June 14, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Ships for Survival, Boats for Pleasure

James and Sarah Feeley and children, circa 1871

Baltimore's Irish Railroad Workers Museum got its start with a limited amount of information on the Feeley family, who lived at our Museum’s location (918 Lemmon Street) for 20 years. What we did have was essential, and we continue to emphasize the core themes those early discoveries suggest. Many thanks to Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward, our former curator and one of our Museum founders.

Modern research methods have opened several doors along the corridors of our core themes. Getting to know the Feeleys themselves has resulted from an epiphany or two, including meeting a widow of a direct Feeley descendant. Sharon Knecht was at the end of a path of discovery that began on Ancestry.com and led us to our first meeting of actual blood relatives of the modest family nearly 170 years after James Feeley arrived in Baltimore on May 21, 1847.

We were running a little Museum dedicated to Irish railroaders and their families, and had an idea of what life was like for these immigrants during their earliest years. What did we imagine would be our first photo of the family…if we ever found one? My mind’s eye formulated a somber scene or two, with serious looks on faces in a local portrait studio. Parents would look a bit tired, I thought, while children would be overdressed and antsy. Boy, was I wrong.

Ms. Knecht shared several images of the descendants of James and Sarah, but only one of them. No dates or locations were scribbled on the back, but the image fit in perfectly with some research we had done on parish life, and the greater city.

Their parish sponsored a cruise that was advertised in the Baltimore Sun on July 20, 1875 aboard the Chester (pictured). We have concluded that the family enjoyed an earlier Chesapeake Bay excursion, a typical diversion for thousands on a hot summer day. Many headed to Baltimore’s inner harbor to board steamboats that traveled along the Bay, and arrive at the beaches and camp meetings that were held in towns such as Chestertown, Cambridge and near the Potomac River’s mouth as it entered the Bay.

The Feeley photograph shows us the rented bathing suits of the era, and tells us that a simple family living in the shadows of the B & O Railroad yards could scrape together the cost of the trip, and purchase a family portrait by an itinerant photographer, circa 1871...judging by the age of the children. We’re thinking that the costs might have been covered by Mom saving a bit of her house money each week and buying herself a night off in the kitchen, and a bit of time away from the noise, smells and dust of heavy industry that was coming in her front window.

This pattern was followed by future Baltimore homemakers, who did most of the money management and financial decision making in their home.

The Irish must have welcomed their transition from being travelers via ship from the old country, with all of the horrors that journey contained, to doing some pleasure cruising on the Bay just a few years later. St. Peter the Apostle Church had welcomed thousands of native Irish to West Baltimore in the 1840’s and 1850's. They traveled to Baltimore aboard famine-era ships that crossed the Atlantic, and found meaningful work, a home of their own, education for their children and freedom to worship within a vibrant ethnic community. One does wonder, however, how they remembered the long, harrowing journey.

James Feeley arrived in Baltimore as so many had. He sailed to America aboard the Bark Margaret Hugg, a lumber hauling ship that was refitted in Londonderry to receive and transport passengers. A journey of several weeks culminated in a Baltimore arrival, where two protectorates were in place, left and right (see image above). Fort McHenry was just off the port side of the incoming ship, and a quarantine station at starboard. It was known as Lazaretto Point Lighthouse, and ships were required to dock there as civil and medical authorities inspected both passengers and cargo before the ship could continue into Baltimore proper. James and others were undoubtedly pleased to arrive at this gate of "welcome', but also wondered if they would make it past medical inspectors after those weeks among so many fragile survivors of the Great Hunger.

The Feeley families’ pleasure boat excursion began in Baltimore’s inner harbor, where hundreds of steamboats began trips on the Bay. Each steamed past that same scene that immigrant passengers experienced, and we wonder what James must have remembered from that day in May: 24 years earlier when the Margaret Hugg arrived.

(We thank Enoch Pratt Free Library for the scene included above, from their Cator Collection. It is a Civil War era image that includes both Fort McHenry and Lazaretto Point Lighthouse, with various ships of the era cruising by...including a steam boat).

That being said, a pleasurable day at the beach was theirs, and most likely was sponsored by their church, as many were. Organizations held these cruises in part as a fundraiser for various projects in the parish, such as a new school building. They often had live music on board, and cruisers enjoyed complementary sea breezes. Children had all the fun in the world, running up and down the deck while on board, and playing and splashing on the Bay beaches that welcomed them. Fresh air and sunshine must have been a tonic for all, and we are thankful for the souvenir family photo that still exists today; must have cost Mom a few pennies.

These images from Betterton Beach show the summer pleasures at a future time. Thanks to Sean Kiev and Bob Wagster for sharing the images below from their family collections. Resorts such as Tolchester Beach were created to receive thousands of visitors in later years, and the somewhat more modest Betterton Beach was the destination for many Irish families for many years. Many went for extended stays, depending on how much money Mom had saved from the “house money” she managed; how many days of no cooking and cleaning could she afford? Moms were delighted to return to Betterton, known by some as the “Irish Riviera”, and relive their experiences as single girls who made the trip a few years earlier.

Among those who loved the bay beaches was Eleanor Baxter (below), who went to Betterton constantly as a single girl, and returned in the late forties with her own family from East Baltimore. Thanks to Mickey Boshuizen for this image of her Mom. Several boarding house-style hotels welcomed families to basic rooms and family-style meals. These thrived until the Bay Bridge opened in 1952, and travel by steamboat became obsolete. Bay beaches slowly became a second tier of entertainment once travel to the Ocean became practical via car and bridge, and bay resorts faded considerably.

Many traveled to Betterton via the Bay Belle, which boarded in lower Fell's Point. The Port Welcome made the trip in later years, and kept their offices on Baltimore's Pier 5, right by the long-missed Connolly's Seafood Restaurant.

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