Tendrils of history often come together in unusual ways in the Chesapeake: an Irish immigrant boatbuilder working in Solomons MD; a descendent from the family of John Rolfe; and a world-wandering clan.

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John Rolfe came to Virginia in 1610 with seeds he had somehow obtained from the closely held Spanish trove of South American Trinidad or Orinoco tobacco. His successful experimentation with this crop laid the foundation for the Chesapeake tobacco culture industry.

Rolfe married Pocahontas—the daughter of the paramount chief, Powhatan—who died during her only trip to England and left him with their son, Thomas, then about age 2 (See Past is Prologue, September 2000). After struggling with the prospects of raising this already sickly boy by himself in the Chesapeake region, Rolfe decided, just before sailing into the Atlantic, to leave the boy in England to be raised by Rolfe’s brother, Henry, a London merchant.

One of Henry’s descendants, Mary Rolfe, married David Allen, a young engineer.

Allen, who had traveled on a couple of steamers to Central America in his youth and had taken a steam turbine engineering course in college, had always wanted a boat. Instead, the couple left the East Coast and moved to the Midwest.

Eventually, the Allens, with their children, David and Mary, returned to the watershed. Allen became a distribution engineer with the Washington Gas-Light Company and was involved in converting Washington, D.C. from coal gas to cleaner natural gas, brought across North America by the “Big Inch” pipeline.

The Allens were happiest near water, and Mary once told the Washington Daily News, “We always wanted to live on a boat.”

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Martin Patrick McDonagh, descended from a line of Irish boatbuilders, was born in 1857, and immigrated to the United States when he was 10. McDonagh, who lived with his uncle, and was apprenticed to the boat-building firm of Stevens and Newman at Baltimore’s Fells Point. There, he helped to build the barkentine Spotless and sailed with her to Rio de Janeiro as part of the Chesapeake’s South American coffee fleet.

For two years the 1890s, McDonagh worked at Solomons Island, where he built some substantial boats, including the 56.5-foot Chesapeake bugeye yacht Retsilla in 1898.

He was appointed inspector of construction by the U.S. Shipping Board in 1910, and was sent to Muskegon, MI, and later worked throughout the nation during World War I. There’s a family photo of him, taken in July 1917, leaning against the longleaf yellow pine hull of a U.S. Corps of Engineers survey cruiser being built at the St. Louis Yacht and Boat Company in Milwaukee, WI.

Her hull, begun the year before, shows workmen aboard, but the bottom had yet to be covered with the tarred felt and 18-gauge copper sheathing that would protect her for the next 55 years.

McDonagh, in his role of inspector, had assured the quality of her construction.

She was 75.4 feet long and powered with a four-cycle Wolverine gasoline engine, with six cylinders of 9.5-inch bore and delivered just 160 horsepower (less than some of today’s outboard motors). The whole power plant reportedly weighed about 8.5 tons, and would give just 8.7 knots. Fuel was supplied from 440-gallon tanks. An early photograph shows her stern with a squared-off transom.

She was christened Chicago and her construction cost of $19,900 was paid with harbor appropriations dedicated to maintaining navigation on Lake Michigan.

After about six years’ service on the Great Lakes, the Chicago was transferred in 1923 to the Chesapeake and assigned to the Washington, D.C. Engineer District, (which is no longer in existence).

Her length had increased to 83 feet, and photos from this period reveal a graceful fantail stern, complete with seats and cushion pads, with an expanded wheelhouse replacing the cosmetic funnel or smokestack. This space was for a large, carpeted and curtained engineer’s office with a fine drafting table. These comfortable accommodations would suggest that a lot of dignitaries were guests on the Chicago in her Chesapeake years.

In April 1925, the Chicago was working in Virginia’s Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers, where the descendants of Chief Powhatan’s tribe were fishing for shad and herring from their reservation.

From records, we learn that in April 1927, she was briefly loaned by Brig. Gen. Herbert Dekyne to the Corp’s South Atlantic Division in the rapidly expanding Port of Norfolk at a rental rate of $39.41 a day plus $43 operating expenses for the ship and her crew of an officer and four men.

Later, in September of that year, she was back on the Potomac, at Colonial Beach, VA, tending Navy Scow #17 (a barge) in heavy winds. A gust slued the barge around, breaking off a piling on Mr. Wilkerson’s Colonial Beach Packing Company pier, a mishap that cost the government $13.

