The story of the “night boats” that once fer­ried peo­ple be­tween Nor­folk and the Dis­trict.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - John Kelly's Washington

There used to be a “night boat” that went from Nor­folk to Washington and, I think, Nor­folk to Bal­ti­more. It car­ried cars, peo­ple and cargo. In the late 1940s, when I was about 6 or 7, my par­ents and I made the trip to D.C. on the boat. My daddy woke me up early so we could see the mon­u­ments as the ship pulled into Washington. It wasmy first visit, and what a won­der­ful in­tro­duc­tion to the city. I vaguely re­mem­ber an­i­mals be­ing loaded, but now I won­der if that ismy imag­i­na­tion. I as­sume it turned around and went back to Nor­folk dur­ing the day with more pas­sen­gers and cargo. It was a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence, and I’d ap­pre­ci­ate any­thing you can find about it.

— Libby McCullough,

Cen­tre­ville, Va.

As we fume in our traf­fic ma­rooned cars, or re­move our shoes and belts at the air­port, we may long for a time when travel was more ro­man­tic. The very words “night boat” seem to evoke those un­hur­ried days.

“There’s some­thing about sit­ting out on the deck in the evening,” steam­boat afi­cionado

Jack Shaum said. “It’s got­ten dark and you can see the stars. You can see the light­houses. The buoys go by, their bells ring­ing. It was just kind of like another world. And the food was fan­tas­tic.”

Jack lives on Mary­land’s Eastern Shore, where he writes for the Record Ob­server and the Bay Times in Queen Anne’s County. He co-edited the 1996 book “Night Boat on the Po­tomac” and wrote the forth­com­ing “Lost Ch­ester River Steam­boats.”

Jack knows his steam. He even rode a night boat as a boy — a steam­boat that sailed from Bal­ti­more to Nor­folk on the Old Bay Line.

It’s un­likely, he said, that the boat our ques­tioner rode ser­viced Washington and Bal­ti­more. Boats of the Nor­folk and Washington Steam­boat Com­pany plied a route that went: Nor­folk; Old Point Com­fort, Va. (on the north side of the James River); Alexandria and Washington. The Old Bay Line — also known as the Bal­ti­more Steam Packet Com­pany — had the Bal­ti­more-Nor­folk route.

And Jack thinks farm an­i­mals prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been taken on the Washington-Nor­folk boat in the late 1940s.

Of course, there was a time when dozens of steam­boats criss­crossed the bits that are blue on a Mid-At­lantic map car­ry­ing peo­ple, an­i­mals and cargo. There were fewer bridges and paved roads then. Steam­boats were life­lines for hun­dreds of hard-tore­ach com­mu­ni­ties on the Ch­e­sa­peake and its trib­u­taries.

The Nor­folk and Washington Steam­boat Com­pany be­gan op­er­a­tion in 1891. In the nearly 60 years the ser­vice ran, the ba­sics didn’t change much: It took 12 or 13 hours to travel be­tween Nor­folk and Washington.

The NWSC em­ployed var­i­ous ves­sels over the years, but in the early 1940s it had three: the North­land, the South­land and the Dis­trict of Columbia. A oneway ticket was $4.40. State­rooms ranged from $1 for a three-up bunk room to $5 for a room with twin beds and a pri­vate bath. It was an ad­di­tional $2 if you brought your au­to­mo­bile.

When World War II broke out, the North­land and South­land were pur­chased by the U.S. gov­ern­ment and sur­vived a per­ilous At­lantic con­voy cross­ing. They were moored in Scot­land to ac­com­mo­date troops train­ing for D-Day. They never re­turned to the United States, with author­i­ties de­cid­ing that it was enough of a mir­a­cle that they’d made it across the ocean once. Twice would be push­ing their luck.

The Dis­trict of Columbia con­tin­ued its reg­u­lar ser­vice dur­ing the war and af­ter. On Hal­loween morn­ing in 1948, the boat was en route to Nor­folk when it en­coun­tered thick fog just be­yond Old Point Com­fort.

Capt. Ed­ward H. Heaton, a 25year vet­eran of the com­pany, was in com­mand.

Even back then, some boats had radar. The Dis­trict of Columbia was not one of them. “We never thought it was nec­es­sary,” a vice pres­i­dent of the steamship line said later.

It might have proved help­ful that morn­ing. An­chored near the shore was a ga­so­line and oil tanker, the Ge­or­gia. The Dis­trict of Columbia struck it, killing a 24-year-old woman who was re­turn­ing to Nor­folk af­ter train­ing at the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics.

The com­pany de­cided to fold af­ter that. The Dis­trict of Columbia was re­paired and joined the fleet of the Old Bay Line. By the late 1950s, the pier it used on Maine Av­enue SW had fallen into dis­re­pair. No one wanted to spend the money to fix it. Be­sides, slow boats had been sup­planted by fast cars and even faster air­planes.

When the night boat ended its ser­vice in De­cem­ber 1957, The Washington Post’s travel editor noted that it would be es­pe­cially missed by one par­tic­u­lar group of pas­sen­gers: honeymooners. Twelve hours is plenty of time to get to know some­one.

Ques­tions, please You know how this works: Send An­swer Man your ques­tions about the Washington area at

an­swer­man@wash­ and

he might just an­swer them.

Twit­ter: @johnkelly

For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­


The Dis­trict of Columbia, part of the Nor­folk andWash­ing­ton Steam­boat Com­pany’s fleet, ar­rives in port in the Dis­trict in April 1948. The trip be­tween Nor­folk andWash­ing­ton took 12 to 13 hours.

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