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The rise and fall of the pride of the Potomac

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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 4:59 PM

Your column about the Aqualab is much as I remember it, but that's not the ship referred to by your Severn correspondent. The "liner-type vessel" next to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was a Wilson Line vessel that provided river cruises to Mount Vernon. It was tied up off Maine Avenue during a severe winter during which pipes below decks froze, burst and river water flooded the ship, which sank. It was later raised and towed to a location south of the Wilson Bridge, where it was grounded in an abandoned sand and gravel pit, and remained for some time.

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Bob Salin, Greenspring Village

Bob was the first of many readers who chimed in to say that, as delightful as Answer Man's column was last week, it was about the wrong ship. The right ship? It was the S.S. Mount Vernon, a 201-foot steamer that for nearly 25 years sailed between Washington and Mount Vernon, with a stop at Marshall Hall, an amusement park across the river from George and Martha's plantation.

The ship, originally called the City of Camden, was built in 1916 in Wilmington, Del., and started life plying the waters between there and Philadelphia. In 1940, refurbished and rechristened the Mount Vernon, it started serving Washington. Twice a day it left the Wilson Line pier at Maine Avenue and Fourth Street SW. An evening moonlight cruise featured dancing to live music on a dance floor that could accommodate 1,000. (In the 1950s, local promoter Connie Gay hosted "Hillbilly Cruises" aboard the Mount Vernon. The featured entertainment on March 23, 1956? Elvis Presley, in his first District appearance.)

The ship was a fixture on the Potomac, mentioned in every tourist guide of the city. (Every guide for white tourists, anyway. In 1961, students at George Washington University voted to discontinue their annual "Colonial Cruise" aboard the Mount Vernon to Marshall Hall because the amusement park did not allow blacks.)

On Jan. 5, 1963, as it sat at the Wilson Line pier, the main seacock aboard the vessel froze and broke. River water flooded in - some 1.76 million gallons, it was later estimated - and the Mount Vernon settled on the bottom, only two of its four decks visible.

It sat there until June, when a temporary secondary hull was built up around the submerged lower deck, 16 pumps were installed, and the water was pumped out. It was towed to Marshall Hall, then, a few months later, to Smoot Bay, where the Gaylord National is now.

It was again flooded with water, this time intentionally, as a way of keeping it in one place without anchors. "If I don't sell her pretty soon," Wilson Line President Joseph Goldstein said in 1965, "I'm going to make a barge of her."

It was during this period in its life that the Mount Vernon was what lawyers call an attractive nuisance. One reader remembers paddling out to the ship on rafts made from doors scavenged from construction sites before being scared off by the rats that had moved in.

In 1967, the Seafarers International Union bought the ship for $45,000 to use as a floating schoolhouse at its Piney Point, Md., academy. It was rechristened the Charles S. Zimmerman, after a leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

The school sold the ship in the 1980s. After that, the trail goes cold. Entrepreneurs thought of turning it into a floating eatery. It may have gone to restaurateurs in Yonkers, N.Y., before sinking in Brooklyn Navy Yard, though some believe it was bought by Boston restaurateurs before sinking in Boston Harbor. Either way, it was an ignominious end for the pride of the Potomac.

Children's Hospital

Will you please help keep Children's National Medical Center afloat? We're three weeks into our campaign to raise $400,000 for the hospital's uncompensated care fund, the money that's used to help poor families pay their bills. As of Friday afternoon, we stand at $54,114.21.

To make your tax-deductible donation, send a check or money order (payable to "Children's Hospital") to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md., 21297-1390.

To donate with a credit card, go online to washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital or call 301-565-8501.

Have a question? Write answerman@washpost.com.


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