Old Bay Line in swirl of history with Baltimore woman at helm; Steamships: Ella Reeves Clotsworthy turned around a shipping concern linked to the Orioles and World War II.


IN HER 97 years in Baltimore, I never met Ella Reeves Clotsworthy. I wish I had.

This remarkable person is one of the cast of characters who figure in the recently published memoir of lawyer, horseman, world traveler and storyteller Charles B. Reeves Jr. Sprat Reeves, as so many people know him, included his Aunt Ella's story in the book he's called "Carpe Diem."

Born in Baltimore, Ella Reeves grew up in dignified Victorian style in a Charles Street home opposite the Maryland Club. She married C. Baker Clotsworthy, who died before this little story begins.

In the era when women didn't run commercial steamship lines, she was tapped by Solomon Davies Warfield, captain of Baltimore industry and president of the Seaboard Air Line Railway (who is perhaps best known as the wealthy uncle of the Duchess of Windsor), to refurbish his Old Bay Line.

The Old Bay Line -- with its romantic old steamers plying the Chesapeake Bay between Baltimore and Norfolk -- was a subsidiary of the Seaboard, now part of the CSX empire. (Strange as it seems today, the major-league Orioles, who once played exhibition games along the Carolinas, arrived for 1955's opening day aboard the Old Bay Line.)

The federal government had conscripted the steamers in World War I and returned them to the line in disrepair.

Warfield tapped Aunt Ella to exercise her powers of administration and taste to get them in shape. As her nephew reports, her initial reaction was that she "would not think of working for men." She soon came around and took the job, a role she soon grew to enjoy. She was obviously a talented business executive.

"She must have taken to business life like a duck to water because she cleaned up the boats, forced Mr. Warfield to reverse a salary decrease for employees that he had just put in, and developed excellent food. She restored the $1.00 dinner, that was a full home-cooked meal of Maryland specialties," Mr. Reeves writes.

She soon turned the line's fortunes around -- the boats did $300,000 worth of strawberry hauling alone -- in the era when there was little competition from auto freight. She also observed her fleet was old, battered and in need of replacement.

As vice president in charge of passenger operations, Aunt Ella duly went before the Seaboard's board of directors seated in all its powers at the Continental Trust Building at Calvert and Baltimore streets. She made her case. Wholesale merchant Jacob Epstein, seated on the board, quietly spoke up, "Give the lady what she wants."

The board issued the go ahead for three new steamers -- the State of Maryland and the State of Virginia. The last, named after the man who hired her, was christened the President Warfield in 1928.

The story doesn't end here. Come World War II, these boats went into government service again. The Warfield becomes a military dormitory off England's Devonshire coast and a military troop carrier along the River Seine in France.

After the war, a much battered Warfield was clandestinely purchased by a committee of Jewish businessmen, including Baltimore's Jacob Blaustein, to carry some 4,554 Jews displaced by the Holocaust and the war seeking a home in British- governed Palestine.

Renamed the Exodus, the ship sailed around the Mediterranean in 1947 in one of the most famous voyages of the century.

The rusting remains of the Exodus, first Warfield, are at the bottom of the Mediterranean off Haifa.

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