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With a teenager's diary as her guide, a modern-day explorer retraces a 1931 Potomac River trip. [2.07 issue]
by Jody Argo Schroath
In the early morning darkness of Tuesday, July 21, 1931, eleven Sea Scouts of Ship 322 and their skipper, Frederick Tilp, caught the ebb current out of Walnut Point on the Coan River, hoisted sail on their two 23-foot catboats, Wildcat and Bobcat, and crossed the Potomac River to Smith Creek on a light southwest breeze. So began their trip back up the Potomac to their home port at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Washington.
Four hours and 75 years later, my friend Hal and I nosed the bow of Snipp, my Albin Vega 27, out of the nearby Yeocomico River and into the Potomac to follow in their wake. Over the course of the summer, with a variety of sailing companions, I had been retracing the Scouts' trip, which was recorded by 15-year-old Robert Hedges Jr. and later published in Tilp's 1978 book This Was Potomac River.
The Scouts took 17 days to reach Walnut Point, stopping at dozens of wharves and riverside stores and talking with watermen, shopkeepers, bootleggers and lawmen along the way. This is the story of their trip back home. It's also the story of gambling, prostitution, pollution, bootlegging, beauty and innocence. Oh, and it's the story of my trip, too.
We never step twice in the same river. I hate to beat a metaphor to death, but for most of the time that I and my various crews followed in the long-gone wake of the Sea Scouts, Heraclitus's dictum was as much a part of Snipp's sailing gear as her No. 3 jib. The old Greek is right, of course, it's not the same river, I told myself time and again as we failed to see what the Scouts saw. So much has changed. Often I was sad for the change, but on one level, especially, I thought it was a darned good thing we didn't step in the same river the Scouts had stepped in--which was comparatively filthy. Maybe not in Smith Creek, where the Scouts dropped anchor at 7:15 that morning on July 21, or in St. Marys River, where they spent the afternoon. And certainly not at St. George Creek, where the water was so clear that they could see 15 feet down to where their anchor lay on the bottom. But woe betide the brother who toppled into the water anywhere near Washington. "[The] smell off Giesboro Point almost makes all hands sick while watching the raw sewage bubble up from underground pipes on river bottom," Hedges wrote after Day 1, referring to a section of the river that is now flanked by Reagan National Airport and Bolling Air Force Base.
Yeah, that part of the Potomac was definitely a No Step Zone. Raw sewage from the booming nation's capital, as well as industrial and agricultural runoff, had so polluted the Potomac that in 1931 authorities closed the river to swimming from Washington to 10 miles downriver. Blue Plains, the city's first waste treatment facility, wouldn't open for another four years. And even then, the city continued to grow so fast that by 1970 the water quality was worse than it had been before the treatment plant opened. The city even had to shut off the Lady Bird Johnson floating memorial fountain off Hains Point for fear that a stiff breeze would blow the spray ashore at National Airport and cause a cholera epidemic.
Happily, things are a great deal better now and continue to improve. Early in this project, when my husband Rick and I were off Cherry Hill Peninsula, between Powells and Quantico creeks, we could inhale deeply and safely in the lazy offshore breeze, with no reminder of the old D.C. incinerator that graced the peninsula for many years. The same could not be said for the Sea Scouts, who reeled from the odor of greasy sewage. "This stuff is towed here on garbage scows which we had never recognized before while on the river. Alexandria's sewage smell is bad but this D.C. garbage is the world's worst, even worse than the fish-fertilizer smell which we get in Coan from Reedville--boy! This is really 'ripe, wet and greasy!' " Hedges exclaimed in his journal on Day 4. The Cherry Hill incinerator continued to pump bad news into the atmosphere until the 1950s, converting table scraps and dead livestock into soap and benefiting nothing in the environment--except the local catfish--which, to the delight of local fishermen, were said to grow fat on the grease dumped by the plant into the river. Crabs, meanwhile, were treated to the occasional cow elsewhere on the river. Hedges recalls Captain Matt Bailey telling the Scouts when they visited the Wicomico River: " 'Every ailing cow in these parts is shot while standing in the water off River Springs; the dead carcass attracts crabs to St. Catherine Sound.' "
If they still do that, I don't want to know.
