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April 2005

Remembering the 'Old Bay Line'

[By Allen Brougham] . . .

This month marks the 43rd anniversary of the true ending of an era. On April 13, 1962, the Old Bay Line made its final voyage on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Known officially as the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, which had come to be known as the Old Bay Line, it had been doing its thing since the company's founding in 1840. At the time of its demise, at the age of 122, the Old Bay Line was the oldest steamship company in the country.

At one time, packet ships were commonplace on the Chesapeake Bay. They were, after all, the most efficient means of travel between their many ports of call, prior to the automobile, and even for quite a while following that. The railroads could not truly compete in these environs, as the immense bay and its many tributaries prevented direct routes. Indeed, railroads relied upon packet vessels to offer connections. It's no surprise, then, that many of the packet lines - including this one - were eventually owned substantially by railroads.

Happily, I can remember some of the glory years of the Old Bay Line. I can say, too, that of the Chesapeake Bay, the Old Bay Line was so much a part of the bay itself that many considered it to BE the Chesapeake Bay.

My first exposure to the Old Bay Line was during the second World War. My father was in the Navy, and on a number of occasions I would accompany my mother to Norfolk, when my father would be in port. Back then, the Old Bay Line was the preferred method of choice between Baltimore and Norfolk. I vaguely remember some of those voyages, but recall somewhat more clearly using the line in the early 1950's when my father was then assigned to a net tender assigned to Norfolk.

At that time the Old Bay Line had three vessels: the City of Norfolk, the City of Richmond, and the District of Columbia. The first two of these ships served the route daily between Baltimore and Norfolk - one sailing north each evening, and the other sailing south. The District of Columbia served the route between Washington and Norfolk, alternating one night north and the next night south.

Old Bay Line steamer 'City of Norfolk' from a post card I sent to my parents in 1960. The ship made an overnight run between Baltimore and Norfolk carrying passengers, automobiles and freight.

On one of my northward sailings from Norfolk, I can recall the announcement, "All ashore that's going ashore." To this was added, "No passengers to Old Point." In those days, Old Bay Line steamers also served Old Point Comfort, Virginia, across Hampton Roads from Norfolk, but local passage was not allowed between the two. I asked my dad, "Why not?" (He thought it was a franchise thing.)

One of my fondest memories was a voyage my mother and I made - circa 1952, age 11 - from Baltimore to Norfolk on the very same evening as my grandmother and cousin sailed to the same location from Washington. The plan was for my father to meet all four of us the following morning in Norfolk. I recall the excitement about bedtime as our vessel was approaching Point Lookout, where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay, pondering whether our respective steamers would get there at the exact moment to be side by side. It didn't happen (and if it ever did, the steamer from Baltimore would have to be late) as the schedules were staggered to allow the ship from Baltimore to be about an hour ahead of the one from Washington. It would have been bedlam having two vessels at Old Point Comfort at the same time. Presumably, the steamer from Washington might be in sight of Old Point Comfort when the one from Baltimore departed, but I did not see it. Nor did I witness the middle of the night passing of the the two Baltimore ships - each sailing in opposite directions - which typically occurred about 12:30 in the morning. True aficionados of life aboard the Old Bay Line would relish that opportunity, but likely I was fast asleep by then.

'District of Columbia' sailed the route between Washington and Norfolk, southbound on odd dates and northbound on even dates. There was no run on the 31st, or on February 29. The ship had 140 staterooms and space for 38 automobiles.

I never had the occasion to sail on the steamer from Washington, but that voyage must have been every bit as thrilling - or more so - than the one from Baltimore. I know my grandmother and cousin enjoyed their adventure, and they filled my receptive ears with the experience once all five of us met up the following morning at the Main Street pier in Norfolk. I did not commit many of the details they shared with me to memory, but I do have a narrative of a voyage aboard the District of Columbia, as published in the June 1956 issue of the B&O Magazine. Authored by Jacob Hay, it described a visit by a tour group of high school students who had come to Washington on the B&O and then sailed to Norfolk on the Old Bay Line. It is excerpted here:

"After the first flurry of finding staterooms and choosing upper or lower berths, there is a general rush to the decks for a look at Washington's spectacular skyline as the ship steams slowly out of the basin and into the broad Potomac. Off to the starboard flicker the myriad lights of the National Airport, and to the port are the stately homes of naval and military officers assigned to top Pentagon posts. Overhead there is the constant roar of airliners taking off or coming in to land at the airport.

"Then to dinner in the brightly lighted dining saloon, where grinning, marvelously adept waiters serve up traditional Chesapeake Bay dishes, and the inevitable case of incipient sea-sickness turns up - although the Potomac is as steady as if it were still tied to the wharf.

