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The Old Fall River Line

July 2024
10min read

Everyone from presidents to swindlers sailed the Sound on “Mammoth Palace Steamers” in the heyday of the sidewheelers

It all began fittingly enough with Robert Fulton, who planned to vanquish Long Island Sound as he had the Hudson, even though he died, at an untimely fifty, just before the attempt was to be made. And the slow funeral cannonade from the Battery had barely died on the wind when his steamboat, unblushingly named the Fulton , paddled up the East River into the dreaded waters of Hell Gate, the narrow passage where the tides rush in and out of the Sound. “A very violent and impetuous current,” Washington Irving called it, “boiling in whirlpools: raging and roaring in rapids and breakers: and, in short, indulging in all kinds of wrong-headed paroxysms.” Slowly the primitive sidewheeler, her decks piled high with cordwood. made her way through the jagged reels and entered the broad Sound, reaching New Haven after a journey of eleven hours. Apologizing for the slow time, the engineer told the press that one got pretty poor wood—no resin in it to make a hot fire—in New York at the beginning of spring. It was March, 1815, the year of Waterloo.

Thus, if one excludes a few early experiments, steam navigation began in earnest on this remarkable protected waterway; the Fulton was soon plying to New London and Providence, first of a great fleet which would dominate the commerce and travel of New England for over a century to come. Big paddle steamers, gleaming white, ornamental and luxurious, linked the growing cities, touched all the islands and reached up the long tidal rivers, carrying what Ward McAllister called “The Four Hundred” and what O. Henry called “The Four Million.” Even though the fare once sank to as little as fifty cents (from New York to Providence, including berth and two meals on board), the lines paid handsomely; stockholders in one of them received six per cent, monthly . Nineteenth Century steamboat men looked down on the railroads as mere “feeders,” and even alter through trains ran rapidly along the shore from Boston to New York they maintained, for some time, preëminence with travelers. Old Commodore Vanderbilt and Daniel Drew struggled for power on the Sound before they began to battle for greater prizes among the railroads; its waters were controlled in turn by Jim Fisk and J. P. Morgan the Elder, who eventually brought almost all the various steamboat lines under control of his New Haven Railroad.


Meanwhile, like the dinosaur, the Sound steamer itself waxed to its greatest size and most majestic appearance just before its extinction, victim of a kind of cruel variation in Gresham’s well-known law. For, as dear money is driven out of circulation by cheap money, some similar economic imperative requires the elegant in transportation to yield to the efficient (or, at least, the cheap), the dramatic to the drab. Thus the whining Diesel replaces the thundering steam locomotive and the stifling bus the open trolley; so the iron freighter, stamped out by Henry J. Kaiser, a landsman, sails the seas in the place of the tall clipper of Donald McKay. And now the sidewheel steamboat, which reached some sort of apogee in the powerful Priscilla , sometime flagship of the Fall River Line, has almost entirely vanished from American waterways. Priscilla , launched in 1893, her 440 feet all steel, capable of 21 miles per hour, was accounted the most graceful even after the bigger Commonwealth was built in 1908. Roger William McAdam, leading historian of the line, has devoted a frankly emotional book to this one boat. But a generation has grown up since the line stopped operating in 1937, a generation which never strolled the deep-carpeted saloon and decks, eyeing the drummers and men of property and occasional flashy women (could that be one ? the youthful voyager wondered in a slight tingle of worldliness), and never awoke to peer through the porthole at Hell Gate Bridge and take a hearty breakfast while the “mammoth palace steamer” steamed round the Battery and swung into her Hudson River berth.

Of all the fleets that plied the Sound, there was never any quite like the Fall River Line. Songs were written about it. Nearly all the presidents and most of the great men and women of that long period traveled it—the famous boat train from Boston in the late afternoon, then off the cars and into the boat at the Fall River wharf, in time to dine in the line sea air while steaming down Narragansett Bay, past Newport, to head around treacherous Point Judith and thence westward through The Race into the Sound. A fine sleep and into New York in time for business in the morning: it was the recommended route.

Strictly speaking, this was the Fall River Line; but to a great many travelers the name came to include, in a generic sense, many of the other lines which the New Haven Railroad, proprietor of the Fall River during the last 45 years of its existence, operated through the waters of the Sound—New York to Providence, to New Bedford, to New London, to Hartford, to New Haven and to other cities.


The Fall River operation, then called the Bay State Steamboat Company, was launched in 1847, backed, among others, by members of the famous Borden family (otherwise celebrated for their sinewy if ill-tempered connection. Lizzie, the ax-wielding parenticide). Of course, other boats had preceded it on New England routes, for example the Firefly , which began running between Newport and Providence in 1817. Outraged by the smoky interloper, the masters of the sailing packets offered to carry passengers free it they couldn’t beat her. After President Monroe rejected a proffered ride up the Sound on the Firefly she soon went out of business.

