Brochure artwork of Wilson Line's Pier 4 and the S.S.
Mount Vernon in Washington
The Wilson Line had its main office in Wilmington, Delaware and was founded in April 1881 by Captain Horace Wilson as the Wilmington Steamboat Company. They operated excursion boats between Philadelphia and Wilmington and then across the Delaware River to Riverview Beach in Penns Grove, New Jersey.1 Wilson himself would later serve a term as Wilmington's mayor.
Hall initially was a mansion built in the early 18th century by Thomas Marshall on his estate on the bank of the Potomac in Maryland, almost directly across
the river from Mount Vernon, the estate of George
Washington in Fairfax, Virginia. In 1884 it was bought by partnerships interested in commercial ventures and sold in 1889 to the Mount Vernon and Marshall Hall Steamboat Company.
They then operated the steamboat Charles Macalester twice a day and midsummer evenings from Washington
down the Potomac to Mount Vernon
and across to Marshall
Picnic tables in the groves at Marshall Hall Amusement
Park - ca. 1940s
Jousters at Marshall Hall annual tournament
National Park Service Photo courtesy Marshall
With its 400 acres, largely undeveloped, and free admission, Marshall Hall became an area attraction and most of its traffic arrived by boat. It featured a small Victorian amusement park, beautiful groves and picnic tables, athletic fields and rest rooms and from the beginning of the park's history, annual jousting tournaments where mounted contestants charged and attempted to
spear a dangling ring that gets progressively smaller in the course of elimination. The park was owned and operated by the shipping company, as were most of the rides while others were leased.3
The Wilson Line's City of Washington
Photo courtesy of Janet Moulder and Old Chester
In 1929 the Wilmington Steamboat Company was purchased by a syndicate of Wilmington and Philadelphia interests headed by George B. Junkin and was renamed the
Wilson Line, Inc. They became one of three companies at the time that ran excursion boats out of Washington on the Potomac.1 The cruises also featured nightly dancing to many of the local area bands and orchestras contracted in that area by
people like Lester Lanin
Davis.3 During the '30s the Wilson
line operated the City of
Washington for its excursions from late April to September advertising
that a "large ballroom on the observation deck makes dancing a feature of all
By the 1940 season the
City of Washington was replaced by the S.S. Mount Vernon, an all steel ship reputed to have been originally built in 1916 as the
City of Camden for the Wilmington Steamboat Company by Bethlehem Steel
Company. Said to be "the Potomac's first streamliner," in 1939 it had been rebuilt from the hull up by Sun Shipbuilding at Wilson Line's own shipyard in Wilmington. It had a capacity of 2400 on its multiple decks and a glass enclosed
main deck heated in the cooler months and air conditioned in warmer months.
From May until September it made two trips daily to Mount Vernon and Marshall Hall in addition to evening cruises from Wilson
Line's Pier 4 at Maine Avenue and N St. SW in Washington.4
In 1943, however, because of War rationing, the season saw only one of the three boats operating on the Potomac in service, the Potomac River Line's
S.S. Potomac. It had been successfully converted to coal while their other boat, the
Robert E. Lee and
the Wilson Line's S.S. Mount Vernon were refused oil coupons by DC's
Office of Price Administration (OPA). This also meant
that Marshall Hall Amusement Park would be closed for its first season in 60 years.3
Passengers on board the upper deck of the S.S. Mount
Passengers disembark the S.S. Mount Vernon
Passengers disembark the S.S. Mount Vernon on Marshall
They reopened, however, the following season on May 19th and the Wilson Line was granted sufficient fuel to run the
S.S. Mount Vernon three round trips daily. With the addition of bus service to Marshall Hall from Indian Head, MD, the park broke all previous records in attendance and gross business.3
Rides at Marshall Hall Amusement Park - ca.1940s
National Park Service Photos (sides) courtesy Marshall
The late '40s saw a large growth in business with the S.S. Mount Vernon experiencing some of its best seasons, especially in its moonlight bookings. The park saw the construction of a roller coaster and several new rides and by 1950 had installed a new water system, new wiring and paint and in addition to new rides boasted a Tilt-a-Whirl, Ferris wheel, miniature train, Kiddie Rides and Merry-Go-Round along with a shooting gallery and penny arcade. Most of the patrons still got there by boat though with parking for 2400 cars, about 30 percent came by car.3
Connie Barriot Gay came from Lizard Lick, NC, and during WWII worked on the USDA's "National Farm and Home Hour," as a radio announcer when he discovered that half the residents of the nation's capital had transplanted from the South and that D.C did not have a radio station that catered to "hillbilly music." In 1946 he started a thirty-minute
"hillbilly" show on WARL, in Arlington Virginia, the first devoted to that music in the area which soon became the
"Town & Country Time" show running three hours daily." He registered
"Town & Country" as his service trademark and is credited as one of the first to coin the term
"country music," in place of "hillbilly."
