Old Man River on the Pamlico

Published 3:07 pm Monday, May 20, 2024

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We celebrated Washington’s history Saturday with the fifth Pomeroy Foundation marker to honor the heritage of the James Adams Floating Theater.

The marker is in collaboration with the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, the Brown Library, the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum and the City of Washington.

The Floating Theater was built at William H. Chauncey’s shipyard at the corner of Water and Bonner Streets in 1913. The boat, the first of its kind, was constructed at a cost of $25,000 had a seating capacity of 850 seats.
It’s first presentation, ‘Under the Western Skies’ a four-act melodrama was given at Fowle’s Wharf near Water and Respess Streets. Adams planned to have the boat tour as far north as Baltimore, Md.

The Theater had a long and prosperous run along the eastern seaboard of North Carolina and became the inspiration of the widely celebrated and successful Broadway musical ‘Show Boat.’ The boat was a majestic sight and even more so at night as it had lights strung from stem to stern. It became the stuff of legends.
Local African Americans worked on the Floating Theater and some African Americans attended shows on the boat.

The inspiration for the musical ‘Show Boat” came from author Edna Ferber, who spent time in Washington and Bath to write a novel. She spent four days on the Floating Theater to research information for her book. The boat provided Ferber which accommodations like hot and cold running water, and she stayed in one of the 25 living rooms it had. It was said that she spent those days in deep thought as she watched the waters of the Pamlico River flow by.

It is on the Pamlico River the inspiration for the song ‘Old Man River’ came to her as she watched African American stevedores relentlessly load and unload ships and barges.

The musical’s most popular song ‘Old Man River’ (written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein Jr.) is most remembered when Paul Robeson sang it on Broadway. The song (sometimes referred to as a Negro folk song) written in 1927, bemoans the plight of the struggles and hardships of African Americans, and contrasted it to the ebb and flow of the Mississippi River where the musical takes place. One of the best-known lyrics from the song acknowledges the steady flow of the Mississippi River and noted it’s indifference to the hardships of life and says, “that old man river, he just keeps rolling along.”

And while the musical takes place on the Mississippi River, the origin of the novel is undeniably Beaufort County. Ferber uses names of local Beaufort County residents in her book, according to another book, Washington on the Pamlico by Worthy and Loy. The most notable the verbatim inscription of Margaret Palmer’s head stone (1765) that is located in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Bath that reads in part, the wife of Robert Palmer Esquire, one of his majesty’s council’s surveyors of the lands of this province.”

We thank the Pomeroy Foundation for the generous grants given to Washington to obtain the markers. And we have more planned to celebrate the special history Washington has.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.