In our recent exhibition at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, “Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting,” one treasured item in our collections really stood out- a silent film, taken at the beginning of the 20th century, depicting what was then a series of quotidian scenes of steamboats arriving and departing from Chesapeake wharves. The filmmaker was a Washington, DC resident, Herman Hollerith, had a family home on Mobjack Bay.

The wealthy son of an inventor, Hollerith would later become one of the founders of the Norfolk and Mobjack Bay Steamboat Company after service to Mobjack Bay via the Old Dominion Line was ceased in April of 1920. He was also apparently a bit of a techie (as much as you could be in that era) and with his own hand-cranked movie camera, Hollerith set about capturing the everyday activities along lower Chesapeake wharves.

The product is astonishing- a turn of the century Chesapeake, captured like a moth in amber. These were the days so many old-timers fondly recollect, when the rivers were highways of commerce and of transportation, and the tiny communities they connected by steam were isolated enough to develop their own character. Even though the film lacks sound, it is still so incredibly alive- watermen use a hand-pump to bail their boat, a crewmen scrapes his supper off a plate, a gleaming thoroughbred hesitates before it boards the hold of a steamboat. Though much has changed about the Chesapeake since Hollerith made his little film, from the Bay’s boats to its occupations, it is reassuring that even today, the Chesapeake still occupies a central place for many along its tributaries.

A few of the many standout shots:

0:01 Unloading steamboat at rural wharf- Note that deckhand workforce is African-American

0:21 Loading thoroughbred racehorse

0:41 Steamboat General Mathews backing away from wharf

1:25 Deckhands loading barrels aboard in orderly succession

2:23 weighing fish—buying from watermen

2:58 bailing boat

3:21 Tug with railroad barge on the hip

3:33 aftermath of fire on General Mathews
• Burned March 22, 1930 at Norfolk Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company

4:23 steam Pilot boat and Hotel Chamberlin at Old Point Comfort

5:11 black deckhand handling a (heaving?) line

5:18 captain at starboard engine room telegraph

5:44 automobile exiting steamer

6:05 steamboat Annie L. Vansciver, built 1905 Camden NJ

6:14 back to Old Point & the plush Hotel Chamberlin

6:30 Annie L. Vansciver leaving Old Point wharf

6:50 large steamer with dark star on stack

7:12 sidewheel steamboat Annapolis, Built 1892 Baltimore as Sassafras (renamed when lengthened in 1902)
• Owned by Tolchester Beach Improvement Co, burned October 29, 1935

7:19 tug on C&D Canal

7:25 large motor yacht with crew clad in white on a dressed ship

7:43 lift bridge opening, possibly in Chesapeake City

7:55 tug with canal barge

8:27 motor yacht with white steel hull passing under lift bridge