"Dinner over, a sturdy few return to the open decks for a few minutes on watching the blinking channel markers. The majority, though, repair to the main saloon where the ship's social directress, smart in the Line's blue uniform, has arranged a program of 'horse races.' Big dice are shaken, and white-jacketed stewards move gaily colored wooden horses down a long striped canvas 'track,' until the race is won. Afterwards, there is bingo, and often a 'show,' put on by the students themselves, to the intense delight of the other passengers.

"By 11 P.M., though, even the briskest games begin to pall on youngsters who've hiked around Washington all during the day just past, and by 11:30 P.M. - just about the time the big white steamer glides beneath the Potomac River Bridge - nearly every one has gone to bed.

"Breakfast in the dining saloon is a hasty affair, for the students are once more full of beans and impatient to be off on the day's tour. By 8:30 A.M., the 'District of Columbia' has returned to normal, and the last of the sightseeing buses has pulled away from the wharf."

Getting back to my own experience of sailing on the Old Bay Line, evening departures from and morning arrivals into Baltimore were always highlighted by the singular experience of passing Fort McHenry. And it was in this very venue, in 1955, not aboard an Old Bay Line vessel, but aboard the frigate Constellation as it was towed into review for festivities at Fort McHenry, that I got to marvel as the evening Old Bay Line steamer made its way past the frigate. How I got chosen to be among those aboard the Constellation is a story in itself, but while the others who were aboard queued along the deck of her starboard side, intent upon the festivities taking place at the fort, I stood along the port side waving to the steamer's passengers. What a thrill!

I was once with some friends whose summer home was on the shores of the Chesapeake, and the evening appearance of the steamer passing their site was noted with a remark that she was "right on time!"

I graduated from high school in 1959 and joined the Navy later that year. Beginning in 1960 I was stationed in the Norfolk area myself. The Old Bay Line was still active, at least at the beginning of that assignment, but its schedule was not particularly convenient for trips home on weekends. However, I did get to sail on it once, and that would be my last time. The date was May 16, 1960, southbound aboard the City of Norfolk.

I had a small stateroom on the starboard side of the top deck. The old ship backed out into the Inner Harbor from its berth at Pier 3, and creaked and moaned its way down the Patapsco River and out into the bay with a good complement of passengers - many of them students from a tour group. I thrilled at the experience as we made our way beneath the Chesapeake Bay bridge, and to the tunes of a jukebox near the stern I could see the pall of smoke the vessel left behind above the waters as twilight gave way to darkness. Sleep was sporadic, and I arose well before dawn to take in the marvels of plying the bay, much as the Old Bay Line had obligingly done for so many years. I can recall, too, the distinctive aroma of the oil-burning steamer and the melodious steam whistle, which resonated loudly. Regrettably, I had not dined aboard the previous evening (I had to count my nickels in those days). I missed breakfast, too, because the dining room was crowded with a long line. So I missed the tradition, never to be relived!

However, I do recall dining aboard the Old Bay Line in earlier years. I remember the dining room of the City of Norfolk - situated near the bow - and how its deck sloped noticeably fore to aft. Several dinner entrees were offered - steaks, seafood, etc. I recently examined a menu (from 1960) at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. It listed filet mignon as the most expensive item, at $4.25. (Not cheap, for 1960 - again, I was a poor sailor - but I really regret not getting to enjoy a last meal while I had the chance.)

By the time of my last voyage in 1960, sailings to and from Washington had been discontinued. So, too, had the stop at Old Point Comfort. The writing was on the wall; the days of the Old Bay Line were numbered.

I did get back to the Main Street pier in Norfolk several times to see the steamer off. On a couple of occasions its departure was delayed to accommodate the arrival of charter buses conveying tour groups for a sailing to Baltimore. One could only hope that the company could stay afloat (no pun intended), but such was not to be the case. All service ended in 1962.

There are not very many of us today who can remember sailing on the Old Bay Line, but it was a tradition I fondly cherished. Those were the 'Good Old Days!'

The Old Bay Line had three ships when service ended in 1962.

'City of Richmond' was sold but sank while being towed off North Carolina in 1964.

'City of Norfolk' was scrapped in 1966.

'District of Columbia' was renamed 'Provincetown' with plans to use it as a restaurant,

but it suffered fire damage and sank in the early 1970's.


PTI - Four Years Later

[By Allen Brougham] . . .

So now comes my annual update on 'Life Behind the Wheel.' And golly, has it really been THAT long? I spent four years of fun in the Navy - and that time moved at a snail's pace! But, then, in four years of having some REAL fun, time flies!

I began my tenure as a part-time crew van driver for PTI (Professional Transportation Inc.) back in 2001. I'm still there. And I'm happy to report that I haven't had any more flat tires (since my first one, my first year).

