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As Steamboat History Fades From Living Memory, Virginia Museum Preserves Potomac Pilot House

pilot house of the steamboat Potomac was restored and installed at the Irvington Steamboat Era Museum
After years of neglect, the historic pilot house of the steamboat Potomac was restored and installed at the Irvington Steamboat Era Museum. Some residents have close ties to the ship and its history in the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/WCVE) Crixell Matthews/WCVE

On the Northern Neck of Virginia, residents recently marked a milestone in preserving Chesapeake Bay history. Inigo Howlett reports from the Irvington Steamboat Era Museum, where the restored pilothouse of the steamboat Potomac is now on display.


Built in 1894, the 176-foot-long steamboat Potomac moved between Baltimore and Norfolk, making stops in the Northern Neck. For over 40 years, the Potomac and steamboats like it carried food, people and raw materials out of the Northern Neck and returned with a vast array of manufactured goods.

Meredith Robbins:  Irvington was always sort of a big stop for the steamboats.

Ninety-year-old Captain Meredith Robbins has a close connection to the steamboat Potomac.

Robbins: My family was always involved with the steamboats. I know my oldest brother was quartermaster on the Potomac.   

The pilot house of the Potomac can be seen on the right of the ship. With contributions from the local community and grants, the 125-year-old structure was restored. (Photo Courtesy Steamboat Era Museum)

The pilot house was originally three stories above the waterline and had cabins for the Potomac’s crew of three dozen. Damaged in a collision in 1936, the Potomac was broken up at Colona Shipyards, Norfolk. The hull became a barge, and the pilot house became a pleasure cabin. Eventually, it was looted, vandalized and neglected. A couple of years ago, the renovation and repair was placed in the care of restoration boatwright John Morgenthaler.

John Morgenthaler:  It was collapsed here, the roof was collapsed, anything that was supposed to be crowned up three inches was crowned down like three inches, so to the geniuses put two to three inches of tar on everything to try and make it level.   

Morgenthaler describes the pilot house as “old school construction” with three by three posts and wrought iron bolts. And it’s had a long journey before he had a chance to work on it.

Morgenthaler:  It went from White Stone, it went to the Mariners Museum first in Newport News, then somehow ended up in Colonial Beach. Somebody was gonna fix it up there. In both places, they realized it was way more than they wanted to get into.


The museum building and property had some size limitations, so Morgenthaler came up with the idea of shortening the pilot house. The plan was for the structure to be lifted on a crane and pulled into the museum.  After two years of work, the pilothouse slowly made its way by flatbed to Irvington.

A small crowd came out to watch the 20 ton crane lift the 8 ton artifact over and behind the Steamboat Era Museum, delicately setting down on rollers allowing it to be gently moved through the back wall of the Museum

Anne McClintock: My grandfather, Captain Archie Long, was the pilot of the Potomac for 26, 27 years.

With her deep family connections to the steamboat, Anne McClintock was delighted to be present as the pilothouse of the Potomac came into its final port.

McClintock: So when somebody said they were going to build a steamboat museum here I am, number one on the step, ready. It’s been a love work.

With a strong family connection to steamboats, McClintock wrote the book We Are Who We Are Because Steamboats Were to document this part of East Coast history. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/WCVE)

McClintock, who wrote a book about the steamboat era, says before them it was a challenge to transport things beyond the next town.

McClintock: They took everything from chickens to fish to oysters. Anything that people wanted to ship, they could have a place for them.

The first bridge into the Northern Neck marked the beginning of the end of the Steamboat era. Irvington changed tremendously, losing a vibrant industry and more than half its population.

But Captain Robbins says this scenic waterfront area has gotten some renewed attention .

Robbins: We’ve been discovered, you might say. We have a lot of retirees coming here, but it’s still a pretty decent place to live. I wouldn’t trade it.  

The pilot house is now a principal attraction at Steamboat Era Museum and the people involved in its restoration are proud to have helped preserve the heritage of the region. For Virginia Currents, I’m Inigo Walker Howlett, WCVE News.

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