2013-02-21 / Front Page

Did you take the ferryboat to school in Newport?

BY TIM RIEL


This photo appeared in the Providence Journal on Nov. 23, 1953. The headline for the accompanying article was “High school students from Jamestown reach classes by ferry.” 
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY This photo appeared in the Providence Journal on Nov. 23, 1953. The headline for the accompanying article was “High school students from Jamestown reach classes by ferry.” PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY New project will focus on days before Pell Bridge

Needing change for a 50-cent piece, Johnny Cash wandered onto the second floor of the ferryboat that had just left East Ferry for Aquidneck Island. It was 1964 and Cash was scheduled to play at the Newport Folk Festival. The cigarette machine on the ferry didn’t take 50-cent pieces, and Cash needed a pack of smokes.

The singer-songwriter was a celebrity at the time, having already recorded the “I Walk the Line” album that went gold and reached No. 1 in the charts. When the iconic country star walked up to Debbie Swistak and her friend, they were starstuck.

“He came upstairs to where the passengers sat,” Swistak recalls. “He needed change to get a pack of cigarettes for the machine. He walked right up to my friend and asked her if she could break a 50- cent piece.”

Fortunately, Swistak’s friend had change for Johnny. Cash gave her the 50-cent piece, she gave him change for it, and the girl put the coin in her pocket. She was going to save it forever.

“The coin had red nail polish on it, so it was easy to identify,” said Swistak. “She was going to show it to everyone. She was so thrilled.”

On the ferry ride back following the concert, still bewildered that she had a coin in her pocket that once belonged to Johnny Cash, Swistak’s friend dug in her pocket to get another glimpse of her new keepsake.

It wasn’t there. That’s when Swistak and her friend realized that they had unintentionally used the wrong coin to pay for their ride back to Jamestown. The Man in Black’s coin now belonged to the ferry owners.

When Swistak was a teenager, her options were limited as to how she would get to school. With no high school in Jamestown, and no bridge yet spanning the East Passage, bus, car and foot were out of the question. So like all high school students prior to 1969, Swistak’s daily arrival to Newport was via ferryboat.

It’s stories like Swistak’s that led Bob Sutton to organize a group of Jamestowners who wanted to know similar tales. For islanders who graduated in 1969 – the fi- nal year the ferry was the official transportation to high school – they would be about 62 years old today. For those who graduated earlier than that, they are well into their 70s and 80s. Sutton realizes that time is running out.

That’s why Sutton is spearheading a Conanicut Grange project based on the Jamestown residents who attended high school pre-Pell Bridge. He hopes to interview each living person old enough to have ridden the ferry to school.

“Because it was so long ago, if we wait much longer, a lot of the people who rode the ferry to school won’t be around,” said Sutton. “In another 15 or 20 years, this project won’t even be possible.”

The goal of the Conanicut Grange project is to create an oral history of those days, from the mouths of the ferry students themselves. He wants to make a collection of these unique stories, which he says are quickly disappearing. Sutton hopes to collaborate with the library and the historical society, and following the recorded interviews, a database will be organized chronologically with all the interviews that were conducted.

Helping Sutton on the project are three people connected to the Jamestown Press – Jeff Mc- Donough, Ken Shane and Sam Bari – as well as local author John Enright.

The second part of the project will be a video documentary – similar to a Ken Burns film – that will focus on the top stories weeded out from what Sutton hopes will be hours and hours of interviews.

Sutton says that he hopes everyone that rode the ferry to high school can participate in the project. Interviews will take place on the second floor of the Conanicut Grange on West Street – the same building that houses the senior center.

“It’s a perfect place because there is a lot of space and it’s handicapped accessible,” said Sutton. “But if someone wants to tell their story and can’t get to the building for health reasons, we will come to them. We want everyone. Even people out of town – they can call or email. These days there are a 100 ways to get the message to us.”

The interviews will be straightforward, and the group has already drafted a list of questions. Along with biographical information (Address? Parents? What school?), interviewees will have a chance to discuss what it was like in the middle of winter to ride the ferry? Did you develop new friendships across the bay? Were you involved in after-school sports? If so, how did you get home afterwards if the ferry was already gone? Was it scary being alone? Did you enjoy it?

“I’ve already talked to some people, and they have such neat stories,” said Sutton. “Imagine spending your whole life on this little island, then all of a sudden you’re in the ninth grade and alone on a ferry to Newport? You get dropped off on the dock, and your parents are on another island. It’s really unique.”

Sutton said each interviewee will be encouraged to tell a short story or memory of their days riding the ferry to school. He’s also hoping people will come forward with photos that he will use in the documentary, as well as talk to people who worked on the ferry.

“I’d love to find some original photos of kids on prom night waiting for the ferry, or kids on the boat on the first day of school,” said Sutton.

The group has no idea how long the project will take. It also doesn’t know how many people will want to be involved in the interview process, although Sutton is optimistic. He says he has a feeling that the days of ferrying to high school is a subject that people will want to talk about.

“Before everyone from those days leaves the Earth, it’d be great to let them sit down and reflect,” Sutton said. “To have it archived at the library so those days will always be remembered would be a great thing. They are all mature people now, and I’m sure looking back they probably think it was a lot of fun. Everybody I’ve talked to about the subject thinks about that time favorably. They say it was a positive time in their life. A memorable time. We hope they want to share it with us.”

Did you ride ferry to get to high school?

If so, the Conanicut Grange would like to hear your story. Set up an interview appointment by calling 423-3200 between 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on one of the next two Mondays or Tuesdays. Questions can be emailed to news@jamestownpress.com.

We look forward to hearing from you!

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