Two days a week I report to the yard office at Brunswick, Maryland, and for my eight-hour shift I get the thrill of driving crews through the yard to or from their train, to or from the yard office, or to or from the hotel. I work with a wonderful team of railroaders and fellow drivers.

Typically I get to make about eight runs a day - usually in the Brunswick area - but there are extremes. At times, things can get really hectic, with one run right after another. But then there are times when things can get downright boring. There was one shift last month when I only got to transport one crew in an entire eight-hour period. In such a situation, I am always thankful that I remember to bring a pillow.

The biggest thrill I had in the year since I last reported was a run I got to make to a very special place... Normally, we yard drivers don't get to make long-distance road runs, but this was an exception. When I got to work that day, a crew told me that they were waiting for a ride to Cherry Run. (Cherry Run was the site of Miller Tower, where I had served for eight years!) The crew had been called to relieve a westbound trailer train that had outlawed. I told them I had been to Cherry Run more than just a few times before, so they went and asked the trainmaster to let me take them there. After all, it was a hotshot trailer train, and by using me for the run, it would have gotten them to the site somewhat sooner than if they had had to wait for a road van. The trainmaster said it was OK!

It was rush hour - and I normally drive like a snail anyway - but I gave it my best shot. We made it to the site in good time. It was my first visit to Cherry Run (except to go through on Amtrak) since shortly after I retired from the railroad.

On my way back to Brunswick, I took a slightly different route. I used a back road I had often taken in my Miller Tower days. And along that road I saw an old fellow on his daily walk - just as I had remembered him - to whom I had always waved. He never returned my wave before, and he didn't this time either (I think he has poor eyesight), but seeing him brought back a lot of memories.

As a tribute to my fourth anniversary with the company, my name was listed in PTI's March newsletter. What an honor!

Driving a crew van would never make a person rich, but it's a lot of fun!


Railfan Parks in Georgia

[By Dale Jacobson] . . .

Dale Jacobson, a long-time reader of the Bull Sheet, has sent a report of a trip he and his friend Norm Schultze made in February of this year through the Southeast. They were mostly hunting for shortlines, but they did take time to visit two railfan parks. Included here are excerpts of his report pertaining to the parks..

FOLKSTON: Whoever designed the railfan hangout at Folkston must have looked at all other such places in the USA and learned from whatever mistakes the others made. For the park at Folkston is roughly two blocks long with a viewing platform, restroom, grill and charcoal, and a scanner on one side of the tracks, one block south of Main Street. On the other side of the tracks, the next block north of Main Street, there is a freight house museum with baggage carts and more seats as well as another scanner. Thus, fans have places to photo trains at most all times of the day with good sun angles. And, oh yes, there are plenty of parking spaces, too. Folkston is where the CSX lines from Savannah and Waycross join for the run down to Callahan, Florida, and is known as the "Folkston Funnel."

All trains going to and from Florida pass over the roughly 24 miles of track between the two points. This means that on average there are roughly 60 freights and six passenger trains per day through Folkston, which means the action is almost non-stop. But railfans need time out to eat and sleep. A block from the viewing area east of the tracks (they run not quite north-south) is the Whistle Stop Cafe with a railroad motif including a G-scale CSX freight running around a loop hanging from the ceiling. There are other eateries, but none as close to the tracks. Should a train run while at the Whistle Stop, you can at least look outside to see what's going by.

There are three motels in town. However, unless you just have to watch trains at night, you're likely to find less expensive lodging in either Kingsland or Waycross, even with the 10 percent discount given to railfans who stay at the Western Motel. Otherwise, rates were in the range of $60 for two people, two beds, for one night.

JESUP: We also visited the railfan platform at Jesup. It, too, had a scanner, but otherwise was a much less elaborate affair, consisting of just the platform in a park-like setting south of the old station on the west side of the tracks. Jesup is located on the CSX line from Savannah at the point where it splits with one line going south to Waycross and the other going directly to Folkston. As none of the Chicago or Cincinnati trains pass this way, this railfan spot sees way fewer trains than seen at Folkston.

Photos, left to right.. Folkston, and Jesup.


18th Annual Mid-Winter Amtrak Excursion

February 26, 2005

[By Rich BallasT - your 'Pennsylvania Reporter'] . . .

Our contingent of seven boarded Amtrak 40, the Three Rivers, at Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about a week before the elimination of the train's Chicago-Pittsburgh leg. (On March 8 the train became the new Pennsylvanian, but retains numbers 40 and 41.) Train 40 arrived in Latrobe at 12:00pm, only nine minutes late. On board were Russ Upholster, Russ Love, and members and friends of the local Penn-Ligonier Rail Road Club. The day was cold but sunny, and a light morning flurry swirled around nicely as we headed toward the Allegheny Mountains. The train was crowded.

