proverbial good old days one could take the train to the dock, spend the night in the hotel, and depart the next morning on a steamboat bound for Baltimore or Washington.
Today we are fortunate that the steamboat days remain alive in the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington as well as in the prodigious writings of the late Robert H. Burgess, the pre-eminent authority on the maritime history of the Chesapeake Bay, all of which evoke for many of us profound nostalgia for the way things once were.