Islander recalls his life aboard the island ferryboats
Archie Clarke recalls, in vivid detail, the first time he stood alone in a ferryboat wheelhouse. He was 11 years old, it was 1961, and quartermaster Tom Carr took him up to the wheelhouse of the Jamestown, where Clarke was introduced to Captain Clay Evans.
They crossed the bay and once the boat arrived at the Market Square slip on the Newport side, Evans said, “Well son, I’m going to go downstairs. You can stay up here if you want, just don’t touch anything.”
“Oh, I won’t Captain Evans.”
“And there I am,” Clarke said, “up there in the wheelhouse window. Boy I though I was king of the world.”
Standing in the newly redesigned ferry exhibit in the Jamestown Museum, Clarke appeared delighted. “It’s great to have a permanent exhibit like this, it’s exceptional,” he said. “The ferries were such an important part of the town.”
The permanent ferry exhibit has returned for the first time since it was cleared out in 2006 for renovation of the museum. Clarke said that he was hoping that it would be re-established.
Among the items in the refreshed exhibit are photographs given to the museum by Clarke who is a self-described ferryboat buff. Perhaps more expert than buff, Clarke pointed to an exhibit picture – a wheelhouse off the Hammonton – one of Clarke’s prized possessions in his extensive collection. He pointed to a photograph of Bill Pemantel, the captain of the Hammonton, and explained that Permantel was instrumental in providing Clarke with the detail necessary to accurately restore the Hammonton’s wheelhouse.
The Hammonton was built in 1906 and ran between Jamestown and Saunderstown from 1930 to 1940. After the Jamestown Bridge was opened, the Hammonton ran on the east side of the bay until 1958. The wheelhouse was carefully restored by Clarke after it was spared in 1974 from a life as a garden shed in Johnston. The gilded lantern and the nameplate were surprisingly intact and the ship’s wheel was re-discovered at the bottom of a pile of steel cable in a salvage yard.
“I always had a love for the ferries,” Clarke said. “I just loved the boats. I guess I could say that I practically lived on those boats especially the last two, the Jamestown and Newport.”
Clarke described the “big day” in 1958 when the new boats arrived in Jamestown following a seven-year stint on the run between Norfolk, Va., and Hampton Roads, Va. The Jamestown and the Newport were much larger than previous ferries and he recalls ferryboat employees questioning the state’s wisdom in buying such big boats.
He added, “Two years later they were leaving cars on the dock because of an increase in traffic.”
With a clarity of memory that belies the intervening years, Clarke described his childhood routine from a 10-year-old boy’s perspective: “I’d come home from school, we used to cut through where the Portuguese club is now, go in the back door of the post office, and tell my mother that I was going to go home and change and go ride the boats.” His mother worked at the post office for 38 years.
Perhaps adventuresome by today’s standards, Clarke was just as likely to find family at the East Ferry landing or on the boats as he would at the post office or his father’s shop, Marina and Ship Appliances. His maternal grandmother, Bessie Chesebro, was a ferry purserette, responsible for managing the fares. His cousin, William E. Clarke Jr., was an engineer.
While exploring the new exhibit, Clarke came across Chesebro’s identification card, among the smaller items. As Jamestown Historical Society Collections Chairwoman Sue Maden explained, the exhibit features more archival material than the original, which was first on display in 1981. “The exhibit is a work in progress,” she said.
She added that it will grow beyond the 86 items currently on display. Among the smaller, ferry related documents and smaller items, now in the exhibit are a purser’s book of passes, paper ferry schedules and a multitude of photographs. The detailed exhibit also includes ferry hardware, such as doorknobs, gauges and signs. A portion of the exhibit space is also dedicated to the ferries pilothouses and their captains.
Clarke shared high praise for summer Jamestowner Roland Parent, a ferryboat aficionado himself, who has been instrumental in repairing, hanging, securing, arranging and displaying the items. Parent also had a hand in repairing some of the 12 ferryboat models on display. Clarke said that Parent’s model of the Governor Carr is the best that he has ever seen.
Models have never been a signifi cant part of Clarke’s collection. It’s full of life-sized reminders of the ferries complemented by his remarkable memory, which permits him to feel the railing in his hand as though he were on the way up the steps to the wheelhouse. As time passed, a young Clarke continued to spend as much time as possible on the ferries, and as the 11-year-old boy became a teenager, he continued riding with Evans and Quartermaster
Eventually Evans allowed Clarke to take the ship’s wheel. In fact, for a four-year period in his mid-to-late teens, Clarke handled either the Newport or the Jamestown two or three times per week, enough to develop a preference. “I liked the Jamestown better,” he said. “They were sister ferries but I always thought the Jamestown was faster and actually I liked the way it steered a little bit [more].”
He continued, “When you steered the Newport it seemed it just took off a little bit.”
The end came abruptly. The Jamestown arrived at 12:20 p.m., and 20 minutes later the Newport Bridge opened for traffic for the first time on June 28, 1969.
Prevented by legislation from ferrying cars and pedestrians to and from Newport after noon on that day, the ferry company offered three cruises on the bay in its final day of operation.
Of course, the final day was a sad one for Clarke, but his own collection and the museum’s revitalized ferry exhibit helps to keep his ferryboat memories vibrant and alive.
The Jamestown Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. until Sept. 5.