On the second day of their return trip, the Scouts left St. George Creek at 4:30 a.m. and, picking up a decent southeast wind, "roared" past Piney Point, where they had intended to stop. (Are they already getting anxious to get home?) They turned up Breton Bay and finally dropped anchor for the first time that day at Leonardtown. They were soon followed into port by the "whiskey ferry," E.T. Somers.
Meanwhile, Hal and I brought up the rear, as usual, arriving in Breton Bay at about 5 p.m. after wing-and-winging it in a fickle five to ten knots most of the way from Piney Point. We chose to anchor short of Leonardtown, Md., at Protestant Point, where I put up the new awning I had made in whiling away the previous winter. Hal looked vaguely embarrassed, but gallantly said nothing. I took it down. Heck, it wasn't raining, anyway.
Why did I feel like the skipper of the Good Ship Lollipop? In all our travels up and down the river, neither I nor any of my sailing companions ever saw anything remotely illegal--except for a few tough hombres ignoring no wake zones. Yet "whiskey," after mosquitoes and peanut butter, is one of the most frequently used nouns in Hedges's journal. The darned stuff seemed to be everywhere on the river!
Prohibition had become the law of the land in 1920, but it was a law that apparently found few sympathizers along the Potomac. Like crabbers shooting livestock in midstream to keep the tasty crustaceans happy, downriver residents seized on the undiminished demand for liquor, boosting their incomes by brewing and transporting the stuff to eager urban markets.
From their first day out on the river, the Scouts noted that thriving industry in action. "Observe small outboards carrying corn whiskey from Shepherds Landing to Alexandria's fishtown," Hedges wrote on July 1, the first day of their three-week trip. Later that same day, before lunching on peanut butter sandwiches and Kool-Aid at Indian Queen Bluffs, the Scouts chatted with two bootleggers "hauling corn whiskey to D.C. in their log canoes pushed by one-lung engines." The E.T. Somers appeared first on Day 14 at McGuires Wharf in Nomini Creek, where it was tied up next to the Adams Floating Theatre and again when it arrived in Leonardtown. A very observant Hedges described empty cars being driven ashore and "whiskey weighed" cars driven aboard. "Total trip one way is about 14 nautical miles and takes less than two hours for a pay load . . . not bad," he wrote. "At least it's more profitable and fun than running fish or tomatoes . . . we are told."
For 14 years the E.T. Somers made two runs a day between McGuires and Leonardtown for the Potomac Ferry and Transportation Company of Mount Holly, Va. And, despite the automobiles, its only real cargo was whiskey.
Whiskey-running was such a profitable business during Prohibition that it was said the Maryland patrol boats were equipped with slow engines by sympathetic local boatbuilders--so that they wouldn't be quick enough to catch the whiskey boats. Even the police themselves, in some cases, were in on the business. On Day 17 at Walnut Point, the captain of the Virginia State patrol boat Inquirer told the Scouts that the new Maryland patrol boat Kent had been raided by federal agents, who found a whiskey still in her bow quarters.
Locally, excess whiskey went into such diverse delicacies as ice cream and oyster stew. Tilp advises in his chapter titled "Drinking": "Please if the readers try this . . . please just dump the rye into the hot stew immediately prior to serving."
It was only two years after the Scouts' cruise that Prohibition was repealed and bootleg whiskey, like tomato canning, became just another failed Potomac industry.
On July 23, their twenty-third day out and the third day of their trip back, the Scouts set sail out of Canoe Neck Creek for St. Clements Bay. And it is here that Hedges has given us one of his most intriguing verbal images: "Up anchor at 6 a.m. and see 23 women with sunbonnets on, poling 23 skiffs--searching for softshell crabs along the shore." The Scouts then sailed out of St. Clements Bay and into St. Patrick Creek, where they anchored and went ashore at the town of Palmers.
