To those who daydream about the early days of travel and commerce on the Chesapeake, the steamboat era conjures up tales of adventure.

For roughly 120 years, steamboats carried waves of travelers and cargo across the Bay. These passengers came from all walks of life: tradesmen, preachers, farmers and entrepreneurs. Some, such as young brides, were celebrating a moment in time. Others were clinging to hope, desperately seeking medical treatment in the better-equipped hospitals of the cities.

Steamboats also opened the doors for merchants to expand their markets-introducing wares from the bustling cobblestone thoroughfares of Baltimore to the narrow streets of tiny fishing and farming villages such as Trent Hall, Sharps, West Point, Rocketts and hundreds of points in between.

Later, rail terminals made it possible to extend their reach to the interior of the country. Goods were shipped by rail car to large ports like Norfolk, then loaded onto waiting ships.

The Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, VA, pays tribute to these vessels on the Chesapeake. Located on the road that shadows Carter Creek, site of a steamboat wharf built in the late 1800s, the museum, part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, remembers the lives and events tied to this era.

Steamboat runs punctuated the daily rhythm of life on the Bay from 1813 through 1937. At their peak, according to David Holly author of "Chesapeake Steamboats: Vanished Fleet," an estimated 600 boats serviced a dense network of river wharves-about 300 landings dotted riverbanks to the farthest points of navigation. During this period, the "white packets," as they were called, linked villages. As one passenger recorded, steamboats "allowed us to meet one another."

Steamboat excursions on the Chesapeake offered a break from the grind of agrarian life. Whether making a day visit with relatives or a weeklong adventure to a church-camp revival, a trip aboard a steamer spelled "escape." Floating theaters and moonlight dance cruises soon became part of the entertainment packages.

Elegant interiors featured dark-paneled wood, gleaming brass hardware, white-tablecloth dining and legendary meals that fully played to the seafood seasons of the Bay. Successful ship captains knew how to pamper guests, and several pilots enjoyed a close following among travelers that sometimes spanned decades. Such were the ingredients that combined to make passengers feel like royalty.

Longer runs between large cities covered close to 200 miles and were made by boats such as the Northland or Southland, which spanned up to 300 feet in length. But the majority of steamboats were of mid-size class, 150-200 feet, and serviced the smaller landings that sprang up and down the major rivers of the Bay. These boats were designed to accommodate overnight excursions.

Steamboats on the Chesapeake-built to withstand the chop and significant tidal forces- were not necessarily easy to navigate. Many were equipped with a single rudder and ships with multiple decks were easily tossed by the wind. They moved at just 10-12 mph. The boats' ability to navigate the twisty, narrow channels of Tidewater rivers is a marvel in itself.

The lobby of the Steamboat Era Museums contains original artifacts from these times, such as fine leather chairs and navigational tools, as well as a logbook from the steamer, Northumberland. Opened to the March 30, 1904 page, fares varied widely according to distance traveled, overnight accommodations and cargo brought onboard, including the number of cattle or pigs or other livestock. One fare from a Fredericksburg to Baltimore run collected $2.15 in Irvington. Another, on the Baltimore to Tappahannock run, collected $16.75 at the Sharps wharf.

Entering the large exhibit hall, one passes a collection of miniature models constructed by Bill Wright. Well-respected for his strict attention to detail and historically correct renditions of period ships. Wright relies on original etchings, blueprints and other historical records.

A diorama of the Irvington wharf during its heydays reveals the chaotic climate that surrounded life at the water's edge. Steamboats were a focal point of the work week, and their arrival was marked by a whistle unique to each boat. It was rare that one could resist the shrill announcement of a steamer's arrival. Laborers, merchants and town folk scurried down the long plank to welcome it. Here, all manner of goods were transferred by stevedores on and off deck: work boots, fancy silk fabrics, spices from distant ports, oranges, construction materials. Local produce, seafood and hogsheads of tobacco were shipped to the big cities. Cattle were "encouraged" onto the gangplank leading to the lower deck.

According to museum staff, even modular houses-first manufactured by Sears Roebuck & Co.-were transported by steamer after World War II to places like Cape Charles and other small towns on the Eastern Shore.

Their presence on the waterways of the mid-Atlantic also meant, through sheer timing and proximity, that steamboats influenced the outcome of the Civil War and played a critical role in the South's recovery.