Steam came to stay in 1822 when the previously mentioned Fulton and the Connecticut , bigger ships, with gleaming copper boilers, began a regular summer service to Providence. Presently there were new boats and competing companies; the price of the trip dropped from $10 to $5 in a rate war ; by 1828 one could go from Boston to New York, first by stagecoach to Providence and thence by the “fast” Benjamin Franklin in a total of twenty hours and fifteen minutes—a trip that might have consumed a week and about $100 a decade before.


In 1835 Commodore Vanderbilt put a boat on the Sound that was accounted magnificent in her time, the Lexington , 205 feet long, commanded by his brother. She made it to Providence at sixteen miles an hour, to connect with the steam cars which had just reached that city from Boston, soon to drive the owner of the old Concord coaches into limbo. A few years later the Lexington became the first awful casualty of the Sound but Vanderbilt, before his interests shifted elsewhere, was a power in its broad waters. He ran boats to Bridgeport, to Sag Harbor and up the Connecticut River to Hartford, as well as along the Maine coast.

The steamboat proprietors competed fiercely in ratewars and lurid claims, but their greatest joy was racing their boats, government regulations to the contrary being happily ignored. One steamboat promoter. “Liveoak” George Law, a former day laborer, was so proud of his Oregon , then on the Stonington run, that he offered to race her against all comers. The C. Vanderbilt , another Stonington boat, modestly named for its owner, took up the challenge. The rival craft were stripped down for the race, their bottoms wiped clean. The wager was $1,000, but the real price was prestige.


As Ralph Nading Hill, steamboat enthusiast (and operator, on Lake Champlain, of one of the last two American sidewheelers), tells the story in his Sidewheeler Saga , Law even had his crew mop up the last bit of moisture from his bilges with sponges. And on a fine June morning in 1817 the race began at the Battery in New York, heading up a Hudson lined with cheering spectators. For thirty long miles they paddled bow to bow. Then, at the turning point near Ossining there was a mild collision, damaging the Oregon ’s wheelhouse but slowing her not at all. In the confusion, Vanderbilt interfered with his own pilot, and so many signal bells sounded in the engine room that the baffled engineer stopped his engine dead. By the time the error was retrieved. Law in his Oregon had a fine lead. But a crisis was soon upon him: in trying to save weight hehad failed to carry enough coal and just south of Yonkers, the bunkers gave out entirely. In desperation Law sent his crew after loose benches and chairs and, after they were exhausted, the berths, the doors and even the wainscoting. Black wood smoke poured from her and she lurched forward again. Vanderbilt was gaining but the finish line was too close for him to close the gap.

The Fall River Line’s first boat was the steamer Bay State , 300 feet long and forty wide, lit by oil lamps at night. Her cuisine attained considerable renown, at fifty cents for the grand table d’hôte dinner, served at long candlelit tables: ceremoniously the Captain and his guests were seated first, for these were no ferry boats and they affected the grand manner of the transatlantic trade. Very soon the Bay State encountered Law’s cocky Oregon , with her proud owner aboard, and not only bested her in a race up the Sound but even triumphantly crossed the loser’s bow, so that there should be no misunderstanding about who had won. The line was so profitable that two new boats, the Empire State and the Metropolis , could be bought out of profits in a few years. This seemed too good to betrue, and Wall Street men listened and moved in to begin a series of major financial mergers and shufflings which lasted over many years.

Only one financier made his personal impression on the Fall River Line, but that made up for all the others. He was Jim Fisk, not so long before a peddler of notions in Vermont, later the owner of everything from railroads to judges. Representing a group of Boston capitalists, he had outsmarted Daniel Drew into selling out his rival steamboat interest, no small achievement in itself, and this made him a power, the president of a great steamboat line. It was 1869, expansion was in the air, the line’s business was booming. Fisk found himself the master of the then outstanding Bristol and Providence , great walking-beam steamers of nearly 3,1100 tons, able to carry over 800 passengers each in luxury unparalleled for the time. Fisk filled them with thick carpets and line fixtures. Hands were employed to serenade the customers and into each of the two ships went 250 canaries in cages, each of them personally named by Fisk, a man of elephantine and often childish humors. His vanity was prodigious, but he could lie soft-hearted, bestowing free trips on strangers who caught his eye, granting pensions to oldtimers in a day when this kind of paternalism was a rarity.


