Jamestown Historical Society 100 years: Steam ferries at last
John Fitch constructed steamboats capable of plying inland waterways as early as 1785. His original design used a bank of oars on each side of the boat to propel it through the water. Robert Fulton’s Clermont steamed from New York City to Albany in 1807, averaging about 5 mph. Steam ferries regularly ran up and down Narragansett Bay from Providence to Newport and on to New York City starting in 1822, and the fabled Fall River Line’s floating hotels joined the bay traffic in 1847.
Why then was Jamestown still connected to the outside world by unreliable sail ferries in 1870? Mainly inertia.
According to an “old resident” writing in the Newport Daily News in 1902, “The [sail] ferry had been run largely for the benefit of the islanders, and was regarded as a sort of family or neighborhood arrangement,” and not as a for-profit business. When an “immigrant from up the bay” bought the sail ferry in 1871, his new payment and sailing schedules forced the local farmers and the entrepreneurs who were beginning to realize the tourist potential of the island to rethink the advantages of steam technology.
The “immigrant from up the bay” was actually a Jamestowner – William Hazard Knowles – who had been born in Jamestown in 1819 and married Ann Elizabeth Clarke here in 1847. He had left the island in the 1860s and, for a while, he worked in Newport and farmed on Prudence Island.
When he returned, Knowles seems to have had two things in mind. The first was to make the ferry a paying proposition. In March 1871, he paid Philip Caswell $9,000 for the ferry franchise and a “ferry house together with the wharves, ferryboat and all the tackling and appurtenances, also one certain lot of land, [where on] said ferry house together with another small dwelling house and other out-buildings are standing containing two acres and one quarter of an acre.”
He immediately raised the rates on the ferry. As an “old resident” explained, “It was evident that there was no way of getting on or off the island except to swim, use a private boat, or accept his terms.”
Jamestown residents found a fourth way. In the spring of 1872, the citizens of Jamestown formed the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company and, to ensure that the new ferry’s rates would be acceptable, the voters agreed to have the town buy 60 percent of the stock in the new company. The steam ferry Jamestown was put in service of the Newport-Jamestown route in 1873, driving the sail ferry out of business.
William Knowles exited the sail-ferry business quietly and turned his attention to what may have been his reason for forcing the steam ferry on the town.
In the late 19th century, doctors preached the health benefits of fresh air, good nutrition and a relaxed environment. Conanicut Island was an ideal spot. Its sea breezes brought comfort in the summer heat, and its beauties included peaceful pastures and panoramic views of Narragansett Bay. Food came from the island’s farms. Before 1872, Jamestowners responded to the island’s growing popularity with “ferry houses” (inns run by the ferry company, usually at the ferry landing) for transients and boarding houses for longer-term visitors.
Knowles realized that the combination of a regular, planned ferry service, and the beauties of the island, would bring a new class of visitor to the island – visitors used to a more sophisticated lifestyle than Jamestown offered. Before his sail-ferry business collapsed, he built the Bay View Hotel.
The original Bay View Hotel stood on Narragansett Avenue west of the Ellery Ferry House, which occupied the northwest corner of Narragansett and Conanicus avenues. The new hotel gave visitors the opportunity to stay at a formal service-oriented establishment for either long or short visits. Knowles also opened a general store in the hotel. He later moved the store to his house, Shore Cottage, on the east side of Conanicus
Avenue across from the Ellery Ferry House.
For 10 years, the Bay View remained the only hotel in the village. Its success generated imitators. In 1883, Capt. Stephen C. Gardner and his wife, who had run a boarding house at Grove Cottage further west on Narragansett Avenue, built Gardner House across from the ferry wharf.
The hotel business grew rapidly. At the end of the decade, the hotels and boarding houses in the village could accommodate over 1,000 visitors.
By 1889, when William’s son Adolphus Knowles built the familiar five-story Bay View House tower on the site of the old Ellery Ferry House, and moved the ferry house around the corner to Knowles Court to house his employees, William had retired from active participation in the business. He died May 14, 1906. He was 86 years old.
This is the 14th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.