In the late forties when television came in he started buying up little radio stations all over the country, establishing his Town & Country Network. He saw the music's entertainment potential for TV and tailored his product for the broadest possible audience.
Gay saw the demand for live concerts and took country music to venues normally reserved for more uptown fare with live events featuring big name talent like Hank Williams, Ray Price and Hank Thompson. In 1947 he booked the
DAR's Constitution Hall for two nights for a package show headlined by Eddy Arnold, then managed by Colonel Parker.5
The Wilson Line's S.S. Mount Vernon in service on the
Potomac - ca.1950s
Gay reputedly developed "a kind of unspoken gentlemen's agreement" with Jim Denny of the
Opry, Colonel Parker and other powerful Nashville promoters like
Oscar Davis and Joe Frank that gave Gay exclusive access to Opry acts in the Mid-Atlantic States, almost like a regional franchise. According to Gay,
"I got Washington and the Northeast. They thought the East was the short end of the stick, but that was where the money was, in the
media." He ran excursion trains from Washington, Baltimore, New York, Boston and Philadelphia to the Grand Ole Opry. By the early '50s he started booking the Wilson Line for his
"Hillbilly Midnight Cruises" on the Potomac.5
Some of Gay's earlier shows on the cruises featured many
Opry acts along with others that included
The Maddox Brothers and Rose
(stars of the Louisiana Hayride) with Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb, Billy Johnson and
newly signed Jimmy Dean.3 Dean, originally raised in Plainview, TX,
after his discharge from the Air Force in 1948,
remained in the Washington area to form the band the Texas Wildcats that
at one time featured guitarist Roy Clark. Under a management contract
with Gay and paid a weekly salary, he got a record deal with Four Star
records and in 1953 his first single, "Bummin' Around,"
became a Top 10 hit. He soon was the host of Town & Country
Time on WARL.6
In 1953 Dean and his band also backed Patsy Cline
at The National Country Music Championship at Warrenton Fairgrounds in
Virginia though she lost to Scotty Stoneman of the Stoneman
Family. The following year she entered and won backed by Bill
Peer's band, and caught the eye of Connie B. Gay, the events head honcho
and emcee. Beginning that summer, Gay frequently booked Patsy as the
girl singer with Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats.5
Connie B. Gay's Town & Country Time - ca.1954
By 1954 he started filming Town & Country Time shows in color at Byron Studios in Georgetown for distribution to regional and local
television affiliates. In January of 1955, after eight years on WARL, Town & Country
Time became a live daily television show broadcast
weekdays at 5:30 p.m. headed by Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats and
Mary Klick. At that time, WMAL's studios were
located at the "Evening Star Television Center" at 4461 Connecticut
Avenue NW, formerly the
Chevy Chase Ice
Palace. By October of that year he also hada weekly three hour country music show, the "Town &
Country Jamboree," that aired on WMAL Channel 7 from Turner's
Also in 1955 the Wilson line fleet and wharves were purchased by the City Investing Company of New York in a deal that involved all physical assets of the line, its boats and properties, including Marshall Hall Park. By this time the line was operating eight boats serving the Philadelphia and Delaware area, Baltimore and Eastern Maryland shore, a Washington-Boston run, Boston to Nantasket
Beach and to Provincetown and in the New York area to Rockaway Beach and