“If Vanderbilt’s a Commodore, I can be an Admiral!” he once exclaimed, and bought himself a gaudy Admiral’s uniform. Leaving Mrs. Fisk to dwell in luxurious embarrassment in his house at Boston, he lived openly with his mistress, Josie Mansfield, in New York, buying her a female version of his Admiral’s suit so that the frolicsome pair might board the Bristol or Providence , to stroll arm-in-arm through the gaping crowds, greeting friends and issuing loud orders until the ship had passed around the Battery and they could be taken off in a pilot boat.

After Fisk’s death, when his rival for Josie’s affections shot him on the stairs of the Grand Central Hotel one day in 1872, the line changed its name again, to the Old Colony Steamboat Company, which was under railroad control. Later it was absorbed, along with the Old Colony Railroad, by the New Haven in the 1890’s. Competition was brisk, principally from the Stonington Line, which took to calling itself “Old Reliable,” only to run two of its best ships aground one after the other, and then to have two others, the sister ships Narragansett and Stonington , collide off Cornfield Point, near Saybrook, Connecticut, with a loss of 27 lives. Presently this line too was swallowed up in the Morgan mergers.

Meanwhile, the waters of Long Island Sound were witnessing what seemed like fresh miracles almost every year. In 1881 the Norwich Line launched the first large iron steamer to travel the Sound, the City of Worcester ; she had the first electric lights—and had them nine years before the White House. When the Fall River Line brought out its own great iron double-hulled ship, the Pilgrim , two years later, the company’s blurb writers were carried away. She slept 1,200 persons. Her paddle wheels “feathered.” She was “unsinkable.” “She is lighted with 1,000 incandescent electric lights, aggregating 12,000 candles, and Mr. Edison has exhausted his inventive faculties in fitting up this magnificent vessel.”


Presently other pleasure domes taxed the descriptivepowers of the writers even further—the “artistic as well as seaworthy” Puritan , first to hide its walking-beam, which weighed 46 tons, under a special covering. (Why hide such a handsome piece of machinery? Remember, the age also put skirts on table legs.) She was done “in the style of the Italian Renaissance.” Then there was a new Providence , in “French Renaissance,” and the massive Commonwealth , largest of the Sound steamers ever built, which capped the climax by being decorated in no less than seven different architectural styles. Fortunately, for those oppressed by the ever-changing and rambunctious décor , there were the windows in the dining saloon, the largest ones ever installed, and beyond them the calm waters of the Sound, the lighted towns and headlands, the winking lightships and occasional thrill of a passing steamer or a schooner heeling over under sail.

The officers of the line, who often drew on several generations of the same family, were proudest of the safety record. There were accidents now and thengroundings, collisions, anxious moments and heroic ones: once the Priscilla and the Commonwealth rescued the entire passenger list of a sinking competitor, the brand-new Boston of the Eastern Steamship Lines; again, in a heavy fog in 1912, the Commonwealth rammed and, to the nation’s amusement, badly dented the new armored dreadnaught New Hampshire —but the record stood: only one passenger lost in ninety years.

Many factors contributed to the final demise of the Sound steamers. The opening of the Cape Cod Canal, for one, brought new competition from the Eastern Steamship “all-water-route” boats (although they and other independents have vanished now, too). The growth of through rail service at low prices made a further cut. The private automobile caused the deepest inroads of all. As the 1929 Depression wore on, line after line disappeared until at length only the Fall River route remained of all the once far-flung New Haven Railroad steamboat network. The boats often ran with a bare handful of passengers.

Then, one day early in 1937, when business was picking up again but the ferment of early New Deal labor disputes was on, unheard-of events transpired at the piers of the old Fall River Line. The Commonwealth and the Pricilla , each making ready to get under way at opposite ends of the route, were suddenly hit by sitdown strikes just as the cry went up: “All ashore that’s going ashore!” No cajolery, no threats would avail. Special trains were assembled hastily to carry the disgruntled passengers. For a few days the crews remained aboard, eating the supplies until even the cornflakes were gone. Then the management, with equally dramatic suddenness, seized its opportunity. Company spokesmen went to the ships and read an announcement: the Fall River Line was finished, forever. No one could believe it at first, sailor or traveler, but it was true, and the famous old floating palaces were ignominiously towed away, to Providence first and finally to the ship breakers. They fetched, the four surviving ships, a mere $88,000, a miserable sum when matched against an investment of some $6,000,000 and a tradition on which it is more difficult to place a valuation.

But it was not really the strikers that did it, however ill-timed their action. Nor was it the Depression. It was Gresham’s disagreeable law, for which the blurb writers of our own time, however, have another name. Their word for it, interestingly enough, is Progress.


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