For all of Tilp's apparent sympathy for bootleg whiskey, he gave his young Scouts an object lesson in its consumption during a visit to Palmers. The post office was housed in the same building as a store and a barroom "complete with brass rail and 'womanly paintings' on the walls over the open bar." When storekeeper George Knott offered the Scouts, who were mistaken for "Navy gobs" because of their uniforms, a free drink, Tilp first refused and then suggested they give it a try. "We voted afterwards for root beer," Hedges wrote. "Corn whiskey is terrible stuff--God!!! Mrs. Julie Knott afterwards gave us 12 guys free rootbeer, as a 'chaser.' "
Tilp was no friend of "do-gooders," blaming them for banishing a great many of the interesting things along the Potomac--for example, the river's largest "Ark City," a conglomeration of entrepreneurial houseboats tucked into the protected waters of what he called Bull Town Cove, directly opposite the father of our country's home. Along with a barbershop and a grocery, the floating business district numbered some less-than-legitimate enterprises, including what Tilp refers to not so obliquely as "girlie services." You can just imagine how popular that was with the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association. The Scouts in fact had stopped at Bull Town Cove on their first day out to visit a few of the 15 or so houseboats that made up the floating city. Hedges noted in his journal that the skipjack Elmer and longboat George were anchored close by. "Their crew is probably 'carousing' in one of the nearby arks." The arks survived until after World War II, when, Tilp noted in This Was Potomac River, "U.S. Public Health officials and do-gooders got rid of this . . . little craft."
After their whiskey encounter, the Scouts visited the lighthouse on Blackiston Island (now known as St. Clements Island), then ghosted into Neale Sound and went ashore at Cobb Island, "a summer resort with lots of pretty girls."
When Rick and I stepped ashore at Cobb Island, we found that an unlucky run of rainy days had sent nearly everyone home--including pretty girls, presumably. So we brooded over a bowl of crab soup at Captain John's Crab House, alternately watching the rain and four middle-aged women who shifted their gaze between the cards in their hands and the projected keno numbers above the bar.
Gambling in one form or another has historically thrived along the Potomac, legally or otherwise--along the Maryland shore, on steamships carrying passengers from the District south to summer vacation spots, and in the gambling "arks" moored in the river. When Maryland admitted the obvious and legalized slot machines in 1949, Virginia establishments were quick to capitalize on the fact that the river itself belonged to Maryland. Gambling houses sprouted just across the state line--that is, on piers over Maryland waters. These provided entertainment for thousands of summer tourists along the Virginia shore--and a jackpot of added income for restaurant and motel owners. This lasted only until 1958, when Virginia law was changed to exclude water-based gambling. Slot machines were ultimately banished in Maryland by 1968. "They have a gambling slot-machine on one Ark," Hedges wrote of the Scouts' visit to Bull Town Cove, "but the owner will not let us play it--says 'we are too young.' "
Over the years, at least one set of Sea Scouts on a Potomac cruise used a slot machine to good advantage. Stephen Alexander of Silver Spring, Md., sailed under Tilp in Ship 322 during the 1960s and is now commodore of the Chesapeake Sea Scouts Flotilla (yep, they're still around). When I met with Alexander in December, he came with his own memories of Skipper Tilp--and his own set of youthful logbooks. "Here," he said, pointing to his log entry for July 22, 1964. The 16-year-old Alexander had noted that on a stop at Sweden Point on Mattawoman Creek, "Being low on cash we decided to look for some. Doug found a nickel in a phone booth and played the slot machine, which coughed up 65 cents so we had some more dinner." Reviewing Alexander's journal later, Tilp had written in the margin: "This is Terrible!" But, Alexander explained, "it wasn't the gambling--he wanted us to manage our money better than that." In the 1960s, slot machines were everywhere along the Maryland shore, even in the bakery in Leonardtown, Alexander noted in his log entry for July 10.
The Scouts left Cobb Island early the next morning and spent most of July 24 visiting a tobacco farm near Newport Run in the Wicomico River before tying up for the night at Bushwood Wharf. The following morning, they eased Bobcat and Wildcat through shallow Neale Sound and back into the Potomac, dropping anchor near the ferry wharf at Lower Cedar Point to eat lunch and watch the tourists crowd aboard the Lord Baltimore. "What a dangerous vessel," Hedges exclaimed in his journal, "if a real twister would come up, every one would drown en route to Potomac Beach."
