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Captain William Caldwell Almy of the Old Bay Line (1239-2165-1)

(With excerpts from Steamboats on the Chesapeake --- the Vanishing Fleet by David Holly)

"Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1859, he came from a line of New England watermen, going back to the first William Almy in America, who arrived as a mariner with his family aboard Abigail in 1632. The father of the Old Bay Line captain was Holder Almy, Sr., of Tiverton, Rhode Island, who served as a government pilot during the Civil War and navigated some of General Ambrose Burnside's vessels in the vicinity of Hatteras. Later he worked with a salvage company off the coast of North Carolina, and established his residence in Portsmouth, Virginia."

"Young William C. Almy was born with salt water in his blood, and put aside his school books at the age of thirteen to become deckhand and cook on the tug Commodore S. F. DuPont in Baltimore Harbor. How the crew fared with his ministrations at the galley stove was questionable, but his zest for a life on the water remained undiminished. A year of so later, he signed on with a wrecking crew out of Norfolk, thus following in his father's footsteps. He then elected to sample the life of a blue-water sailor by becoming quartermaster, then second officer, aboard the ocean-going Baltimore-to-Boston ships of the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company. Unlike most officers of Bay steamboats, young Almy learned the use of a sextant and the rudiments of celestial navigation. For a time he worked on a railroad-car ferry between Locust Point and Canton in Baltimore Harbor, then aboard a tug in Norfolk, where he earned his master's papers at the phenomenal age of twenty. After a stint as pilot on the side-wheeler John Romer running between Norfolk and Newport News, he joined the ranks of the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Railroad (NYP&N) as captain of Norfolk, its first tug. When the company's three passenger steamers were put in service, Captain Almy commanded each in turn. Finally, he elected a career with the Old Bay Line. On November 1, 1888, he joined the company as master of the iron side-wheeler Carolina, an 1877 vessel, 250 feet long."

Recognition of his competence and loyalty led to his captaincy of the best of the Old Bay Line fleet. He was picked because he knew how to handle screw-propelled vessels. "He lived aboard ships for sixty-one years and served with the Old Bay Line for forty-four of them. At the time of his retirement in 1932, his service had extended over nearly half the life of the Old Bay Line itself. He estimated that during that time he had traveled more than five million miles by water between Baltimore and Norfolk. He knew those waters like the back of his hand."

"On two occasions, Captain Almy was cited for heroism and skillful seamanship. Early in 1911, when coming up the Bay aboard the old Florida, he sighted a burning schooner, apparently abandoned, off Sharps Island Light at the approach to the Choptank River. Ahead in the ship channel to Baltimore, he sighted the lights of other vessels, which had apparently passed the schooner without pausing. Captain Almy was not satisfied. Swinging Florida (with much effort on the part of two steersmen when she balked at being diverted from her regular route) to starboard, he entered the Choptank mouth and approached the schooner some four miles away. Four men were clinging desperately to a makeshift raft near the vessel they had been forced to abandon. Later in the same year, Captain Almy and six members of his crew on Florida made names for themselves again by rescuing five men in the lower Patapsco."

"Captain Almy was a heavy-set, square-jawed, weathered, mustached man with a pudgy nose and a mouth that seemed on the verge of a perpetual smile. His eyes bespoke years of searching the waters of the Bay, yet welcomed the newcomer with warmth and friendliness."

"He was known for his hospitality aboard the boats he skippered, and entertained at his table a number of distinguished passengers: Presidents Taft, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt, Governor Albert C. Ritchie of Maryland, Cardinal James Gibbons, and others."

"On the other side of his character, he was a man who expected much of his officers and crew and got it. With his depth of knowledge and experience, there was little about steamboating that he did not know and the men who served under him knew that he knew it. They performed accordingly. At the same time, they knew that he had a temper, slow-rising but trenchant, and that he possessed a vocabulary to match it -- a seaman's vocabulary, rich and often profane. He became a legend, not only as dean of Bay steamboat masters but also for being what he was, a sturdy, competent, but often colorful man of the sea."

"Captain Almy's death on July 19, 1939, brought a wave of accolades and expressions of nostalgia. He was among the most respected masters in the long line of captains of steamboats on the Chesapeake."

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