SS Columbus Paddle Wheel – Steamboat Transportation and Trade along the Chesapeake Bay


The SS Columbus paddle wheel underwent conservation treatment in Louisiana and arrived at the MAC Lab for curation when the lab opened in 1998.

By far the largest artifact in the MAC Lab collections, weighing in at a whopping 15,000 pounds (give or take), is the paddle wheel shaft from the SS Columbus (International Artifact Conservation 1998).  Built in Baltimore and launched in 1828, the Columbus plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, transporting cargo and passengers between Baltimore and Norfolk (Holly 1994).  On November 28, 1850, a fire broke out onboard the steamship, resulting in nine fatalities and the sinking of the vessel near Smith Point, Virginia.  Although the location of the wreck had been known since the 1970s, a decision was made to bring up the 22 ft. long paddle wheel shaft, as well a number of other pieces of the vessel, after the Army Corp of Engineers dredged adjacent to the shipwreck in 1990 in order to deepen the shipping channel (Irion and Beard 1995).

steamship model

Artist’s reconstruction of the Columbus.
(from Holly 1994)

The Columbus was just one of many steamships that traveled the Chesapeake Bay during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay is one of Maryland’s greatest natural resources.  Measuring approximately 200 miles in length, with a surface area of 4,480 square miles, the Bay is fed by more than 50 tributary rivers (Chesapeake Bay Program 2013; Pritchard and Schubel 2001:63).  Its waters have served as a source of food and as a means of transportation for thousands of years.

The deep and relatively sheltered waters of the Bay made it particularly suitable for steamships. Before the age of steam, sailing vessels traversed its waters, carrying passengers and cargo to ports of call along the Bay. American engineer and inventor Robert Fulton is credited with launching the first commercially successful steamship, the Clermont, in 1807. Steamboat travel in the Chesapeake Bay quickly followed, with the launch of the Chesapeake in 1813, in the midst of the War of 1812 (Brugger 1988:201). Steamships, employing steam as the working fluid that drove the vessel’s propellers, were used not only to convey passengers, but also livestock, seafood, tobacco, grain and produce from the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland to Baltimore and Washington (Martin 1984:167, Holly 1991:61). Since steam powered vessels were largely unaffected by currents and winds, steamboat companies were able to establish reliable shipping schedules. The Maryland and Virginia Steam Boat Company, which began operations in 1828, coordinated land and water transportation between Norfolk and Philadelphia (Brugger 1988:202). By the outbreak of the Civil War, almost thirty steamboats operated out of Baltimore and many of them were commandeered for use in military transport of supplies and munitions (Holly1991:66-67).


It would not have been unusual to see livestock being loaded onto a steamboat, along with produce, seafood and passengers, as is seen in this early twentieth century photograph. (

Baltimore and Hampton Roads, two of the United State’s five major North Atlantic ports, are located on the Chesapeake Bay. Steamers served as the main link between Baltimore and the eastern and western shores of Maryland up into the 1930s, before bridges were constructed across the Bay. Baltimore was also a hub for transporting goods; coal from the western region of the state arrived in Baltimore via a system of canals and from there was exported to other US cities, as well as to other countries. Baltimore was also a center for exporting iron products and iron mined from the western part of the state, and later became a center of steel making (Fisher and Schubel 2001:11). Goods arriving in Baltimore were also sent to the Midwest on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, whose terminus was in the city. In the twentieth century, Baltimore became a leading seaport and ship building center, as well as an important center of industry. Ranking 7th in the nation in foreign trade at the end of World War I, the city rose to third position by 1926 (Chapelle et al.1986:224).


The Chesapeake Bay Steamboat City of Norfolk in 1911.

The Bay also generated substantial income from recreational activities. Seasonal migrations of waterfowl brought large numbers of hunters to the region. The broad, sandy beaches of the Bay also attracted pleasure seekers to a growing number of resort hotels and beach attractions during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Brugger 1988:366). Steamboats transported excursionists seeking respite from the hot and steamy streets of the cities to enjoy the restorative salt breezes; the Columbus reportedly carried hundreds of passengers at a time to resorts within a day’s sail of Norfolk and Richmond (Holly 1994:91).

The great “Age of Steam” along the Chesapeake Bay came to an end after World War I, with turbine and diesel engines replacing steam engines. Although steamships continued to traverse the Bay until the latter part of the 1960s (Burgess and Wood 1968:216), there remains little evidence today of the ships that formed such a common sight and important part of the Chesapeake Bay’s history.


Brugger, Robert J.
1988 Maryland; A Middle Temperament 1634-1980. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Burgess, Robert H. and H. Graham Wood
1968 Steamboats Out of Baltimore. Tidewater Publishers, Cambridge, Maryland.

Chapelle, Suzanne Ellery Greene, Jean H. Baker, Dean R. Esslinger, Whitman R. Ridgway, Jean B. Russo, Constance B. Schulz and Gregory A. Stiverson
1986 Maryland; A History of Its People. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Chesapeake Bay Program
2013 Facts and Figures., Accessed June 10, 2013.

Fisher, George W. and Jerry R. Schubel
2001 The Chesapeake Ecosystem; Its Geological Heritage. In Discovering the Chesapeake; The History of an Ecosystem. Edited by Philip D. Curtin, Grace S. Brush and George W. Fisher. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 1-14.

International Artifact Conservation and Research Laboratory, Inc.
1998 Conservation Treatment Report, Paddle-wheel Steamboat COLUMBUS, Engine Components and Miscellaneous Artifacts. Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Report on file at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

Holly, David C.
1991 Tidewater By Steamboat; A Saga of the Chesapeake. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

1994 Chesapeake Steamboats; Vanished Fleet. Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Maryland.

Irion, Jack B. and David V. Beard
1995 Data Recovery on the Wreck of the Steamship Columbus, 18ST625, St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Report Prepared for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore, Maryland.

Martin, Oliver
1984 From Baltimore to Washington by Steamboat. In Maryland Time Exposures, edited by Mame Warren and Marion E. Warren, pp. 166-171, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Originally published in Chesapeake and Potomac Country, 1928.

Pritchard, Donald W. and Jerry R. Schubel
2001 Human Influences on the Physical Characteristics of the Chesapeake Bay. In Discovering the Chesapeake; The History of an Ecosystem. Edited by Philip D. Curtin, Grace S. Brush and George W. Fisher. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 60-82.

One thought on “SS Columbus Paddle Wheel – Steamboat Transportation and Trade along the Chesapeake Bay

  1. Pingback: The Wreck of the Old Island Belle | Excursions Into Imagination

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