The Adams Publishing Group’s upcoming books covering Eastern North Carolina – Eastern NC Memories: A Pictorial History of the mid-1800s through 1939, and Albemarle Memories: A Pictorial History of the mid-1800s through 1939 – feature images of the floating entertainment vessel, the James Adams Floating Theater.
The James Adams Floating Theater, later called the Original Floating Theater, was named for its creator. James Adams was a circus performer from Michigan who started the business after his retirement from the carnival industry.
A popular form of entertainment in Eastern North Carolina for decades, the floating venue debuted on the Pasquotank River in Elizabeth City in 1914, making its way to Edenton each spring.
It was home to author Edna Ferber for three months in the early 1920s, during which time she gathered material for her 1926 novel Show Boat, later adapted into a Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.
The name of the entertainment vessel changed in 1933 to the Original Floating Theater after the business changed hands to Nina B. Howard, a “woman of considerable means” who would follow the show boat from place to place “simply because she enjoyed the company of those aboard it.”
The Floating Theater sank several times over its decades-long tenure in the area. In 1920 it was caught in a storm while crossing the Chesapeake Bay. It hit underwater obstructions that took it down in 1927, 1929, and in 1938.
The 1938 disaster happened while the show boat was en route from Colerain to Williamston towing Captain Wally Smith’s Spray, the engine of which had broken down. The tug missed an underwater snag, which ripped a hole in the showboat’s port bow and caused her to begin sinking rapidly.
The showboat and its two tugs were sold to E. A. Brassell in 1941, and while it was being towed to Savannah for refitting as a cargo barge it was lost in a fire.
These photos, and hundreds more beautiful historical photographs, can be found in the Adams Publishing Group’s new pictorial history books. Click the links below to purchase!
Articles, gathered from a scrapbook at the Norfolk Public Library, give more information about the James Adams Floating Theater sinking, and about the showboat’s name change.
Text from the article on November 21, 1929 – Showboat Raised from Canal Waters – The James Adams Floating Theater after a submerged stump had ripped a hole in its bottom, causing it to sink in the Dismal Swamp Canal and completely block navigation. A diver sealed the holes below the waterline and the work of pumping water out of the James Adams in an attempt to float it was begun early today.
Early this afternoon the boat was raised and started on its journey for Elizabeth City where it always spends the winter. The task was completed much more quickly than had been expected. The boat sank last Saturday. It will probably arrive here about 6 o'clock this afternoon.
The Roanoke River disaster came around 7 o’clock in the morning while the show boat was en route from Colerain to Williamston, under tow of the tugs Elk and trooper, and towing Captain Wally Smith’s Spray, the engine of which has broken down. The tugs missed the snag, which ripped a hole in the show boat’s port bow, and caused her to begin sinking rapidly.
Fred Haddock, engineer of the Elk, awoke the members of the cast, and soon all were huddled on the roof, while under Captain Milford Seymoure of the show boat and Captain Cannon of the Elk, every effort was made to get her in shallow water. The Elk and Trooper with their bows against the larger craft at stern and bow were pushing it toward shore, when the most tense moment of the whole episode occurred. Seeing that the Trooper was about to be caught under the overhand of the bow of the sinking boat, all hands gathered to pry her loose, leaving the Elk tenantless, out on her own, with no one at the wheel.
The Trooper had been freed, and Captain Seymoure, Haddock and Roberts set out in hot pursuit of the runaway craft. Swinging around and out into the river, the Elk suddenly made a sharp turn, charging back directly at the show boat with a speed capable of making the wreck of the show boat complete. But at the last moment, she swerved and merely struck the floating theater a hard glancing blow. As she passed, Engineer J. D. Deans of the Trooper and Fearing jumped aboard and got the tug under control.
Mattresses had been lowered over side in the hope that they might be sucked into the opening, but the hole was too big, and the show boat finally rested near the shore, where she remained until six days later.
To Carl E. "Pop" Neal, who has ridden the show boat for more than 20 years, and who had been aboard at the two previous sinkings, the disaster was mere routine, and he remained in bed in his cabin on the roof throughout the proceedings.
"I knew that the only thing to do was to go up on the roof," he says, "and I was already there."
"Pop," whose eightieth birthday falls within two weeks, has been a trouper for all but the first 12 of his years.
As soon as the floating theater was firmly on the bottom, those aboard began to think about food, and Mr. Roberts dived repeatedly into the kitchen beneath the stage to open the icebox and bring up provisions, which were prepared aboard the Spray.
Best prepared of the passengers, say Mr. Roberts, was Rose, the cook, who has been with the show boat for the past six years. It was learned for the first time that Rose, on the weekend trips from place to place, not only sleeps fully clothed and shod, but has all her belongings neatly done up in cardboard boxes. Her cabin was down under the stage, but she was among the first to reach the top-side, though how she and her collections negotiated the narrow stairway, was inexplicable.
Although considerably damaged, it is believed that the show boat will be back in service within two or three weeks. All of the seats in the main auditorium must be replaced in addition to other repairs now being effected at the Elizabeth City Iron Works and Supply Company. According to Mr. Roberts, the itinerary will probably be taken up where it was interrupted – at Williamston – although it is possible that there will be a performance of "Ten Nights in A Barroom" here before it leaves.
Tommie Fearing, son of Mr. and Mrs. Keith Fearing of Manteo, joined the show boat at the close of the Lost Colony symphonic drama, in which he played the role of Ralph Lane. He is playing in juvenile leads and acting as assistant director and assistant state manager.
Text from the article on October 27, 1933 – Show Boat is Now Owned by Nina B. Howard – Many Elizabeth Citizens last week wondered why the floating theater which has been stopping here annually for the past 20 years now has painted on its sides the name “The Original Show Boat,” instead of the name by which this city has always known it – James Adams’ Floating Theater. The answer is that the show boat no longer is owned by James Adams.
The famous floating amusement palace, owned by James Adams from the time it was launched at Washington NC in 1912, until its 19th annual tour, was sold last year to Nina B. Howard, a woman of considerable means, used to travel though the inland waterways in a small yacht and had frequent contacts with James Adams’ Floating Theater while so doing. One season she followed the show boat from place to place simply because she enjoyed the company of those aboard it. She became fond of the floating theater and expressed a desire to purchase it, but the owner would not consider an offer. Finally she got an opportunity to purchase the show boat and did so. Hence the change in name from James Adams’ Floating Theater to “The Original Show Boat.”
The policies of the show boat have not been changed as a result of the change in ownership, and Charles Hunter still is manager. With the exception of Mr. Hunter and his wife, Beulah Adams, daughter of James Adams, the show boat's personnel this years is almost entirely new, Carl "Pop" Neel, who has been on the floating theater since it was launched, has been retained.
The floating theater did not have very large crowds during its week's stand in Elizabeth City, due chiefly to competition in the form of the Firemen's Carnival. However, there was an increase in attendance each night over the preceding night, and the house was just about sold out on Friday and Saturday nights. The show boat is playing at Manteo this week and probably will go from there to Columbia. It will return here in a few weeks to tie up for the winter.