Down the Bay the old-fashioned way

Frances A. "Fran" Wilkins called the other day to talk about a recent column I had written about the fate of the old Port Welcome, the popular excursion vessel that sailed out of the Inner Harbor for nearly 30 years before being sold to new owners in Michigan in 1987.

The object of Wilkins' veneration wasn't the Port Welcome, but rather the Wilson Line's Bay Belle, which she boarded each summer with her family during the 1950s.


They were off on their annual voyage to Betterton and a two-week vacation at the end of July and into August at the now-demolished Hotel Rigbie.

"We were living in Hamilton, and I guess we took a cab to the pier with our suitcases. We didn't own a car then," said Wilkins, 66. "Mother would fill a thermos with lemonade and she had cookies and fruit which we snacked on during the trip."


For years, the Wilson Line boats departed from Pier 8, Light Street, but at the start of the 1951 season, they began sailing from the foot of Broadway, because the old piers had been demolished.

"The harbor sure didn't look then the way it does today. I remember crumbling warehouses, murky harbor waters and scurrying rats," she said.

Passengers were greeted by throbbing engines that rumbled far below while diesel smoke was whisked away from the Bay Belle's funnel by humid harbor winds.

Sailing time was imminent when a deep-throated blast on the Bay Belle's whistle told the crew to slack the lines that tied the ship to the pier. Then another blast cleared the channel so the vessel could back out, turn and begin its voyage down the Patapsco River and then up the bay to Betterton.

"It was a wonderful boat ride. My parents would settle in and my brother Andy and I would go exploring. We'd go all over the boat. I remember being near the engine room, which was noisy and hot," Wilkins recalled.

"I guess the voyage took maybe an hour or an hour and a half. We were terribly anxious to get there," she said.

Besides the Rigbie, there were three hotels at Betterton: the Chesapeake, the Maryland and the Betterton.

"Porters from the various hotels were on the dock when we landed and they'd be calling out, 'Hotel Rigbie' or 'the Betterton,' or other hotel names, then they'd take the entire luggage to the hotel, and we'd walk up," she said.


"Mrs. Crouse, the manager, was always at the front desk. Mother always made sure that our rooms -- we shared a room together and my father and brother were together -- were in the front part of the hotel with a view of the Chesapeake Bay. We also had our own bathroom," Wilkins said.

"I'm not sure when Mother made our reservations, but if you waited, many of the rooms didn't have bathrooms, which meant you'd have to go down the hallway to a communal one," she said.

Wilkins recalled the hotel offering family and continental plans.

"We had the family plan, which meant we were given breakfast and dinner and had our own table and server," she said. "People dressed in those days and it was all very genteel."

Guests were summoned to diner by the ringing of a bell.

"Mrs. Crouse took a liking to me and she'd let me ring the brass bell with the big handle. It was quite an honor for a 10-year-old," Wilkins said.


Days were spent with her girlfriend, Brenda, swimming and having fun, and at night, there was a dance band on the pier and bingo games.

For the adventurous, there were evening cruises up the Sassafras River to Georgetown aboard the Francis T, a former Chesapeake Bay workboat owned by Captain Luke.

"It was a pretty big boat and I'd go down there and collect tickets. Captain Luke let me work for my fare," Wilkins, said, laughing. "And once we got to Georgetown, there was a place there that made the best handmade strawberry ice cream that I ever had."

Wilkins admitted to even sneaking an illegal beer or two.

"I was 16 and we'd put them in a spring to keep them cool. Of course, my father found out about it and told me to 'be careful,'" she said.

At the end of two weeks, Wilkins and her family stepped aboard the Bay Belle for the return trip to Baltimore.


"It was such a sweet and innocent time and we had anticipated it all summer," she said. "They are such happy memories."

She later married John E. Wilkins III, a hydraulics mechanic who still works for the Alban Tractor Co. They had three children and are the grandparents of six.

The last time she vacationed in Betterton was in 1959, and then she and her husband began taking their family to Ocean City.

The era of steamboat excursions on the bay ended in 1962, when the Wilson Line terminated daily service to Tolchester and Betterton because of mounting financial difficulties.

Earlier that year, the Old Bay Line, founded in 1840, ended service between Baltimore and Hampton Roads, Va. It was the last of the overnight steamship runs in the nation.