Steamboats Across the Potomac

Not wonderful selfie, on the  Miss Christin , June 14, 2019

Not wonderful selfie, on the Miss Christin, June 14, 2019

Last week, we took a boat from Alexandria up the Potomac River to Nationals Stadium on the Anacostia River. Perfect summer evening, no need to worry about baseball traffic, and a work-around the three-month closure of our Metro station.

The “baseball boat” is run by the Potomac Riverboat Company. It was full, which if it is not going to be on a Friday evening in the summer, without Metro service and with fireworks scheduled, they might as well not bother.

As we left the wharf and headed for Washington, I thought of the steamboat crossings of the 19th century. They provided regular transportation between wharves at the foot of Seventh Street in Washington to the Alexandria waterfront.

Back & Forth

Several companies operated boats. In 1862, when Julia Wilbur first came to Alexandria, a ticket for a person cost between 15 and 25 cents, 25 cents for horses, according to ads in the Alexandria Gazette such as this one on October 24, 1862:

October 24, 1862,  Alexandria Gazette  (many other dates, too)

October 24, 1862, Alexandria Gazette (many other dates, too)

An article a few weeks later gave an overview of the service:

There are no less than four first-class steamers now plying between Alexandria and Washington, as follows: Thomas Collyer, Wm. W. Frazier, Young American and Wilson Small, all commanded by polite and attentive captains. Trips are made from each point very regularly every hour, the first boat leaving Alexandria at 7 A.M. and the last Washington at 5 P.M. There is no lack of accommodation and comfort on these boats and our citizens may congratulate themselves on having this state of affairs in particular.

However, all was not copacetic. A few weeks earlier, according to an October 23 article, an engine on a boat called the James Guy exploded, the boat “a complete wreck,” a fireman killed, and three other people injured.


The headline of a long article on the particulars in the  Alexandria Gazette , October 23, 1862

The headline of a long article on the particulars in the Alexandria Gazette, October 23, 1862



Julia Wilbur Takes a Boat

The Alexandria waterfront, 1865, from Library of Congress, LOT 11486-B, no. 1 [P&P]

The Alexandria waterfront, 1865, from Library of Congress, LOT 11486-B, no. 1 [P&P]

Beginning with her first trip from Washington to Alexandria on October 25, 1862, Julia Wilbur took the steamboats back and forth often.

In my book, based on her diary and other descriptions of the time, I tried to create a sense of the trip:

From the middle of the Potomac River, they [Wilbur and her companion] could look behind them to see the Capitol, its dome under construction, the partially-completed stump of the Washington Monument obelisk, and the Navy Yard. Ahead on the Virginia side, forts and encampments dotted the denuded hills. They spotted Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House, not yet sealed to its fate as guardian of the Union dead. Alongside them might have sat businessmen trying to win the Army’s stream of contracts for everything from drumsticks to cannonballs, family members tending to loved ones in Alexandria’s ever-increasing number of hospital beds, women smuggling alcohol under their skirts into officially dry Alexandria, and others headed across the river for affairs nefarious and not. Things were not always tranquil on the boats on which they had each paid 25 cents to ride.  Wilbur and Channing did not know, or did not speak of, the James Guy, the steamboat that had exploded just a few days earlier, killing a crew member.

I Take a Boat

It costs a lot more to take the Miss Christin to the ballfields than 25 cents, but it was a fun trip.

On the Washington side, we went past Bolling Air Force Base. During Julia Wilbur’s time, as Giesboro Point Cavalry Depot, hundreds of thousands of horses spent time there. (As many as 1 million died during the conflict, as I learned when I wrote an article for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.)

We went past Fort McNair, where the trial and hanging of the Lincoln assassinators took place. We watched a sporting event that took place in some form between soldiers during the war. After the game, we even saw fireworks off the side of the boat, which Julia Wilbur saw in Washington at the end of the Civil War.

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