for charter work.3
The S.S. Mount Vernon in service on the Potomac
Soon after, the company announced that Marshall Hall Amusement Park and the S.S. Mount Vernon were to undergo $250,000 in improvements and reconditioning. About $100,000 alone was spent on the boat to have Ballard & Company of New York paint the boat yellow with white accents, improve the dance floor, install several restaurants; new lighting and a steam calliope and replace stiff bench seating with comfortable foam rubber cushioned aluminum.3
By January 1956, "Town & Country
Jamboree" was the most popular homegrown musical TV show in the
region, with an audience estimated at more than half a million. By March
Gay had severed all radio connections with Arlington, VA as he expanded
ownership and Town & Country Time was broadcast on radio daily
and television every night from 6:00 - 6:30.3
Buck Ryan, Billy Grammer, Jimmy Dean, Herb Jones, Marvin Carroll at WMAL-TV
Photo courtesy Kidshow.DCMemories
As of March 15, 1956, Bob Neal's contract as Elvis'
manager had run run out leaving the way clear for the Colonel.7According
to Patsy Cline biographer, Margaret Jones, Gay had been reputedly approached by the Colonel with an option to
buy into a piece of Elvis' contract. The Colonel arrived at WMAL one day shortly after
signing a booking arrangement with Elvis and Jamboree Attractions, the Madison,
Tennessee, operation he ran with his main client, Hank Snow.
"I've got a boy down here who wiggles his hips and everything. Don't sing
too much or anything, but I'm going to give you a chance to get a piece of the
action," he told Gay. Gay wasn't impressed. "No thanks," he
replied. "I've got Dean and his boys. I've got my hands full. I don't need
anything like that."
It's quite possible that the unspoken
agreement between Gay, the Colonel and the Opry was a
contributing factor that
until this time Elvis and the boys had never played any dates in the Northeast and,
aside from Philly the following year, would not again. Since their
association with the Colonel began, they pretty much played the circuit
of venues in the South established early on by promoters like Oscar
Davis and others. In any case, on March 23, 1956 Gay
had booked Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ for the season's first "Country
Music Moonlight Cruise" on
the S.S. Mount Vernon, which perhaps due to the new ownership of the
to have started earlier than previous seasons. They had played in Richmond
the night prior and were due in New York the day after.
were run in the Washington Post and Times Herald newspaper as well as
the Evening Star. Paul Herron in his On The Town column announced:
Country music impresario Connie B. Gay must have been in
the southern portion of Arlington County last weekend because he sent me
a note speaking about a "light" snowfall before describing his scheduled
antics aboard the S.S. Mount Vernon tonight.
Before you could say Jack Frost, he hastened to declare that the cruise
ship is both steam heated and enclosed.
At any rate its to be the first Country Music Moonlight Cruise of the
season and will feature the fabulous Elvis Presley, considered by many
to be one of the most sensational country singers in the past decade.
Sensational or not, Elvis recently persuaded the entrepreneurs of
Norfolk, Va., to dispense with $12,000 in
order to lure him there for a one night stand.
Equally impressive is the $40,000 plus, said to have been paid to Elvis
by RCA Victor for the privilege of an exclusive contract.
Accompanying Elvis will be the Blue Moon Boys with Melvin Price and the
Sante Fe Rangers (from Easton, Md.).
