Local ferry expert discusses the glory days of transportation
Jamestown resident Archie Clarke gave a talk at the Jamestown Philomenian Library about the old ferryboats that used to run several trips a day to and from Conanicut Island. Over a span of almost 100 years, a decently sized fleet of ships ran from Newport to East Ferry, and Saunderstown to West Ferry, carrying hundreds of passengers a day.
The first people to light the torch were the Carr family, said Clarke at the Aug. 9 presentation. They ran sail ferries until 1873. The first official launch of a ferry was in May 1858. After others realized the inefficiency of sail ferries, Philip and Elizabeth Caswell bought the rights to the passage from Jamestown to Newport in May 1873 and ran the first steam ferry along this route. The ferry boasted five round-trips a day and Clarke quoted an old saying – “Build it and they will come” – to demonstrate the great turnout the company received during its more than 20-year run.
Stillman Saunders was the most well-known ferry proprietor. He employed a total of four boats in just five years. Clarke said he ran them well. “He had a hand for business and was always thinking.”
One of his ferries, the Newport, ran with an 800-horsepower steam engine, making it the swiftest ferry to ever run the waters. With Stillman’s company, this was also the first time a private company tried to run its own bus route from the ferries into the town of Jamestown, as to further capitalize on the people’s interests.
However, Stillman worried the town. He had trouble obtaining the proper licenses due to the fact that the two entities were in direct competition. In 1910, his health began to fail. A year later, the town bought all assets of his company, except for the Westside and the Newport. Later that year, Stillman died.
One of the most famous ferryboats was the Governor Carr. According to Clarke, it was built with the plans from a man named Hoss who had previously designed the boat for the town. In 1927, the taxpayers finally coerced the town into building the “monstrosity.” It was postponed due to short funding but eventually built in Quincy, Mass., for $75,000. The boat was such a disaster internally that one person referred to it as “a marine abortion.”
“It was probably the best passenger ferry because the people could walk all the way around and the cabins had steam radiators,” Clarke said. He added that the temperature could be in the single digits, and everyone inside would still be “toasty warm.” It traversed its routes quickly, as it had a 500-horsepower engine.
The worst disaster to befall the ferry system was the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. All of the ferryboats running at the time needed serious repairs after the storm, as did the docks and slips. The Governor Carr was caught up in the tumultuous ocean and went aground, its hull punched through. A new ferryboat had to be purchased in its place. Clarke said it was an arduous task locating and purchasing another boat in its stead. Service to and from the island was discontinued until May 20, 1939. The people of Jamestown went almost a year with no regular ferryboat.
Eventually the ferryboats of Jamestown were phased out as the bridges were built and could carry more cars in shorter amounts of time. According to Clarke, the ferries became antiquated in lieu of this more high-speed mode of transportation. The last ferry shuttle run was in 1969.
There are still ads and flyers for small ferry service across the passages, but never again will there be passenger boats like the massive ferries that regularly made the back-and-forth trek from island to island.
After the half-hour talk on the Jamestown ferries, Clarke took about an hour to also show photos of the ferryboats throughout the years, detailing the outsides and giving viewers an idea of their hulking size. Features such as searchlights and wheelhouses were showcased, and personal stories were told.
Prior to Clarke’s presentation, the Jamestown Historical Society held its annual business meeting. All four officers were re-elected: Linnean Petersen, Dianne Rugh and Rosemary Enright will all serve their third years at president, vice president and secretary, respectively. Tricia Evangelista will serve her sixth year as treasurer.
Board members whose terms expire next year are Dick Allphin (second term), John Horton and Larry McDonald (second term); members whose terms expire in 2014 are Judy Bell, Matt Clarke, Harry Wright and James Wright (second term); members whose terms expire in 2015 are Besty Moody, Heidi Keller Moon and Mary Heath (second term).