In October 1929, the Chicago was the only Corps boat in the District. At that time subsistence for her five men was supplied under contract to the Engineer and Militia Bureau, which also fed the D.C. National Guard when on duty. The Chicago’s men were apparently falling through the cracks in this bureaucracy and got embroiled in a contract controversy that got down to the detail of how many pounds of potatoes and turnips each man was to get!

The Chicago had other duties, as well. In January 1930, lower Potomac fisherman Warren J. Courtney requested that the “gas screw (vessel) Chicago run a buoy to buoy course for benefit of fishermen in lower Potomac River at Mundy Point.” (The Courtneys still fish the Maryland Potomac near St. Mary’s River.)

The Potomac, early in the 20th century, supported a remarkable fishery, and since the widespread introduction of the pound net in the 1870s, many of the points and creek mouths were dotted with stake-and-mesh fish trap systems based on those used by early Native Americans. To achieve a modicum of organization between fishermen and navigating vessels, especially those running at night before the widespread availability of searchlights, lines were established inside which nets could be set and outside of which navigation was relatively unimpeded. These were still on charts of the Bay in the 1970s and were marked as fish trap areas.

The Chicago did a lot of this work, and ran 7,500 miles a year on this and other patrol work, an equivalent of three times around the world in her Chesapeake and tributary career. The Washington Daily News later noted that “She’s known all up and down the Potomac and Chesapeake.”

She was aging, though, and in June 1931, was backing out of the U.S. Engineer wharf on Washington Channel (opposite today’s Hains Point in D.C.) “when signal given to go ahead her engine failed.” A small salt-corrosion leak in the seawater jacket surrounding one of her huge cylinders had sprayed water on the engine magneto (its source of ignition spark) and shorted it out. The Chicago had “little headway but managed to drift across the head of Washington Channel striking a small cabin cruiser owned by A.B. Clarke and causing damage.”

This mishap cost the government $107, not including the replacement of three cylinders in the Chicago’s engine, and, it was noted, that the other three would likely need to be replaced within a year.

While under repair (A Washington Navy yard bill of $176.88 was paid by the Department of War), T.R. Vogel and William Grieg, of the Corp’s Marine Design Section, claimed that she needed about half of her planks and frames replaced, and estimated the cost at $4,000, which would extend her life for what they estimated was only five to seven years. Vogel concluded, “The boat had about reached its economic life,” and recommended that she be replaced.

In 1932, Maj. J.D. Arthur, district engineer for the Corps recorded that she worked 17 days inspecting fish stakes in the river, and spent 82 days on patrol. He concluded that the fish stake work could be done at half the cost using office auto transport and hiring smaller boats locally.

On April 16, 1933, after her return from an inspection cruise in the Chesapeake, the Chicago, by then a fixture on the Bay, was placed out of commission for an indefinite period.

Major Arthur estimated her sale value from $500 to $1,000. The War Department, in its generally glowing Invitation for Bids for the sale of the Chicago, lists her impressive marine equipment right down to cookware, cutlery and bedding. There was even a supply of toilet paper! It went on to state: “The boat has been kept in good repair and has recently been refinished. It is now in good operating condition. The hull and engine have the depreciation naturally incident to 17 years of service. It is known that there is some rotten wood in hull.” They also mention the probable need for the other cylinders.

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At this point, Dave and Mary Allen were tired of paying rent in the District and by chance had noticed a two-line advertisement for the bid in a local paper, perhaps intentionally made inconspicuous. As a lark, Allen put in a sealed bid for $1,515. He was the only bidder, and was awarded the ship.

The Washington Daily News reported that a group of army officers who wanted the boat offered Allen $5,000 immediately after she became his property. If they had thought there would be no bids and had expected to get her for even less money is not known.

Allen declined the offer, and with the help of fellow Washington Gas Light workers who were experienced boaters, took her from the Army Engineer’s 7th Street Wharves and ran her above Key Bridge in the Potomac, where she was anchored in May 1933.

Her 200-pound, folding-stock kedge anchor was modified with a large steel plate or “palm” welded onto one fluke, to better hold in the Potomac’s silty mud. The Allens used the Chicago’s tender to get ashore, and ran an electric line underwater, so that the ship’s generator did not have to be run. In the fall, his children used the same boat to get to high school, daughter Mary rowed her cello ashore for lessons in Georgetown and the dog was taken ashore for business purposes.

