Voyage into the Past

S.S. JOHN W. BROWN Living History Cruise
(21 June 2003)

By William H. Geoghegan
Photographs by the author


The S.S, John W. Brown is one of only two World War II Liberty Ships still in seaworthy condition. (The other is the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco.) The Brown is berthed in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is maintained and operated by the all-volunteer membership of "Project Liberty Ship," the group that originally brought her to Baltimore for restoration.

As part of its outreach to the community, to former merchant mariners, to members of the Naval Armed Guard and veterans in general, PLS makes the Brown available to the public for a series of Living History Cruises each year. The cruises depart from Baltimore, leaving one of the more easily accessible freight piers (a temporary berth) at about 0900. The ship sails down the Patapsco River to the Chesapeake Bay, and then steams south, passing under the Bay Bridge, to a point somewhat south of Annapolis, Maryland. There she turns and heads back to Baltimore, arriving dockside at about 1700. Breakfast and lunch are served. Since the Brown was refitted as a limited capacity troopship, the mess arrangements are capable of handling the hundreds of passengers on board. At present the Living History Cruises cost $125 per person for the full day (including meals). A separate Veterans Day cruise is open to active duty U.S. servicemen and women and guests for a cost of $20 per person. Approximately 700 passengers can be accommodated.

As the photos to follow will indicate, sailing on one of the Living History Cruises is more akin to attending a World War II re-enactment gathering than it is to taking a Bay cruise. Officers and crew are in uniform. The ship's gunnery is manned -- and used during a simulated attack by "enemy" planes. (During the cruise my wife and I took, the simulation was fairly muted. We were close enough to Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy to bring us under post-9/11 airspace restrictions. Bad weather also limited the number of aircraft that could participate.)

Note that there is also a two-part review of the Wilhelmshaven model of the Brown elsewhere on this site (Part I and Part II), as well as a walk-around of the ship on a day when she was closed to the public. Further information on the S.S. John W. Brown and Project Liberty Ship, including membership and cruise information, can be found at


The following photographs were taken on June 21, 2003. At the time, the camera I had available was an Olympus D-460 with 1.3 megapixel capability. Limited optical zoom restricted the quality of some picture (especially the aircraft). This is a small subset of the photos taken. If other photos would help with model construction for either the Brown or the O'Brien (e.g., the Halinski model), please let me know and I will see if I can dredge something up.

Lining up to board the S.S. John W.Brown at its temporary berth at one of Baltimore's container piers. We had not realized how many passengers would board. There were about 650 for our cruise (a birthday present for me). Surprisingly, the ship did not seem crowded, except at the beginning when passengers packed the deck to view depature preparations.
The "Navy Guard" (who had checked us in) pulled the gangway away from the hull so it could be raised without scraping the paint. The steam winches are fully operational. Here they're used to raise the Brown's gangway in preparation for departure. Note the problems David Okamura encountered with the Wilhelmshaven representation of these same winches.
The Donal G. McAllister maneuvers into position to pull us away from the dock so we can make the short run into the Patapsco River. Her sister tug, the J.P. McAllister, passes alongside to take up position at the stern.
The J.P. McAllister provides us with an escort downriver. The two McAllister Company tugs accompany us as far as Fort McHenry, and then peel away to return upriver.
We pass Fort McHenry, whose defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key, an American negotiator held by the British while the fort was under bombardment, to write a poem entitled "The Star-spangled Banner," which later provided the text for America's national anthem. The John W. Brown continues downriver toward the Bay.
My wife Judy and I settle in for a relaxing day on the Bay. This is Judy. And this is me.
We pass under the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which spans the Patapsco at the approximate point of the British anchorage during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. The bridge is part of Interstate 695, the Baltimore Beltway. Like any historical re-enactment, we need some period entertainment....
And, of course, some "big band" music. The helmsman cons the Brown from the monkey bridge, while the Captain and First Mate keep an eye out ahead. The Brown attracts a lot of pleasure craft, some of which try to get a little too "up close and personal" for their own good.
After a lunch on the 'tween deck, we returned topside to watch as the John W. Brown passed beneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The bridge's twin spans connect Maryland's Eastern and Western Shores via U.S. Route 50. An announcer informed us in ominous tones that we were now within range of "enemy aircraft" that might attack the ship at any moment. The anti-aircraft guns were unlimbered....
...and loaded (with blanks)... ...and manned by Naval Armed Guard re-enactors.
Sure enough, we were soon "attacked" by a Yak-3 coming in on a simulated strafing run. (A Yak-3???) Make that two Yak-3's! (Or maybe this was really escort duty on the Murmansk run.)
After that bit of excitement, I decided to tour more of the ship's interior, especially those areas that had been closed off during my walk-around visit a couple of years earlier. This is one of the cabins used by the Naval Armed Guard. Then down to the engine room, where I was first greeted by a pair of steam-powered electrical generators.
This is the cylinder head for the Brown's 2500 HP triple expansion steam engine. The high-pressure cylinder is farthest from the camera; the low pressure cylinder (the largest) is in the foreground. Here's the cylinder head from the opposite direction, with the low pressure cylinder in the background.
We're now one level deeper into the engine room, below the cylinders. Just to the left of center is one of the piston rods, joined to the connecting rod that descends to the main shaft. In the center is one of the slider valve rod assemblies.
The engine room crew takes a break. Coming topside again, the Brown has passed Annapolis and made a 180o turn to the north. Looking astern we can see the Bay Bridge in the distance.
As we enter Baltimore harbor, we encounter many different types of ships, from ore carriers to feed the blast furnaces at the Sparrows Point steel mills, to container ships, automobile carriers, etc. This is the USNS Comfort (T-AH20) one of the Navy's two active Mercy-class hospital ships. Baltimore is her home port. We also pick up our escort from earlier in the day, the J.P.McAllister.
She's accompanied by her sister tug, America. (This is one of my favorite tuboat photos.) What concentration! The America's captain carefully nudges the John W. Brown alongside the dock. In another 15 minutes or so, the Brown will be secured, and we can disembark.

Would a Living History Cruise appeal to you? There is plenty of space available for the two remaining cruises in 2006: September 2 and October 7. It's really worth the moderate cost involved -- much less than you might spend on an amusement park or even a Broadway show.