Eddie Pierce Music will supply the dance music for the cruises featuring
Frank Garner and his orchestra and Eddie tells me that on the Saturday
night cruise the headliners will be the Spellbinders from the Patti Page
Jimmy Dean and Elvis on WMAL-TV's Town & Country
Time set - Mar 23, 1956
Photo courtesy ElvisMatters - Peter
On the day of the show Elvis made a brief appearance at the WMAL-TV
studio to promote the show that night on "Town & Country Time."
Dean later wrote in his autobiography:
the featured entertainer on the boat that night and was booked on our
show to promote the cruise, apparently because it wasn't quite full.
I had the excruciating task of conducting the interview with Elvis,
possibly the worst I've ever done. It went basically like this:
Me: So, you're gonna be on the S.S. Mt. Vernon tonight, are you, Elvis? Elvis: Yep. Me: Have you ever worked on a boat before? Elvis: Nope.
Me: I imagine you're looking forward to this, aren't you? Elvis: Yep.
And that was it. "Yep, nope . . . " and that's all he would say. But I'm
sure it didn't matter; all it would take would be for the gals who tuned
in to that TV show to get a good look at him and he wouldn't have any
trouble selling more tickets. Years later, when we were both playing in
Las Vegas, Elvis would apologize profusely for leaving me hanging on
that interview, He told me, "You know, Jimmy, I was so sorry about that
but I was scared to death."
Jimmy Dean and Elvis at the WMAL-TV studio - Mar 23, 1956
Photo courtesy Cristi Dragomir
It is surprising that Patsy and Elvis never met,
considering his visit to WMAL and their proximity at this time.
According to Jones, Patsy was a fan. She loved Elvis's image and his power and his music and pasted his picture
prominently on the back cover of the scrapbook she kept that tracked her
life and her career. "Yeah, she loved him." said Pat Smallwood. "She
used to bop and boogie and get down with all his first records." 5
The forecast for the 23rd was partly cloudy with a high
around 48 degrees, though by evening it got much colder.8
Melvin Price, a country singer from Easton, MD, along with his band was
the opening act that evening. He had recorded during the '50s for Regal,
Starday and Dixie Records.
The S.S. Mount Vernon's glass enclosed main deck used for bands and dancing
According to Price, the deck was so packed,
people couldn't dance; they could hardly move. Elvis came out with a
policeman on either side. Maybe it was a touch dramatic, Price says, but
maybe he did need the protection, even then. Price remembers getting
trapped in the squeeze of the crowd between a steel guitar and a
middle-aged woman. "She pinned me there," he said. "You
couldn't move.…You simply could not move." Elvis broke three
strings. "He just pulled the guitar off his shoulder, and it slid
across the stage," Price says. "He just said, 'I'll be
back.'…It was that little bit of attitude. The audience loved
it." Between sets, the musicians shared a dressing room. Price
couldn't do more than say hello, though, since the future king
"was pretty well occupied with women hanging on him." 9
There were no
formal reviews for the show(s) but Bill Gold in his column in the
Washington Post and Times Herald on the 27th responded to readers who
wrote in complaining that the S.S. Mount Vernon actually never left the dock
DISTRICT LINE by Bill Gold
The Moonlight Cruise That Wasn't
SEVERAL young folks have sent me bitter
letters denouncing the Wilson Line for running a moonlight cruise that
never left the dock.
"Tickets were $2 each," one complainant wrote. "In exchange for the $4 I
spent, I had expected to be able to cruise along the river and dance
girl. But I was denied both of these pleasures, and refused a refund. It
seems to me that I was unfairly dealt with, and I wonder if you can
suggest what I ought to do about it?"
Yes, indeed. I suggest that you get all the facts surrounding this
moonlight cruise that wasn't, and then review your judgment in the light
of a better understanding of the incident.
