There were once hundreds of them, just about any spot a country road dead ended at tidewater. They were the lifeblood of communities, a portal to the world beyond. Folks once planned their days, their seasons around them. But now the rotten pilings that descend into murky water do little service to the long-lost importance and memory of these forgotten landmarks.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, steamboats were central to Chesapeake commerce and communication, long before motor vehicles and telephone wires linked every spot on the mainland. The wharves where these stately ships made landings were bustling junctions, alive with merchants conducting business, passengers readying for travel, crewmen coaxing their mighty craft to moorings. These frenetic waterfront scenes have long fallen silent, though.
The steamboat Potomac. Image courtesy of the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, VA.
The Coan River today is much the same as it has always been, a peaceful tributary of the Potomac deep in rural Northumberland County, Virginia. Getting there you’ll pass several quiet crossroads, endless fields of row crops, and a scattering of well-worn farmhouses. Coan Wharf Road’s last quarter-mile sweeps down to a waterfront turnaround that’s as tranquil as the road leading in.
The river itself is deep, crooked and narrow. You’d have no problem hitting Bundick on the other side with a rock and a good slingshot. It’s a little hard to believe that steamboats the size of passenger airplanes once called here on a regular basis. The river doesn’t seem navigable with such an imposing watercraft.
Coan Wharf today.
But call they did. Coan Wharf was one of many landings in Virginia and Maryland where steamboats exchanged passengers and cargo. Nearby residents listened for the familiar whistle of an arriving boat. Coan Wharf, like virtually all the contemporary landings, was once an active village with a scattering of offices and storehouses required to keep an active port-of-call afloat. There were some three hundred landings in the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries, from Sprys on the Chester River to Williams Wharf in Mathews to Rockett’s in Richmond.
The steamboat line offered freight service so that farmers, fishermen and manufacturers could sell their wares in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia where demand for those goods was highest. The boats provided passenger service, too, including overnight accommodations, meals and a full bar. The trip from Baltimore to Washington was a two-night affair. The steamboat would stop at wharves all along the way.
Left: What’s left of Coan Wharf. Right: Bundick Landing on the other side of the narrow Coan River.
Sadly, though, the world grew out of steamboats, out of this fabled way of life. The vehicle made travel faster; commuters could have it on demand. Trucks hauled freight to distant markets in a fraction of the time a steamboat could. It didn’t help that the Hurricane of 1933 destroyed many of these wharves and they were never rebuilt. By mid-century, steamboat service had been all but abandoned.
Now all those wharves like Coan are a distant memory, as are the villages that supported the steamboats at water’s edge. The only evidence of Coan’s past, and that of hundreds of other landings, are rotten pilings sloping toward the channel. There’s the odd rusty machine off in the woods, too, but everything else–clapboard general stores, pilots skilled enough to navigate a river like Coan, overnight service to Baltimore and Washington–is history.
Traces of Coan Wharf’s past.