Geoffrey M. Footner
Baltimore shipping executive and author wrote about historic Chesapeake Bay vessels
Geoffrey M. Footner, a former Baltimore shipping executive who later became a noted maritime author, historian and lecturer, died April 5 from heart failure at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The Fells Point resident was 94.
“Geoffrey was a rough and tumble, argumentative, seafaring salt — and the best friend you could ever have,” said Scott S. Sheads, a retired Fort McHenry ranger, historian and author. “He’s homeward bound now, and has left us onshore with a lot of wonderful memories.”
Ralph E. Eshelman, a Lusby resident and an old friend, called Mr. Footner “a character, and everyone whoever met Geoffrey felt that way.”
“He was a guy who did what he wanted to, and didn’t care what other people thought,” said Mr. Eshelman, also an author and historian.
Geoffrey Marsh Footner was the son of William Hulbert Footner, a Canadian-born author of “Maryland Main and the Eastern Shore” and “Rivers of the Eastern Shore,” and Gladys Marsh, a homemaker.
He was born in Baltimore and raised at Charles Gift, a Calvert County plantation that overlooked the Patuxent River.
After he graduated from Charlotte Hall Military Academy in Charlotte Hall in 1941, Mr. Footner began his college studies at what is now Loyola University Maryland.
He left college and joined the Navy, serving as a lieutenant aboard ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
After being discharged at war’s end, Mr. Footner returned to Loyola and obtained a bachelor’s degree in economics on the GI Bill. He later did graduate work at the Johns Hopkins University.
He was working as a foreign trade representative for the Association of Commerce and secretary of the Foreign Trade Forum of Baltimore when he and partner Roberto M. Gutierrez, who was in the forwarding business in Baltimore and Texas, established Footner & Co. in 1950. The firm emphasized international air cargo through the port.
Both men had been working part time for a local export house, and when the owner didn’t pay what they thought they deserved, they quit. One day they bumped into each other on the street and decided to go into business on their own.
“Believing in the future of the port of Baltimore, we will service local and inland shippers exporting to all parts of the world,” Mr. Footner told The Baltimore Sun at the time. They focused their business on ocean and air shipping, tapping both the port and the new Friendship International Airport — now Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Mr. Footner said in a 1951 interview that his interest in moving freight dated to his childhood.
“I became intrigued by foreign nations, products, and the idea of foreign trade way back then,” he said. “The movement of ships and the like never got out of my system.”
A revolution in shipping brought by the use of containers and container ships was quickly adopted by Mr. Footner and another partner, Rolf Graage, who established Intermodal Transports Inc. The company “introduced containerized cargo transport to the port of Baltimore,” a daughter, Karen Footner, of Neavitt, Talbot County, wrote in a profile of her father.
“Container ships will enable ocean transportation to hold its position in the jet age,” Mr. Footner told The Sun.
Mr. Footner established a third business, Bay Agencies, with offices in Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., which routed container vessels between New York, Norfolk, Antwerp and other northern European ports.
He sold his interest in Footner & Co. to Mr. Guitierrez in 1972, and Bay Agencies to Hansen & Tidemann Inc., a shipping agency, in 1979. After selling Intermodal Transports Inc., he left shipping but remained as a part-time consultant to the industry.
A former resident of Homeland, Mr. Footner purchased and renovated an 18thcentury house on Fells Street in Fells Point. Then, in the 1980s, he bought a farm in Hurlock, where he practiced organic gardening, cultivated bees and raised vegetables and fruit, which he delivered to local restaurants. He also grew grapes, which he sold to Maryland winemakers.
He returned to Fells Point and spent the remainder of his life researching and writing about the Chesapeake Bay, its health and the vessels that navigated its waters.
His first book, in 1991, was “The Last Generation: A History of a Chesapeake Shipbuilding Family — M.M. Davis and Son.” It told the story of five generations of Davises, first in St. Michaels and later in Solomons, who built bugeyes, sloops, tugs, trawlers, yachts and America’s Cup defenders. M.M. Davis and Son, which operated from 1885 to 1965, also built the Manitou, on which President John F. Kennedy sailed.
His second book, in 1998, was “Tidewater Triumph: The Development and Worldwide Success of the Chesapeake Bay Pilot Schooner,” based on the 18th-century ships that became blockade runners during the Revolutionary War, privateer vessels during the War of 1812 and armed vessels for European navies.
“The book investigates the unique pilot schooner’s agility and speed in the context of naval architecture and social, economic and technical history,” his daughter wrote.
His 2003 book, “USS Constellation: From Frigate to Sloop of War,” included information of its three centuries of operational history, and the four major rebuilds of its hull at naval yards.
“Footner’s carefully researched, extensively documented and elegantly written book may indeed be the last word,” wrote Spencer C. Tucker, who reviewed the book for the Maryland Historical Society. “Footner argues convincingly … that the Constellation of today is essentially the same ship that was launched in Baltimore Harbor in 1797.”
His last book, “A Bungled Affair: Britain’s War on the United States, the Final Years, 1814-1815,” was published by Tidewater Book Co. in 2013. It studied the four theaters of war, the rise of Fells Point, the development of Baltimore as a prominent American port and the development of the Chesapeake Bay schooner. It also examined British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane’s direction of the Royal Navy’s North American fleet at that time.
“Geoffrey always had a great interest in Baltimore history and became a colorful figure in the city’s maritime history,” Mr. Sheads said. “Over the years we had many lunches together and he was still talking about the War of 1812 as if it was still in progress. He was delightful to listen to.”
“I couldn’t get enough of him. He was unique,” Mr. Eshelman said.
Mr. Footner and Mr. Eshelman shared an interest in the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, and both were responsible for bringing 35 watercolors and oils that had been painted by the late Baltimore marine artist Louis J. Feuchter, who lived from 1887 until 1957.
“He asked me one day, how can we save this important collection? Feuchter had sailed around the bay painting Chesapeake workboats, pungies, bugeyes and other vessels,” said Mr. Eshelman, who like Mr. Footner has written widely about the bay.
“Geoff and I found Feuchter’s brother in Baltimore ... so we went to his house one day. He spoke to us through the screen,” Mr. Eshelman recalled. “When we told him we were interesting in acquiring the paintings, he let us in. This was sometime in the 1960s. Geoff was persistent and we eventually walked out with the watercolors. Calvert Marine Museum now has one of the largest collections of his work.”
On another occasion, when Mr. Footner learned that there were several A. Aubrey Bodine photographs he wished to get for the museum collection, he went and visited the late Sun photographer’s daughter, Jennifer Bodine.
“Geoff had a way with people, and he was never pushy. She wound up giving him the pictures he had requested,” Mr. Eshelman said. “He was a behind-the-scenes guy who never wanted any recognition. He was just a businessman who had a big heart. All he wanted to do was protect and save the maritime history of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Mr. Footner also wrote numerous articles regarding the health of the bay and its estuaries. In a 1984 article for The Sun, he compared the bay to England’s River Thames that was nursed back to health by the Thames River Authority in the early 1980s after being declared dead in 1950.
“The Chesapeake Bay, bigger and more resilient, did not begin to show serious signs of stress and degradation until the years following World War II,” he wrote.
“But the two estuaries were affected by the same causes: incomplete waste treatment, industrial discharges of toxic materials and runoff from rural and urban drains.”
Mr. Footner’s wife of 32 years, the former Margaret Ann Murray, died in 1979. At his request, no services will be held. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two other daughters, Margaret Footner of White Hall and Nancy Footner of Iowa City, Iowa.
Geoffrey M. Footner talked about the War of 1812 “as if it was still in progress.”