Saturday, January 23, 2010

James Adams Floating Theatre

The James Adams Floating Theatre, later known as "The Original Show Boat," first saw the light of day in Washington, Beaufort County, NC in 1914. It began when James and Gertie Adams, circus trapeze performers turned carnival operators, went broke and were stranded in Washington in 1912. Adams, having observed the lumber barges moving up and down the Tar-Pamlico River, came up with the idea of turning one of these floating plaforms into a threatre. With the help of Mr. George Leach, President of the Eureka Lumber Co., who furnished the materials, and work done by Farrow-Chauncey Shipyard, the conversion was completed in 1913 at a cost of $8,941.92.

With clean quarters and plenty of good food, the James Adams was home for is self-sufficient performers and support staff. The theatre itself was 122 x 34 feet and could seat 700. Towed from place to place by the small gasoline-powered tug, Trouper, the converted b arge spent the winters docked in Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County, NC where rehearsals for the new season began each February. Beginning in March, the theatre traveled up and down the rivers of northeastern NC, stopp0ing at each waterside town for about a week. After convering the NC route, it journed to Virginia via the Dismal Swamp Canal and into the Chesapeake Bay area, finally ending its 37-week season at Onancock, VA on the eastern shore in November.

Although Elizabeth City church members called it "a hell-hole of iniquity…", the theatre was a huge success from the beginning. Wherever it went, its arrival was a high point of social activity for people starved for entertainment. The plays presented ranged from comedy to melodrama to tragedy, with the audience always actively involved, hissing the villains and applauding the hero—who usually prevailed at the last moment. Some well-knownplays presented were East Lynne, Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Saint Elmo, Tempest and Sunshine, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Thorn and Orange Blossoms. Each performance ended with a vaudevillian concert.

As the James Adams was passing through the Dismal Swamp Canal in November 1929, it struck a stump which ripped a hole in her holl. She immediately sank into the dark muddy water. After two weeks, the Elizabeth City Iron Works managed to raise her. Dring the interval, one performer remained at his post, as documented by the following newspaper account: "Pop Neel, veteran trouper who has spent 60 of his 71 years in show business and has made his home on the James Adams for the past 14 years, set foot ashore last night for the first time in nearly two weeks. Pop stuck by the ship during its stay on the canal bottom and refused to take a pessamistic view of its future even when the situation seemed most discouraging. Last season had been the best in the showboat's history and 'Pop' expects to see many more."

Joseph O. Green, III, author of "Showboating in the Albemarle," which appeared in The State Magazine, Feb . 15, 1972, spoke with Mr. Leslie D. "Strut" Waldorf of Elizabeth City, then 80 years old, who was one of the original performers on the James Adams. He was paid $8 per week plus room and board to play trombone and piano in the showboat's orchestra from 1914 to 1917. Wilma Wynns also wrote in the Feb. 15, 1979 State Magazine of the showboat's visits to Colerain on the Chowan River in Bertie County.

This story was published in The Connector, newsletter of the Tar River Connections Genealogical Society in the Spring 2001 issue.


  1. An effort is currently underway to raise funds to bring this magnificent vessel back to the waters of the mid-Atlantic region!

  2. I searched unsuccessfully for the article by Wilma Wynns in The State, Feb. 15, 1979. I found the magazine February 1979 edition (no Feb. 15, 1979), but did not find Wilma's article. Can you verify your citation and advise me at Better yet, post the article. _ Bill Sessoms