There used to be a “night boat” that went from Norfolk to Washington and, I think, Norfolk to Baltimore. It carried cars, people and cargo. In the late 1940s, when I was about 6 or 7, my parents and I made the trip to D.C. on the boat. My daddy woke me up early so we could see the monuments as the ship pulled into Washington. It was my first visit, and what a wonderful introduction to the city. I vaguely remember animals being loaded, but now I wonder if that is my imagination. I assume it turned around and went back to Norfolk during the day with more passengers and cargo. It was a memorable experience, and I’d appreciate anything you can find about it.
— Libby McCullough,
As we fume in our traffic-marooned cars, or remove our shoes and belts at the airport, we may long for a time when travel was more romantic. The very words “night boat” seem to evoke those unhurried days.
“There’s something about sitting out on the deck in the evening,” steamboat aficionado Jack Shaum said. “It’s gotten dark and you can see the stars. You can see the lighthouses. The buoys go by, their bells ringing. It was just kind of like another world. And the food was fantastic.”
Jack lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he writes for the Record Observer and the Bay Times in Queen Anne’s County. He co-edited the 1996 book “Night Boat on the Potomac” and wrote the forthcoming “Lost Chester River Steamboats.”
Jack knows his steam. He even rode a night boat as a boy: a steamboat that sailed from Baltimore to Norfolk on the Old Bay Line.
It’s unlikely, he said, that the boat our question-asker rode serviced Washington and Baltimore. Boats of the Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Company plied a route that went: Norfolk; Old Point Comfort, Va. (on the north side of the James River); Alexandria and Washington. The Old Bay Line — also known as the Baltimore Steam Packet Company — had the Baltimore-Norfolk route.
And Jack thinks farm animals probably wouldn’t have been taken on the Washington-Norfolk boat in the late 1940s.
Of course, there was a time when dozens of steamboats crisscrossed the bits that are blue on a Mid-Atlantic map carrying people, animals and cargo. There were fewer bridges and paved roads then. Steamboats were lifelines for hundreds of hard-to-reach communities on the Chesapeake and its tributaries.
The Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Company began operation in 1891. In the nearly 60 years the service ran, the basics didn’t change much: It took 12 or 13 hours to travel between Norfolk and Washington.
The NWSC employed various vessels over the years, but in the early 1940s it had three: the Northland, the Southland and the District of Columbia. A one-way ticket was $4.40. Staterooms ranged from $1 for a three-up bunk room to $5 for a room with twin beds and a private bath. It was an additional $2 if you brought your automobile.
When World War II broke out, the Northland and Southland were purchased by the U.S. government and survived a perilous Atlantic convoy crossing. They were moored in Scotland to accommodate troops training for D-Day. They never returned to the United States, with authorities deciding that it was enough of a miracle that they’d made it across the ocean once. Twice would be pushing their luck.
The District of Columbia continued its regular service during the war and after. On Halloween morning in 1948, the boat was en route to Norfolk when it encountered thick fog just beyond Old Point Comfort. Capt. Edward H. Heaton, a 25-year veteran of the company, was in command.
Even back then, some boats had radar. The District of Columbia was not one of them. “We never thought it was necessary,” a vice president of the steamship line said later.
It might have proved helpful that morning. Anchored near the shore was a gasoline and oil tanker, the Georgia. The District of Columbia struck it, killing a 24-year-old woman who was returning to Norfolk after training at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The company decided to fold after that. The District of Columbia was repaired and joined the fleet of the Old Bay Line. By the late 1950s, the pier it used on Maine Avenue SW had fallen into disrepair. No one wanted to spend the money to fix it. Besides, slow boats had been supplanted by fast cars and even-faster airplanes.
When the night boat ended its service in December 1957, The Washington Post’s travel editor noted that it would be especially missed by one particular group of passengers: honeymooners. Twelve hours is plenty of time to get to know someone.
You know how this works: Send Answer Man your questions about the Washington area at email@example.com and he might just answer them.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.