City of Baltimore as she looked in the early 20th century. CBMM archives.
In the most recent edition of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s magazine, The Chesapeake Log, I wrote a story about a disastrous fire onboard a steamboat on July 29th, 1930. The ship, City of Baltimore, was a luxury vessel in the Chesapeake Steamship Company’s fleet, and had 40 passengers onboard blithely enjoying one of the line’s sumptuous repasts in the forward dining room as the steamer left the Patapsco bound for Norfolk. It was a fine night and as the ship steamed past Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse out of the Patapsco into the Bay’s main stem, a light breeze and clear skies held not a hint of foreboding.
The brochure for the Chesapeake Steamship Company advertising their “floating hotels of the most modern type.” CBMM archives.
Around 7:30 PM, a steward noticed smoke snaking up from the hold and set off the fire alarms. Fires onboard steam boats in this period were fairly common and some fire safety was in place- for suppression and for evacuation. The crew immediately responded to the alarms as they had been trained to do by reporting to fire stations, but when they began to unfurl the water hoses, they found to their horror the hoses were dry. The passengers, some still with napkins tucked into their collars, were moved to the fore and aft decks, farthest from the blaze, as the captain and crew tried desperately to quell the fire. It was a busy night on the Chesapeake, with many recreational sailboats and steamers about, and as the situation worsened, vessels began to come to the aid of City of Baltimore as horrified onlookers watched from the shoreline.
Images from the Baltimore Sun show the throngs of shoreline onlookers watching the blaze. CBMM archives.
Without any fire suppression, the flames soon created a holocaust of smoke and light visible for miles around. The captain and crew were running out of options. Captain Brooks attempted to beach the vessel, grinding to a halt on a sandbar before it could reach land. A following steamboat, Arkansan, attempted to come alongside the distressed vessel to rescue passengers and crew, but her forward momentum was so powerful she glanced ineffectually off the side of the City of Baltimore’s hull with a screech of steel-on-steel before retreating. Meanwhile, the metal of the ship’s railings and hull was heating up with the conflagration, and passengers were becoming increasingly desperate to escape. Skin was blistering and summer clothes were scorching in the relentless heat. As other vessels approached to rescue passengers, people began to leap overboard, encouraged by a brave young woman and her setter, Judy, who together made the first plunge off the reddening deck.
The City of Baltimore’s contorted hulk and salvage crews on the morning following the disaster. CBMM archives.
Eventually, all but 4 of the passengers and crew were able to escape the City of Baltimore, picked up by pilot boats and passing sailboats. The vessel was left to burn unfettered, and the hungry flames tore their way through the elegantly appointed staterooms, the dancing salons, the opulent galleries with their chandeliers and fine carved molding, blackening the sky with the char from the finest steamboat money could buy. Though burning of the City of Baltimore would ultimately prove to be a catalyst for the United States to create and implement legislation to improve fire safety on ships throughout the country, it cost 4 lives and the very public destruction of the steamboat in front of a crowds of thousands. Due to the visibility of her demise, The City of Baltimore’s legacy would live on in the stories and photographs that shared the devastation witnessed by so many local Chesapeake families that night.
Horace Plummer’s aerial shot of the City of Baltimore wreckage. Photo courtesy of Bob Plummer.
Horace Plummer was one of those people. Upon the publication of this article, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum received an email from a man, Bob Plummer, whose father, Horace, had explored the wreck and photographed it the next day by airplane. He had a couple photographs and an artifact, if we were interested. And what treasures they are! In Bob’s pictures, the smoke from the husk of blackened steel hangs in the sky. Several salvage boats are pulled alongside, with Bob’s father, Horace, soon joining them. He found one item to save, a capstan cap inscribed with the ship’s name and its birthplace, Sparrows Point, which remained in his sister’s kitchen in Saluda, Virginia, for over 76 years.
Capstan cap salvaged from the City of Baltimore. Courtesy of Bob Plummer.
It’s a reminder of how much of the past is still in our present, here in the Chesapeake, and how many people and vessels have been lost below the Bay’s placid surface. It’s also a reminder of the power of objects and how much history and emotion can be contained by these tangible relics of the people, places, and vessels that knew the Chesapeake Bay long before we did.
To read the full article on the City of Baltimore, check out an online version of CBMM’s Chesapeake Log here: http://www.cbmm.org/ab_communications.htm