Unsure of the Chicago’s hull condition, Allen sought an inspection, but the diver wanted $40, a tidy sum in 1933, so he got a piece of one of the 10-inch reducer gas mains and welded himself a diving helmet to do his own inspection. Despite the warnings in the bid invitation, he was satisfied with what he saw. They were not going to sea, anyway.

The Potomac often freezes in winter, and ice breakup throughout the river’s 11,000-square-mile drainage basin can produce astoundingly violent currents, bearing great quantities of debris and ice in winter and spring. The Allens got a taste of this during one storm their first year when they stayed up all night, in turns, on anchor watch to assure the Chicago did not drag ashore, or into one of the Potomac’s bridges.

They wintered near the Engineer’s Wharf on 7th Street. When it was time to move, the Allens would fire up Chicago’s engine and take a large party of friends and work associates on what became a popular and celebrated annual cruise for fishing or recreation down the Potomac. The company newsletter contains envious comments at the time.

This pattern continued, and the Allens and their children had an interesting, almost bucolic lifestyle for six years, until 1938, when Europe was descending into the horror of World War II. The repeated aerial bombardment on that continent and England led Allen to wonder if this devastation might be delivered to U.S. cities should the country enter the conflict.

Meanwhile a friend of the Allens had purchased property near the mouth of the Patuxent River in the heart of tobacco country where the crop had grown uninterrupted since the second third of the 17th century.

Allen thought this might be the next phase in his family odyssey and purchased a turn-of-the-century waterfront farm there. He began to put it together as a place of survival for whatever the coming war might bring.

(In a twist of irony, the Patuxent Naval Air Station and a training base for the invasion of Europe would be built not six air miles from his farm, and in the Cold War, it would become a second order nuclear target in the Soviet attack protocol.)

The Chicago was sold, although Allen, the quintessential scavenger, removed artifacts: the anchor with its mud-palm and a shackle of chain, a big cowl ventilator from the foredeck, a khaki metal cylinder containing her original blueprints, a toilet room hand wash water tank and porcelain lavatory sink, with the Corps of Engineer’s logo fired in blue.

Allen family records don’t recall the ship’s next owner, but in 1948, her hull documentation number 232533 was in the name of D.C. resident Merle Newkirk. The Chicago then drops from view for nearly a quarter century.

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My father and mother desired a child; they begot me.
I desired a father and mother; I got the night and the sea.

— Jim O’Leary
Washington Post, June 16, 1973

In 1972, Jim O’Leary, his wife, Florence, and their 17 children (four sets of twins, one set of triplets and others ranging in age from 5 to 32) were deported from Gladstone, Australia. They ended up in Maryland, after having been booted out of Hanoi, Guam and mainland China, with months in sundry prisons along the way.

They raised a wreck on the Lower Potomac at Cobb Island and lived aboard it until Tropical Storm Agnes came through and put her back on the bottom. Other abodes included a wreck at Fort Washington that they raised just enough to pitch tents on her deck.

Casting about for a new near-wreck, they allegedly put $1,000 down on the Chicago, a rude high cabin now added behind her wheelhouse. Her graceful fantail stern had been lopped off again, revealing the blunt transom. She was listing in the water, slowly on her way to the bottom, and lying at the Washington Marina, off Water Street in D.C., not a quarter mile from where she was docked when the Allens moved ashore and sold her.

There was the matter, quite soon, of the $60 a month slip rental which went unpaid and the marina’s owners went to Superior Court and secured an eviction notice. A boarding party of five U.S. marshals, a dozen harbor policemen, three police boats, a fireboat and tug arrived to move them out. The Chicago was towed out into the Potomac and cut loose, with the O’Learys still aboard protesting in full voice. She later drifted alongside the Washington Navy Yard (where she’d been for repairs 40 years earlier), until they, too, got a tug to pull her down below the Wilson Bridge and got her to anchor.

Coverage in the Washington Post during the summer of 1973 included a photo of her graceful bow sunk below the deck line on a strip of National Park land in Alexandria.

The O’Learys had vanished.

I went to look for her a bit later after hearing of her fate, but by then she’d apparently been broken up and sent to a landfill.