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A Short History Of Steamboats On The Chesapeake Bay

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A Short History Of Steamboats On The Chesapeake Bay. Gentlemen, the steamboat will revolutionize river travel providing widespread commercial success!.

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A Short History Of

Steamboats On

The Chesapeake Bay


Gentlemen, the steamboat will revolutionize river travel providing widespread commercial success!

In 1806, a young man, Robert Fulton, raised money to build a number of steamboats that would set the stage for a new era in worldwide transportation.


What was that?

One of those dog gone newfangled steamboats…

By 1813 steamboats were making there appearance on the Chesapeake Bay. The initial routes included going from Baltimore to Annapolis and to Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore. They quickly proved their superiority over sail power ships and rapidly expanded to other ports on the bay.


I don’t like the steamboats coming here, and believe they could bring evil times to our residents!

The steamboat began to be used in more and more places on the Chesapeake Bay. But not everyone was as enthusiastic as Fulton about the possibilities it presented.


How wonderful it is to be able to go to Baltimore for a full day of shopping….

The steamers ability to take one away from the common small town surroundings and into a big city full of opportunities and new products was just to much for towns people to reject.


The steamboat has made it possible for me to get all kinds of products from Baltimore and Norfolk I couldn’t get before. My business is booming!

A pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a bag of nails and a coffin.  What else can I get for you today, Mrs. Jones?”  This shopping list might sound a bit strange, but general stores in the mid1800s carried a bit of everything and made living in farming communities a lot easier


Get-up Nellie or we’ll miss the steamboat.

Farmers also found a new market place for their goods. Vegetables, livestock and seafood could now be shipped to Baltimore providing the rural farmer and waterman with a new source of income.


Steamboats did not always bring prosperity. During the Civil War they were converted into gunboats and used by both sides. The Union gunboats regularly patrolled the shores of the Chesapeake bombarding homes and pillaging from farms and plantations.


After the war, the steamboats impact continued to grow. Canning factories sprung up on or near steamboat wharfs. Tomatoes, oysters, beans, etc. all locally produced, could now be processed, canned and shipped to Baltimore.


Jobs, jobs, jobs, just what we needed to help build back up after the war!

The Cannery created a whole new industry that provided locals with an alternative to working on farms or the water.


The steamboat also brought visitors from Baltimore and Norfolk that stayed at the many hotels and resorts that sprung up along the bay.

White Stone Beach on the Rappahannock


On your next click the speaker button appears, just click on it to hear a real steamboat whistle.

Momma, will he blow the whistle?

The steamboat’s arrival at the town dock became a festive event attracting both young and old towns people. The steamboat had become a way of life for folks that lived all up and down the Chesapeake Bay.


I never seen it blow so hard and rain so much…

Unfortunately all good things do come to an end. Three major events pretty much ended the steamboat era on the Chesapeake Bay. First the storm of “33”. It destroyed most of the steamboat wharfs up and down the Bay. Steamboat companies just didn’t have the funds to rebuild them.


The Rappahannock River Bridge built at Tappahannock in 1937.

Now I can get to Richmond and back in a single day!

The other two “events” that brought the steamboat era to an end on the Rivers of the Chesapeake Bay were the automobile and construction of bridges and roads.


And so the steamboat era was gone. An era that helped the Chesapeake Bay area become what it is today. An era of exciting times, prosperity for many and joyous memories for all.


Story and illustrations by Grayson Mattingly

To learn more about the steamboat era visit the many links on our web site