Essex County History
The Steamboat Era

From Virginiaís earliest colonial days, creeks and rivers served as highways for commerce and transportation. Wharfs along Essex shores saw tobacco and other agricultural products exported and manufactured goods imported from around the world. These wharfs became local hubs for business and the accompanying social activity. General stores, post offices, hotels, canneries and ferries often complemented the wharf. For the sleepy towns along Virginiaís tidal rivers, wharfs were a focus of daily life and the community came to life with the docking of each steamboat.

After the Civil War, Virginiaís economy was devastated and steamboats served as a vital economic link for struggling Essex. Several times a week, steamboats headed upriver stopping at Bowlerís Wharf, Wareís Wharf, Tappahannock, Blandfield, Laytonís Landing and Saunderís Wharf before returning to Baltimore. The steamboats took on cargo from local farms, mills, canneries and waterman, but they also carried passengers. An exciting steamboat trip could last a few short hours along the river or several days in an elegant stateroom. Many honeymooners would begin their married lives with a trip aboard ships like the Rappahannock, Lancaster, Middlesex, Wenonah, Westmoreland and Anne Arundel. A special highlight along the river was the arrival of the Adamís Floating Theater. A usually packed house of 700 seats paid 35 cents to see a professional cast of New York actors and musicians.

Steamboat operations changed names and hands several times over the years. Companies like The Baltimore and Rappahannock Steam Packet Company (1830) and Weems Line (1875) wrote their names in the lore and romance of the steamboats. Changes came slowly but steadily as automobiles and increased railways changed the patterns and pace of transportation. New bridges like the Downing Bridge (1927) at Tappahannock also impacted the steamboats and the wharfs they served. By the 1930s, steamboat use was in decline and a terrible storm in 1933 destroyed many of the remaining wharfs. When the Anne Arundel left Saunderís Wharf for the last time on April 11, 1937 a beautiful page of life on the Rappahannock had been turned. Saunderís Wharf, stop Number 27 on the Weems Line (photo below), stands today as one of the last remaining steamboat wharfs on the Chesapeake Bay.


1. Settlers, Southerners and Americans: The History of Essex County, Va. by James B. Slaughter. Walsworth Publishing Co., Inc., 1985. (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)

2. Essex County Historical Society Bulletin, Volume 49. The Wares of Wareís Wharf, by Carol Garnett. March 2007

3. Essex County Virginia: Historic Homes, 2002. by Anita and Gordon Harrower and Robert LaFollette (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)

4. Steamboats Out of Baltimore. by Robert H. Burgess and H. Graham Wood. Tidewater Publishers, 1968.
ECMHS Home Page