Home > ALL POSTS > Cruise History: The Old Fall River Line – Everyone from presidents to swindlers sailed the Sound on “Mammoth Palace Steamers” in the heyday of the sidewheelers operating from New York City to Boston via Fall River.

Cruise History: The Old Fall River Line – Everyone from presidents to swindlers sailed the Sound on “Mammoth Palace Steamers” in the heyday of the sidewheelers operating from New York City to Boston via Fall River.


The Fall River Line was popularized by this famous song.  A romantic and engaging way to travel between New York and Boston. 

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. “


The Fall River Line’s PRISCILLA. 

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.


The Fall River Line COMMONWEALTH.

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 old timers in a day when this kind of paternalism was a rarity.


October 27, 1929 Fall River Line Schedule – From the Official Railway Guide.

“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.


Passengers dancing on deck. 

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.


The elegant main lounge on the COMMONWEALTH. 

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.


The fashionable way to travel between New York and Boston.

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.”

pra1902_2.jpgPresently 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.

prapl122090889_2_2_2_2.jpgMany 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.


The Fall River Line’s last folder – 1937.  

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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