Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

Before there were highways or railways, the way to get anywhere in Southern Maryland was by water. The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries served as the region’s transportation corridors to ship crops, fish and oysters to the cities and to receive news from the outside world.

Richard Knott, 88, of Hollywood still remembers when the wharves along the Patuxent River were a part of daily life, especially for those working on the water.

He already had authored a book about the nearby historical Sotterley Plantation, called “Memories of Sotterley,” in 2003.

For the past several years, he’s been working on another book about the wharves and life along the Patuxent River.

He plans to release the latest work this year. “At my age, I gotta get this done. I’m not here for much longer,” he said recently.

“The Patuxent has a lot of history,” he said, and he still recites stories of the many people he knew along the river. “I’ve been there. I spent all those years on the Patuxent. That was the good old days,” he said.

Steamboats ran along the Patuxent for generations, serving more than 30 wharves along the river when it was the easiest way to move cargo and people from farms to the city — Baltimore in particular.

Knott remembers when the steamboat served Sotterley when he worked there as a boy. Nearby at the head of Cuckold Creek, “the farmers around here would come down here to Forest Landing to buy herring. You could buy 100 or 1,000 fish,” he said. The fish were cleaned there, barreled and salted and then stored for the winter.

“Richard is blessed with a remarkable memory for names and dates, which he is putting to good use as a local historian and writer,” said Richard Dodds, curator of maritime history at the Calvert Marine Museum. “Listening to him as he recalls memories of a former way of life is an education in itself,” he said.

In his book, Knott said he’s going to include numerous photographs of life along the river, but pictures of some of the wharves still elude him. “Years back, people didn’t have cameras,” he said, so he has not been able to find photos of the wharves on the central St. Mary’s County side: St. Cuthberts, Spencers, Jones, Sandgates or Trent Hall.

He contacted newspapers, historical societies and museums all across the region, but he still can’t find photographs of those wharves. He took out a newspaper ad looking for photos of them and offered a hefty reward but has had no luck yet.

The Patuxent River is more than 110 miles long from its headwaters in Howard County to its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay. The farthest steamboats could go was 48 miles upriver to Hills Landing in Prince George’s County, wrote David C. Holly in his 1991 book, “Tidewater by Steamboat: A Saga of the Chesapeake.” From there and two miles south to Bristol in Anne Arundel County, the Patuxent is 200 to 300 feet wide. Farther down river to Hollands Point in Calvert County, it widens to 1,500 feet. South of Benedict in Charles County, the river opens up to two miles wide for much of the way until its mouth narrows to one mile across.

Around Point Patience, where the river narrows to less than half a mile, the water is 110 feet deep in the channel.

From north to south on the Patuxent, there were landings at Hills Landing in Prince George’s County, Bristol and Lyon Haven Creek in Anne Arundel County, Nottingham (Prince George’s), Ferry Landing (Calvert County), Whites Landing (Prince George’s), Lower Marlboro (Calvert), Magruders Ferry and Milltown (Prince George’s), Hollands Cliffs and Deep Landing (Calvert), Truemans Point (Prince George’s), Leitches (Calvert), Benedict (Charles), Holland Point (Calvert), Trent Hall (St. Mary’s), Dukes and Williams (Calvert), Queentree and Forrests (St. Mary’s), Parkers (Calvert), Jones, Sotterley and St. Cuthberts (St. Mary’s), Mackalls, St. Leonards and Sollers (Calvert), Spencers (St. Mary’s), Point Patience and Solomons (Calvert), Millstone (St. Mary’s), Drum Point (Calvert) and Pearsons (St. Mary’s).

George Weems of Baltimore founded the Weems Steamboat Line, which would figure prominently on the Patuxent. He started probing the river for business in 1821 in the hopes “to divert planters from the use of sailing craft for transporting their tobacco and produce to market and to rent, lease, or buy their landings — or to build new landings — for steamboat wharves,” Holly wrote.

“Steamboats were a great thing in their time,” said George Howard Post, a Waldorf resident, who is about to publish a history of Benedict, his first book. His grandfather once worked aboard steamboats.

“Capt. George Weems and his successor greatly developed this Chesapeake trade by themselves building wharves where none existed, thus creating convenient avenues of commerce to farmers and traders of isolated localities,” The (Baltimore) Sun reported Jan. 26, 1908, in its history of the Weems line.

In those early days, Weems’ steamer Eagle could assure what other sailing vessels could not: a guaranteed one-day run from landings on the Patuxent to Baltimore and a steady speed of 5 mph from landing to landing, Holly wrote.

However, the Eagle exploded in 1824, and for the following three years there was not a single steamboat on the Patuxent, he wrote. A new steamer was built, called Patuxent, and trade resumed, though at a slow pace.

By the 1850s, trade along the river steadily was increasing, Holly wrote, and the landing at Bristol upriver in Anne Arundel County was one of the busiest.