Currently, the museum's main exhibit is devoted to the Civil War. "The Bay at War" details the depth of the military engagement; specifically, the role that steamboats played in the movement of troops, supplies and weapons. It also reminds visitors that these vessels were used not only in battle but to cut off much-needed goods and staples from reaching the residents of Tidewater and the Eastern Shore. The South suffered greatly from these blockades, stationed at the mouth of every major river and entrance to the Bay.

Visual and oral history stations tell of the ingenuity of Virginia natives (and sympathizers) who knew how to outmaneuver the large northern ships with their smaller craft. Blockade runners used their intimate knowledge of backwater creeks and passages to run those ships aground.

One oral history relates how the town of Walkerton responded to the Yankees, who were destroying all of the boats they came across on the Mattaponi River. Local citizens boarded the town's ferry boat-their lifeline to the world-and moved it down river to low ground during the night. The boat was so well-hidden within the expansive marsh grasses that Union patrollers could not find it.

Another storyteller recalls how large plantation owners on the Northern Neck installed fake cannons along the riverbank. Large wooden logs were mounted to look like barrels and placed at regular intervals, facing onto the river.

What these stories all share is a point made abundantly clear: This was a total war. It affected everyone in the Chesapeake region and its toll was one of daily consumption and worry. Here, between the capitals of the North and South, Commander Foxhall A. Parker and his "Potomac Flotilla" took charge of the Chesapeake. During the war years, virtually every working vessel, from steamer to side-wheeler, from barge to ferry boat, was retrofitted for war use.

Plantations from the Potomac River south-their gardens, livestock, family heirlooms-were subject to raids by Union soldiers on any given day as a never-ending parade of gunboats trolled area rivers. Aptly reflected upon by one Tidewater historian, "The war came to their doorsteps."

This exhibit will be replaced in 2008 with one about post-war recovery and how steamboats contributed to that effort. Another exhibit in 2009 will focus upon the golden era of steamboats between the turn of the century and 1937.

The introduction of the automobile and the great hurricane of 1933, which devastated most of the working wharves and landings, effectively snuffed out passenger travel aboard steamers, although the boats continued to carry freight until the mid-1960s.

Also planned is a new lobby exhibit about the history of the steamboat engine and other mechanical parts-such as the large chimes that enabled a type of "Morse code" communication between the engine room and the pilothouse, generally several decks above. The unwieldy chimes hung from long chains and were clanged together, making quite a racket.

These plans require more floor space, and blueprints for construction are ready to go when funds become available. Additional space would allow the museum to expand its educational offerings with classes and lectures, a move the community supports.

Sitting just outside the front entrance where the pilothouse from the steamboat Potomack rests, the smell of the gentle breeze indicates water nearby. Amid the quiet of the small town of Irvington, it is still possible-and appropriate-to pause and remember how everything here once depended on it.

The Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, VA, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m Thursday through Saturday and 1-4 p.m. on Sunday.


From District of Columbia & Baltimore: Take Interstate 95 to exit 126 to US 17 South to Tappahannock. Turn left onto Route 360 East at the second stoplight. Cross the Rappahannock River and continue to Warsaw. Pass through Warsaw and bear right before a traffic light onto Route 3 East to Kilmarnock. Entering Kilmarnock, go to the fourth stoplight and turn right onto Route 200 South, Irvington Road. Go about 4 miles into Irvington and turn right onto Route 634, King Carter Drive. The museum is on the right just past the bank.

From Richmond: Take Interstate 64 East to Exit 220 onto Route 33 toward West Point. Continue on Route 33 about 10 miles. Turn left onto US 17/Route 33 North and go about 2 miles. Bear right into Saluda. Turn right at the traffic light toward Deltaville on Route 33. Go about 7 miles on Route 33 and turn left onto Route 3 toward White Stone and Kilmarnock. After several miles, turn left onto Route 200 toward Irvington and drive 2 miles. Curve around to the right on Route 200 to the main intersection in Irvington. Turn left onto Route 634, King Carter Drive. The Steamboat Era Museum is on the right just past the bank.

For information about the museum, call 804-438-6888 or e-mail The Oral History Collection is found at For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways network, visit