Ken Rossignol is the author most recently of Chesapeake 1880. His many other books include Chesapeake 1850 and Titanic 1912. He is the former publisher of the weekly newspaper St. Mary's Today.
Q: Your new series explores the history of the Chesapeake Bay. Why did you decide to focus on this, and what do you hope readers learn about the region?
A: The history of the Chesapeake region often is glossed over and features more visual aspects such as crabs, oysters and skipjacks. While those iconic symbols of the Bay deliver the sight, smell and taste of the Bay in so many ways, there is still a larger story to tell.
That is why I decided to break down my view of the Chesapeake into a series beginning with Chesapeake 1850. The book, along with the newest, Chesapeake 1880, revolve around a fictional family, based on the lives of real people I have known all my life, along with actual history of the Tidewater area.
The Chesapeake series reflects the total and broader area as steamboats, clipper ships, skipjacks, workboats and custom yachts carried travelers and freight from every point in the smallest tributaries to the major port cities of Norfolk, Baltimore and Washington. The travel on the water was only a part of the transportation as railroads grew to dominance.
The story of the Chesapeake Bay region is the story of America. Even the capital city was carved out from the heart of the region, a slice of Virginia and a chunk of Maryland. The largest estuary on the East Coast contained a bountiful supply of seafood with competition that often led to bloody battles by those who fought over it.
The area was the center of the great Civil War with armies crossing through and over the tributaries of the Chesapeake and at the bitter end, the assassin of the president escaping, temporarily, after his bloody act.
From the first book forward, the young members of the Douglas family who work on the steamships entertain passengers with the news of the day by reading the newspapers to them, which became a hit with the travelers.
In every way, the true flavor of life is brought to the reader, including family, religion, struggles for equality and the area’s role in the industrial revolution.
The newest volume includes the second presidential assassination. That was the second time a president was gunned down in the capital city of Washington. Great fires and train wrecks are related along with disasters of steamships.
Q: What made you pick 1880 as the year in which to set the second book?
A: The year kicks off the second time frame of the Chesapeake of a 30-year span.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do for this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: That’s easy. I have lived here all my life and starting with my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Lillian Houseman of Twinbrook Elementary School in Rockville, I learned to love learning about Maryland history.
Along the way I have had some of the most preeminent history scholars who have lived in Maryland educate me, including Sen. Paul Bailey, Fred McCoy, Sen. Walter B. Dorsey, Larry Millison, Jack Rue, Louis Goldstein, Stephen G. Uhler and many others.
I have learned about the role of slot machines in the Southern Maryland region from Sen. Bailey, who introduced the bill in the Maryland General Assembly, which legalized them in 1947, and also witnessed him and Jack Rue serenade a newlywed couple spending their honeymoon fishing on the Point Lookout Fishing Pier--Sen. Bailey, who played the clarinet in the Dorsey band in the 1930s, on his horn and Jack Rue on his violin.
I can’t say that they made the fish bite better that Sunday morning but the pair of politicians certainly had the attention of those there fishing.
Fred McCoy spent his life farming and raising a large Catholic family in the Tidewater area and spent countless hours reciting the history he knew so well and helped guide after his graduation from Georgetown University. With his wife Beth, he penned a column for me in my newspaper until he died.
I spent an entire day with Louie Goldstein in his 84th year as he successfully campaigned for another term in office in 1994. For many years I was with him to soak up the old days of Chesapeake lore.
Perhaps the greatest teachers of Chesapeake history for me were Pepper Langley and Walter Dorsey. They talked and I listened. Pepper also wrote for me and Dorsey was perhaps the best legal mind in Maryland. Both had families that went back generations and were generous in sharing their histories with me.
The stories of our Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish and African immigrants along with the great tragedy of slavery are included in the books.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The next is Chesapeake 1910, which I hope to have ready by summer.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Both books are available in Kindle, paperback and Audible formats. The narrator, Paul McSorley, really brings the books to life with his enthusiastic performance.
I recently had a reader ask me if Chesapeake 1850 was as good as James Michener’s book. I told her I was profoundly jealous of his sales but since he only lived on the Eastern Shore for six months to research his book, it was really an unfair comparison. However, his recipe for oyster stew is almost as good as mine.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier Q&A with Ken Rossignol, please click here.