Floating Palaces

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This wonderfully entertaining account of the most remarkable of all coastal steamboat lines was first published in 1937, the year in which the line, then 91, suddenly stopped running. Now Mr. McAdam, unofficial historian of the Fall River Line, has revised and enlarged the rare early edition. There are many more pictures and the narrative has been brought down to the present, all with charm and authority. The story of other Long Island Sound operations is included, together with the eventual fate of all the old floating palaces themselves. Some puffed on a few more years in other waters, others went with unseemly haste to the scrap yards (lest the courts change their minds and order resumption of service), a few perished gloriously in World War II.

No tale is more astonishing, certainly, than that of the “honeymoon convoy,” eight old coastal steamers lend-leased to Britain and intercepted by a wolf pack of U-boats on their way to the British Isles. The former Eastern Steamship liners Boston and New York went down, while an old Martha’s Vineyard steamer, the New Bedford , picked up survivors. Afterward Dr. Goebbels paid them the greatest compliment of their lives by announcing over the radio that Nazi torpedoes had sunk “three superliners of the Queen Mary class.”

Priscilla, Commonwealth, Plymouth, Providence —readers will recall a color portfolio of them in the December, 1954, issue of this magazine—were indeed queens of their kind. Big, fast and sumptuous, they and their sisters provided for generations the preferred means of travel between New York and lower New England. Rail and automobile competition at length made their inroads, but the lines were still popular when a sit-down strike halted the enormous Commonwealth one June night in 1937 just as the whistle was blowing and the stewards were calling “All ashore that’s going ashore.” The 900 disappointed passengers who grumpily climbed off had unwittingly seen the end, for the railroad which owned the line leaped at this union-made opportunity to end the service. From the sweaty vantage point of 1955, the traveler fighting for a seat on the railroad diner (when there is one) or inching his way down the clogged and steaming “parkway” may well think back nostalgically to the old Sound steamers and all the sights of the blue water slipping by as one sat, unhurried, dining by the window. If it were running today, the Fall River Line would be making a fortune.

The Old Fall River Line , by Roger Williams McAdam. 288 pp. The Stephen Daye Press. $5.

Oliver Jensen