The steamers high pressure valve began to cause trouble on Friday
afternoon. As soon as the boat returned to its dock, repair work was
Simultaneously, Wilson Line officials called Connie B. Gay, who had
chartered the vessel for a cruise that night, and told Connie that it
might be impossible to make the run. Connie was on the horns of a
He had shelled out about $4500 to charter the boat and provide the
entertainment. His headliner was Elvis Pressley of the Jackie Gleason
show, in town for one night only and due in New York on the next
morning. Hundreds of tickets had been sold in advance, mostly to
teenagers who wanted to see the rock-and-roll sensation in person.
The rumor spread rapidly among those boarding the boat that there was
something wrong with the engines and that the cruise might have to be
canceled. At departure time an announcement was made that the repair
work still had not been completed, and that it was doubtful if the boat
"But even if we don't cast off, we'll give you two shows instead of one,
and we hope you'll all enjoy yourselves," the announcement added.
About a hundred persons weren't satisfied with that alternative, and
decided to debark. Connie B. Gay stood at the gangplank and refunded
Then the gangplank was pulled up, and the entertainment began. It was a
bitter cold night, so the moonlight that bathed the open decks held
little attraction. Most of
those aboard crowded into the glass-enclosed main deck to watch the
As a result, the floor was too crowded for dancing, but the
entertainment did last for almost three hours, and it does appear that
an honest effort was made to keep the evening from becoming a total
disappointment for the young folks.
The Wilson Line feels badly about the balky high pressure valve which
kept the boat from leaving the dock, and tells me that it wants to make
amends to any ticket holder who feels he did not get his money's worth.
' "Have them write to us," a spokesman said, "and we'll see that they're
invited to come for a moonlight ride on any evening of their choice."
When I was a teen-ager, I was also very quick to form snap judgments. I
had irrevocable opinions on all subjects, and like a baseball umpire I
was seldom wrong and never in doubt.
It's remarkable how much less positive I've grown since I've learned
that there are two sides to practically any story—except to those which
have three or more.
Following the show on the S.S. Mount Vernon, the boys left
for New York for their sixth and final appearance on the
Dorsey Brother's Stage Show and
CBS Studio 50, delayed by a snow storm.
From there Elvis remained in New York prior to flying to Hollywood for
his screen-test. Scotty, Bill and DJ started the drive back south
in the storm that night, but stopped in Dover, Delaware, to visit
Carl Perkins and his brothers in the hospital. They had been
involved in a car accident while driving to New York to appear on the The
Perry Como Show.7
A telegram had previously
been sent from Richmond on the 23rd, the day of the cruise, either by Elvis (misspelled
as "Alvis"), or on
his behalf along with Scotty, Bill and DJ to Carl wishing him and his bothers well.
On March 26 the Colonel's new status as "sole and
exclusive Adviser, Personal Representative, and Manager in any and all
fields of public and private entertainment" was formally ratified and
his 25 percent commission reaffirmed at the same time.7
Patsy's career didn't really take off
until her appearance in 1957 on Arthur Godfrey's Talent show when she
performed Walkin After Midnight. She would soon ditch the western
attire too.5 That same year Dean would host a network television show on
CBS called The Jimmy Dean Show (the first incarnation). In 1961, he released the single
"Big Bad John," which hit No. 1 on both the country and
pop charts and earned him a Grammy award.6
Both he and Cline were no longer with Connie Gay who himself had in 1958
become the founding president of the Country Music Association in
The Wilson Line S.S. Mount Vernon at Marshall Hall Amusement Park
By 1957 Wilson Lines had absorbed the Meseck Steamboat Co. and its service to Playland at Rye, NY and Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, Conn. Though it sold its operations in Philadelphia, in addition to Marshall Hall, it was serving three other amusement areas; Rowes Wharf in Boston to Provincetown and to Paragon Park in Nantasket; Yonkers, N.Y.,
and Jersey City and New York, to Rockaway's' Playland, New York. At Marshall Hall Park they built an additional 200 foot long pier for the heavy traffic of private boats near the excursion boat pier, which itself had been rebuilt for the fourth time since
its original construction. With the construction of a new highway with a right of way straight to the park, it saw increased auto business.3
The S.S. Mount Vernon at Marshall Hall Amusement Park -
Like several competing amusement parks in Maryland, and elsewhere at the time, Marshall Hall Park was segregated and by the sixties was under pressure by civic and community groups and also court order to desegregate. Because of this, in 1961, students at George Washington University voted to discontinue their annual "Colonial Cruise" aboard the
S.S. Mount Vernon to Marshall Hall.10 1961 also saw the passing of a law protecting the historic setting of Mount Vernon and anything in its view against commercial and industrial development, though at the time it excluded Marshall Hall.2
The Wilson Line S.S. Mount Vernon in service on the
The S.S. Mount Vernon would see service through 1963. On January 5,
1964, while docked for the winter a
seacock (valve on the hull) aboard the vessel froze and cracked causing
it to take on water and settle on its keel, partially submerged.* It
stayed that way for several months before it was raised and never again
saw service as an excursion ship. Salvage rights were sold to the
Seafarers International Union in 1967 and it was renamed the Charles S.
