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The Life and Demise of the Charles Macalester

The Charles Macalester below Mount Vernon, an illustration by Chris Youngbluth. (Courtesy of the artist)

By Jay Roberts

Alexandria, VA – “For Sale. Well known to thousands of Washingtonians. Famous excursion boat. Capacity 1,550 passengers.”

Those words appeared in Washington newspapers in 1934. They must have been a sad sight for those who held fond feelings for the Charles Macalester. After 44 years of faithful service, the venerable steamer would never again ply the waters of the Potomac.

But what wonderful service the iron steamer had given the hundreds of thousands of passengers who had taken the vessel from the wharf at Washington to Mount Vernon and Marshall Hall. Let’s take a brief look at the distinguished history of the Charles Macalester.

A steamboat era began slowly along the Potomac River south of Washington in the first half of the 19th century. After the Civil War, the twin ferries, the City of Alexandria and the City of Washington, became lifebloods, taking passengers to and from the Alexandria and Georgetown seaports and the city of Washington. It wasn’t, however, until the second half of the century that the steamers began regular excursion service to Mount Vernon and to leisure spots on both sides of the river.

A Steamship Hall of Fame in the Excursion category would include the early vessels such as the Arrow, the W. W. Corcoran, and the Mary Washington. Resisting Jim Crow laws and discrimination, African Americans established their own companies and traveled on the River Queen to Collingwood Beach, Notley Hall, and Glymont.

Earning a spot on the pantheon of steamers is the Charles Macalester, a double-decker that had a long run of service from 1890 to 1934. Twice a day and sometimes three, she puffed her way from the berths at the Seventh Street Wharf in southwest Washington to Mount Vernon and Marshall Hall. The 195-footer could accommodate more than 1,500 and offered a ballroom, a saloon, lunch and dinner service, and the occasional moonlight excursion.

The Mount Vernon and Marshall Hall Steamboat Company had an exclusive deal with Mount Vernon for many years. The Charles Macalester was the only boat allowed to dock there. In some years, the ticket price included the boat ride and admission to the historic estate. Washington departure times were late morning and mid-afternoon. Travel time was about 45 minutes. A highlight along the way included views of Alexandria.

The Charles Macalester was launched in 1890 at the Harlan & Hollingsworth shipyard in Wilmington, Delaware. Captain Lowell L. Blake served as its first skipper. Then Captain John Henry Turner took the helm for the remaining 30 years.

Contemporary ads promoting the Charles Macalester sailings. (Archival photos)

On May 13, 1890, the Charles Macalester was christened at the wharf in Washington with the traditional smashing of a bottle of champagne. Lily Lytle Macalester (1832-1891), second regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (1874-1891), had the honors. She was the daughter of Charles Macalester (1798-1873) and his first wife, Eliza Ann Lytle. The Macalesters had Scottish roots and an estate in Pennsylvania. Charles earned admiration for his generous philanthropy.

It’s hard to know how many people traveled on the Charles Macalester through the years. On one day alone (September 3, 1906), the three trips to Marshall Hall totaled more than three thousand. The popular resort, which stood almost directly across the river from Mount Vernon, offered rides, dancing, bands, jousting tournaments, and shady picnics. All that remains today is the brick shell of the historic 18th century mansion.

In addition to its day-to-day runs, the Charles Macalester ran special excursions. One took 500 boys and girls from the Washington Orphan Home to Marshall Hall.

The Charles Macalester did not have regular service to Alexandria, but special occasions took it there. In July 1915, the Alexandria Police Department took their annual trip to Marshall Hall on the Macalester. In February 1919, the steamer carried passengers from Washington to Alexandria to witness the steel ship Gunston Hall launch at Jones Point.

The end of the line for the venerable “famous excursion boat” came in 1934. The first phase of retirement included sitting dockside in Alexandria before being stripped of its wood in Baltimore. Meanwhile, more and more pilgrims to George Washington’s Mount Vernon took automobiles along the new Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. A new era began while another wound down. The beloved Charles Macalester would be missed.

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