History of sights and sounds on the Wicomico River at Salisbury

James Adams Wicomico News6

Nowadays, entertainment seen along the Wicomico River at Salisbury consists of boats decorated with Christmas lights, boat docking contests and views of exciting launches of big vessels at Chesapeake Shipbuilding. But Salisbury has hosted earlier spectacular sights and sounds at its docks.

And unusual ones.

On June 26, 1942, the Chinese junk Mon Lei sailed into town, described by the Salisbury Times with “delicately carved woodwork gracing her gunwales and loaded with curious treasures of old China.”

The Mon Lei had first amazed the residents of Whitehaven the night before, then the next day sailed to Salisbury’s harbor. The ship must have posed quite a sight while under full sail, with its 800 square feet of canvas reinforced by bamboo bracings, unless it was propelled by its auxiliary engine.

Capt. Rene Crosby Monteith, who skippered the ship, reportedly bought the Mon Lei in China’s Canton in 1939. The “floating museum” traveled thousands of  miles over three years from China, visited numerous American ports and at Salisbury the ship moored on the west side of the river about where Brew River is now, across from the Victor Lynn Lines wharf.

Stories about the ship’s origins vary. Some accounts reported the Mon Lei as dated to 1890 while others claim it was built in 1939 by a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.

It is also not clear when and how the famed “Believe it or not” Robert Ripley bought the ship. Ripley had become smitten with the exotic ship and invested significantly in his prized possession.

The war lord legend repeated in newspapers may have been originated by Ripley himself, for a biographer wrote that Ripley often referred to the Hong Kong builder as a “war lord.”

 Floating Theater

Another remarkable visitor to Salisbury excited spectators with not only sight but sound as well with the arrival of the James Adams Floating Theatre in 1914. The barge-like boat must have looked brand new, as it was built earlier that year.

Adams along with his sister, Beulah, cast and crew brought music, theater and merriment to areas throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

James Adams, with his experience in the travelling carnival business, began the enterprise after being enthralled by the showboats of the Midwest and decided to bring his new idea to the East Coast.

The shallow flatboat theatre, accompanied by a towboat, could weave its way throughout the waterways of the region while boasting a theatre seating capacity for over 800 with an orchestra floor and a balcony. There was room for a 10-piece band, a 6-piece orchestra, dining room, cast and crew.

In Salisbury, the floating theater parked at the Pivot Bridge (Main Street) for a week of plays and different musical venues including concerts, musicals and Vaudeville-like shows. Even if you could not afford the cost of the ticket, you could be entertained with music from the vantage of the docks.

This floating theater became the source of inspiration for Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel “Showboat,” which led to the famed musical.

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is a great source for more on the subject, as well as the 1991 book by C. Richard Gillespie.

The spectacle of boats and the sounds of music continues to be a part of the Wicomico River’s history at Salisbury. Who knows what we might see next.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury and is writing a book about the community’s history. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com


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