Zimmerman and converted for use as a floating dormitory at the Harry
Lundberg School of Seamanship on Chesapeake Bay. It was believed to have
been scrapped in the eighties.4
The Wilson Line then replaced the S.S. Mount Vernon for its Potomac River cruises with its
M.V. George Washington, formerly the steamer Hudson Bell. Like the
S.S. Mount Vernon, it departed twice daily for excursions to Mount Vernon and Marshal Hall Amusement Park in addition to special charters and evening cruises.
The Wilson Line M.V. George Washington in service on the Potomac
The Wilson Line sold the Marshall Hall Amusement Park to Marshall Hall Development Corporation in 1966 which demolished most of the structures on it to make way for a modern amusement park. In 1969, it was sold to Joseph Goldstein and Star Enterprises with big plans to enlarge it to a theme park called
"Spirit of America."2
1974 Commercial featuring the M.V. George Washington
In 1972 the US Government paid Goldstein $900,000 not to further develop the land and in 1974 authorized the National Park Service to purchase the 446 acres at Marshall Hall and an additional 179 acres with $4.9 million in funds appropriated in 1976. The 1976 bill set January 1, 1980 as the phase-out date for Marshall Hall Amusement Park. Unfortunately, in 1981, arsonists gutted the 256 year old plantation house on the property.2
Wilson Line Catamaran on the Potomac - ca.1980s
By the eighties the Wilson line had replaced the steamships for excursions to Mount Vernon with three
catamarans each with a capacity of 394 people.
Van Ness Square at 4461 Connecticut Ave. NW - 2010
Photo courtesy Microsoft EarthData
WMAL-TV later became WJLA and in 1988 moved from the old ice palace
building to the Intelsat Building several blocks south. The owners of
the old building then embarked on an extensive renovation and remodeling
of the space adding two large towers in the center. It has since
operated as a mixed office and retail complex known as Van Ness Square.11
Contemporary Aerial views of excursion ships at the
former Wilson Line's Pier 4 in Washington, DC
Photos courtesy Microsoft EarthData
the former Wilson Line's Ticket Office at Pier 4 in
Today, the large excursion ships are back on the Potomac, though they no
longer go to Marshall Hall.
The original Wilson Line ticket office at the head of Pier 4 now serves
excursion boats and Spirit Cruises on the
Mount Vernon to Mount Vernon from March to October. You can also
choose from one-way excursions and 40-minute turnaround cruises from the
Mount Vernon dock.
page added May 4, 2011
Special thanks to Kenneth Despertt of the Special
Collections Library of the
Library in Washington for his assistance with ads and articles for
* We initially had believed and stated
that the S. S. Mount Vernon had sunk while in winter storage at
its home port of Wilmington, DE but thankfully B Dunlap noticed the
error and gave us the correct location of Pier 4 in Washington in
addition to a photo. July 27, 2016