The Scouts then sailed to Popes Creek wharf to buy peanut butter and 24 Eskimo Pies before drifting up to Chapel Point, where they anchored and caught a car ride to Port Tobacco.
I made the skipperly decision to skip Port Tobacco and linger instead at Popes Creek, which has some nice long not-too-crowded docks and where we had found Captain Billy's Crab House and, more important, Mary Ann Burch. "There has been a restaurant at this location for 60 years," said Burch, who admits to having been around for a while. Both Captain Billy's and Robertson's Crab House next door were established by locally famous waterman and restaurant entrepreneur Captain Billy Robertson and both are still operated by his descendants. "Popes Creek was the only place the people building the Potomac River bridge had to come and eat," Burch remembers. "Captain Billy's mother would sit out back facing the river, picking crabs. If someone ordered a crabcake, she would pick the crab, then take it back into the kitchen to mix up the batter. Best crab cakes I've ever had." The Potomac River bridge (now called the Harry W. Nice Bridge in honor of Maryland's 50th governor) opened in December 1940 and quickly made a relic of the passenger ferry.
The Scouts stayed at Chapel Point overnight and attended church there the next morning. It was there, at St. Ignatius Church on Chapel Point, after 26 days and three-quarters of a century, that I finally caught up with Tilp and Hedges, with the Wildcat and Bobcat, with the cook who forgot to turn the eggs and the mate whose poison ivy was so bad he couldn't write. I caught them, ironically enough, in the cemetery that spills out of St. Ignatius Church and over Chapel Point, a promontory that rises celestially above the Port Tobacco River and which boasts a wide-angle view of that river and across the Port Tobacco Flats to the Potomac and beyond. "It's the most beautiful view of the river," Burch, a longtime member of St. Ignatius, had told me at Popes Creek, echoing Hedges, who had called it "the #1 most impressive view."
The Sea Scouts had arrived before me, of course. They had attended Sunday mass, where they received a gratifying recognition from the Rev. Hugh A. Dalton, during the service. "After services the people here (fishermen and tobacco farmers) treat us like we are 'somebody important' . . . very friendly." But this time I managed to get there before they left. I had walked up to the church alone. It was stifling hot. There were plenty of mosquitoes and what seemed to my paranoid eye like plenty of poison ivy. When I reached the top, I looked at the sturdy brick church, which was built in 1798, and I looked out over the rivers below. Then I walked into the cemetery, found a bench and sat down. After a little while, I pulled out the peanut butter sandwich I had brought along for lunch. And I listened. I listened to the young Scouts talking quietly among themselves, occasionally giving each other a playful shove. I watched Tilp walking restlessly apart, anxious to get on to the next place, the next shopkeeper, the next waterman.
The feeling didn't last long. By the time I had taken the last bite of my sandwich, the Scouts had moved on, herded off to visit Brentland, the Jesuit farm across Port Tobacco Creek. Then they sailed to Chicamuxen Creek, where they would anchor at 11:20 p.m. with neither mosquitoes nor bats. In another day and a half they would be home, arriving there tied rather ignominiously behind the last of six barges, having been towed out of a rainy, windless Piscataway Creek back to Washington.
I decided to stay on a little longer, anyway, thinking about their long trip and mine and feeling happy that I had finally, if only for a few minutes, found them. Why here? Because of all the places down one side of the Potomac and up the other, this one particular place is perhaps the least changed. The church. The cemetery. The view. The Potomac. The great old sailing ships they saw may be gone, along with the bad smell, the sewage, the whiskey-running, the shops and the wharves. Some of the towns have disappeared while new ones have sprung up elsewhere. But the watermen, the crabs and the people are still there.
Above all, of course, the Potomac is still there. Perhaps Heraclitus wasn't entirely right, after all. I know that the Sea Scouts will always be on the same Potomac I sail, somewhere ahead, just out of sight. I will probably never catch up with them again, but I will know that they are there.