In general, “The steamboat carried high-value freight, passengers and mail and was the main link between isolated communities and the wider world. Many local residents had relatives in Baltimore, and a trip to the big city to visit and to shop was often a highlight of the year,” Dodds said.

Steamboat commerce saved the town of Benedict, Post said. In 1783, the British burned the town, which then had around 60 homes. By 1814 and the British invasion during the War of 1812, there were only about a dozen homes still remaining.

“The Weems Co. made Benedict the overnight terminus. It basically revived the town. The town owed a heck of a lot to the steamboat,” Post, 64, said.

During the Civil War, the Weems steamboats were confiscated by the Union to stop Southern Maryland from sending contraband to Confederate Virginia, leaving few other steamers on the Patuxent for commerce, Holly wrote.

After the war was over, there were 20 steamboats operating out of Baltimore, but by 1870 there were almost 40. The number increased to 49 in the first few years of the 1890s but then declined to 37 by 1895. By that time, the Patuxent had silted in upriver, and service had ceased at Hills Landing, with steamers only going as far as Bristol. “Most of the Weems boats went aground at one time or another in the 1890s,” Holly wrote.

There were several natural disasters along the river. Cold winters would freeze up the brackish waters, preventing steamboats from bringing in supplies to locals. And storms could spring up at any time, unknown to travelers. A tornado killed five people on the river in August 1899.

The family of Edward Carey of Baltimore had been vacationing at Broomes Island. On Aug. 2, they were at Sotterley’s wharf across the river when the storm came up. They took shelter inside the warehouse there when it was blown away by the storm. A wave then washed the family into the river where Anna Carey, 24, and her 3-year-old and infant daughters drowned. Edward Carey was able to swim back to shore. The St. Mary’s Beacon reported, “The peculiarity of the cloud was that it seemed to drag in the water as it passed along and appeared to revolve.” Also killed in the storm were John Marburger, 47, and Lloyd Turney at Point Patience when Marburger’s store was destroyed.

Some 25 boaters took cover at Parkers Wharf and the Essex put in at Deep Landing during the tornado. The steamer St. Mary’s was in the river when the storm struck but survived the waves. The crew reported the sky turned yellow just before the storm hit, The Sun said.

The warehouses at Jones, Forrest, Parkers and Sotterley were lost, as well.

The steamer St. Mary’s got stuck on a sandbar during a storm Dec. 5, 1907, near Holland Point. The passengers and crew resigned themselves to the situation, but later a fire of unknown origin broke out, The Sun reported. Everyone escaped except for a waiter, who died in the fire.

The Sun also ran a report about a cat named Sandy, who had lived its whole life aboard the St. Mary’s. It left the vessel for the first time when it was docked at the Benedict wharf. When the crew tried to retrieve the cat to return it to the boat, it ran away and hid. That night, the steamer was destroyed by fire. “Members of the crew of the steamer Maggie, which has taken the place of the St. Mary’s, tried to get the cat to come aboard that steamer to live, but Sandy seems to be through with steamboats,” the paper reported.

The Calvert Gazette told of the damage done by “a severe wind and rain storm, at times reaching a cyclone in severity passed over the county, Sunday afternoon” in its April 17, 1915, edition. Along with buildings, trees, fences and telephone lines being blown down, “Parker’s and Mackall’s wharves were considerably damaged and warehouses swept away,” the paper reported.

The first decade of the 1900s saw extremely cold winters, freezing waterways and impeding transportation.

The Calvert Gazette reported Jan. 23, 1904, the Patuxent River was frozen “12 inches thick in some places.”

The next winter, “The Patuxent River is frozen over, and the ice is strong enough as far down as Jones’ wharf for persons to walk across,” the Beacon reported Feb. 16, 1905. Five people walked from Forrests Wharf to Calvert County, the paper said.

Later that month, the steamer Calvert got stuck in the ice a mile away from Millstone Landing. A party from Pearson (today’s Patuxent River Naval Air Station) went out to the ship and convinced the captain to bring the freight out onto the ice. With the ice 12 to 14 inches thick, the cargo was slid ashore by wagon, cart and sled, the Beacon reported.

In the first decade of the 1900s, automobiles started to arrive in Maryland.

“Except for the years of World War I and its immediate aftermath, the period from 1905 to the 1920s marked the golden age of steamboating on the Chesapeake,” Holly wrote. There were 51 steamboats running out of Baltimore in 1905.

But as the decades wore on, more and more people bought automobiles, and roads slowly got better. Personal motor vehicles would kill off both the railroads and steamboats.

Another death blow came from Mother Nature with the hurricane of Aug. 23, 1933. “That was the last year the steamboats ran,” Knott said, who was 8 years old when the hurricane struck. “Back then, there was no communication. People didn’t know it was coming,” he said of the storm.

The hurricane brought tides 4 to 7 feet higher than normal, he said, washing away the wharf at Sotterley and several other locations. Because of the Great Depression, most of the wharves were never rebuilt.