First noted was the continued eradication of the ex-PRR mainline's Conrail identity, with new white on black number boards being posted on many relay cases along the line.

Abandoned C, SO, AR and MG towers still stand. SO Tower looked pretty bad, with all of its windows removed. ALTO Tower, although reportedly not to be closed by NS, is looking pretty shabby, too. It needs a good coat of paint.

Ex-PRR and the 1985 Middle Division's PRR-style position light signals are slowly being replaced with Norfolk Southern's hooded, traffic-light style color light signals.

Most disturbing on this trip was the sight of that miles-long Pennsylvania Main Line Canal cut stone wall, east of Lewistown, in the process of being destroyed by PennDot in the road-widening project of US Route 22. Since 1849, this real treasure has always been a wonderful historical sight from the north side of trains running on the opposite side of the Juniata River, and the wall was probably the largest single remnant of our pre-PRR, 1830s-'50s trans-state canal system.

Freight traffic was lighter than usual on this trip, except all around Enola and Harrisburg. Traffic seemed to be stacked up and stopped at the ends of the Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Philadelphia main lines here.

Of particular note was hearing one solitary defect detector, the one at CP-Banks, Marysville, Pennsylvania, still identifying itself as a 'Conrail' detector.

We used up all of the timetable slack time we had accumulated after we hit this 'traffic jam,' as we stopped west of Marysville, then crawled along at 15mph from there to the Harrisburg station, arriving right on time at 3:45pm.

The rest of our group had 'short-turned' at Altoona for either an all-day stay, or a pick up by deposited automobile. Russ and I found our one-hour layover to be perfectly timed to do a tasty hot beef sandwich with fries and carrot cake at our customary Alva Restaurant, located right across the street from the train station.

Train 41 pulled in a few minutes tardy of its 4:55pm schedule time, and we pulled out, in beautiful golden late-day sunlight, 20 minutes late, at 5:20pm. We had enjoyed the variety of riding in a refurbished blue and gray Amfleet II coach on #40, and now we had excellent seats once again, this time in an original red, striped 'disco' scheme Amfleet II coach from 1982.

The train was only half full on this, one of its last Chicago-bound runs. We paced a paralleling NS empty hopper freight, coming off the former Reading main line, out of the Harrisburg station, and overtook it before the Rockville Bridge. Unlike last year, the Susquehanna River was not frozen over.

Passing over that 'Conrail' detector once again, the low angle of the setting sun, and an absolutely perfect amount of snow cover, beautifully delineated those wonderful traces of the Main Line Canal west of Marysville, in the best fashion that I have seen to date! The towpath was topped by snow, and many sections of the canal bed still contained water. Highlights included that arched, cut stone towpath bridge, and the aqueduct piers at the town of Aqueduct with the canal bed lining up with perfect visibility from the train, right down the canal and onto the aqueduct piers!

We lost time along the way for some reason, and our 20-minute-late running time continued to increase. After dark, seat mate Russ Upholster and I enjoyed the 'classic substitute' on this, the descendant of the Blue Ribbon Broadway Limited's diner, Amtrak's Cafe Car's semi-baked cheese pizza. Russ and I decided that this dish might best be described as an 'unrolled cheese burrito,' with its almost raw crust. Having yielded to this, my 'meal' suggestion, Russ said, "Hey, you simply can't bake pizza in a microwave oven!" However, your Pennsylvania Reporter still thinks it's the best food item on the 900-mile route! Heck, who needs a diner?... Or a sleeper? Hey, they had pot-bellied stoves in the coaches of the 1800s on this line, right?! This was 'great food,' and we both wondered what the next step might be in the ever-present 'cost-cutting efforts' on our ever-declining cross-state train service. I wondered if they might turn the heat or lights off, to save energy, of course!! I asked Russ to imagine what the PRR Broadway Limited brass and staff would think if someone told them that in 50 years we would be eating microwave pizza, with plastic utensils, on the only passenger train on the shattered remnants of the route, traveling 900 miles, with no sleeper or dining car service!

We gathered quite a number of passengers at the Lewistown, Altoona and Johnstown stops, and we rolled on through the night. Russ Love had clocked our top speed on his GPS device at 78mph, coming down the hill from Cresson. Our trip rolled to a close at Latrobe, one hour late, at 9:45pm. Despite so many shortcomings, this trip is still always a great adventure, and this year's trip was no exception. For those of you who missed it this year, we look forward to seeing you on February 26, 2006, when we embark on our Mid-Winter Excursion #19.

Have a great year! --RDB