Adams Floating Theatre
The Adams Floating Theatre drifts twice into Sea Scout Robert Hedges's 1931 narrative, just as it drifted into dozens of towns up and down the Chesapeake Bay and south to North Carolina for nearly 30 years. Hedges mentions the theater first in Nomini Creek, where it is tied up at McGuires Wharf, and later in Leonardtown, Md., where the Scouts stop on their way back up the Potomac. The Adams Floating Theatre, a large houseboat pushed from one location to the next by two tugs, brought wholesome comedies and moralistic tragedies, such as Ten Nights in a Barroom, to the residents of areas whose principal link to the outside world was the water. The players, management and cooks all lived aboard for the season, leaving North Carolina in the early spring and returning there in the fall. Most famously, writer Edna Ferber spent several days with the theater in North Carolina and then used that experience for her novel Show Boat, which she set in Mississippi. The novel was adapted to the theater as a musical and went on to great success first on stage, where it opened at the Ziegfeld Theater in 1927, and later in film, first in 1936 and later in 1951. The Adams Floating Theatre itself drifted into obscurity and finally oblivion as new roads opened and the taste for movies outstripped the demand for live theater. However, the final curtain may not have dropped on the idea of a waterborne playhouse. Under the leadership of Spike Parrish and other enthusiasts, the Chesapeake Floating Theatre has set up shop in the Indian Head Center for the Arts and is producing a limited number of plays under the name Black Box Theater. Parrish and his board of directors are in the process of seeking funding to construct the James Adams Floating Theatre II, which would return to the Bay, bringing entertainment and a bit of the past back to life. For more information, visit www.floatingtheatre.org.
Sea Scouts Since
Frederick Tilp started Sea Scout Ship 322 in 1930, after all the members of his Bladensburg Boy Scout Troop 22 had earned all the merit badges avail-able to them and were looking for something more to do. During the 1960s, recalls Stephen Alexander, one of Tilp's Scouts, they raced a small fleet of 12-foot Tech dinghies (a donation from M.I.T.) and cruised in a 19-foot Rhodes-designed sloop, Minx II.
Tilp was an exacting leader and insisted that his Scouts be thoroughly trained. By the 1960s, however, he was no longer chaperoning the boys on the two- and three-week cruises. Alexander's first long cruise was in 1962, when he was 14 and served as cook aboard Minx II on a three-week cruise from Washington to Mobjack Bay and then back up to Smith Creek, where they changed crews. The skipper of the three-member crew was 18-year-old Owen Oakley, only three years younger than Tilp when he led Hedges's 1931 cruise. Coming down the Bay on that first trip, Alexander remembers, the Scouts ran into a storm with gale-force winds and heavy seas. Later, they found themselves hard aground off Gwynn's Island, and, despite their best efforts, were forced to wait for the next high tide to float them free. But through it all their training held, Alexander remembers, and they came out in good shape.
Ship 322 was decommissioned in 1969, but Sea Scouting and Sea Scouting on the Bay continued. After a fall-off in membership during the 1970s and '80s, Sea Scouting has made a strong comeback, according to Alexander, and Sea Scouts of the Chesapeake Flotilla continue to train hard and to ply the Bay in their own Ship's boats and in the flotilla's training vessel, der PeLiKan, a Morgan 46 ketch. Alexander himself returned to Sea Scouting with his son and is now commodore of the Chesapeake Flotilla. To see what the new Sea Scouts are up to, check out www.seascout.net/chesapeake.
This Was Potomac River Reprint
Want to read the original Sea Scouts journal? Intrigued with Frederick Tilp's portrait of the Potomac? Until earlier this year, you would have had to find one of the precious few copies available of Tilp's 1978 This Was Potomac River, which are now selling for $115 to $165, when you can find them. But now, thanks to Richard Willich, a longtime fan of the book, you can order the republished, softcover version of it for only $35. Willich, who became acquainted with the book when he was in the Marine Corps at Quantico, decided that it was too good not to be available to the general reader. So he decided to have the book reprinted, just as it was in the original, with an added prologue and a section at the end updating the state of the Potomac today. The book can be ordered online at www.thiswaspotomacriver.com, by phone at 703-723-6986 or by mail at Woodleaf Investment Co. Inc., P. O. Box 1723, Ashburn, VA 20146. There is a $5 charge for shipping. Proceeds benefit the American Legion.