- Historic Sites
The Old Fall River Line
Everyone from presidents to swindlers sailed the Sound on “Mammoth Palace Steamers” in the heyday of the sidewheelers
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
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. “A very violent and impetuous current,” Washington Irving called it, “boiling in whirlpools: raging and roaring in rapids and breakers: and, in short, indulging in all kinds of wrong-headed paroxysms.” Slowly the primitive sidewheeler, her decks piled high with cordwood. made her way through the jagged reels and entered the broad Sound, reaching New Haven after a journey of eleven hours. Apologizing for the slow time, the engineer told the press that one got pretty poor wood—no resin in it to make a hot fire—in New York at the beginning of spring. It was March, 1815, the year of Waterloo.
Thus, if one excludes a few early experiments, steam navigation began in earnest on this remarkable protected waterway; the Fulton was soon plying to New London and Providence, first of a great fleet which would dominate the commerce and travel of New England for over a century to come. Big paddle steamers, gleaming white, ornamental and luxurious, linked the growing cities, touched all the islands and reached up the long tidal rivers, carrying what Ward McAllister called “The Four Hundred” and what O. Henry called “The Four Million.” Even though the fare once sank to as little as fifty cents (from New York to Providence, including berth and two meals on board), the lines paid handsomely; stockholders in one of them received six per cent, monthly . Nineteenth Century steamboat men looked down on the railroads as mere “feeders,” and even alter through trains ran rapidly along the shore from Boston to New York they maintained, for some time, preëminence with travelers. Old Commodore Vanderbilt and Daniel Drew struggled for power on the Sound before they began to battle for greater prizes among the railroads; its waters were controlled in turn by Jim Fisk and J. P. Morgan the Elder, who eventually brought almost all the various steamboat lines under control of his New Haven Railroad.
Meanwhile, like the dinosaur, the Sound steamer itself waxed to its greatest size and most majestic appearance just before its extinction, victim of a kind of cruel variation in Gresham’s well-known law. For, as dear money is driven out of circulation by cheap money, some similar economic imperative requires the elegant in transportation to yield to the efficient (or, at least, the cheap), the dramatic to the drab. Thus the whining Diesel replaces the thundering steam locomotive and the stifling bus the open trolley; so the iron freighter, stamped out by Henry J. Kaiser, a landsman, sails the seas in the place of the tall clipper of Donald McKay. And now the sidewheel steamboat, which reached some sort of apogee in the powerful Priscilla , sometime flagship of the Fall River Line, has almost entirely vanished from American waterways. Priscilla , launched in 1893, her 440 feet all steel, capable of 21 miles per hour, was accounted the most graceful even after the bigger Commonwealth was built in 1908. Roger William McAdam, leading historian of the line, has devoted a frankly emotional book to this one boat. But a generation has grown up since the line stopped operating in 1937, a generation which never strolled the deep-carpeted saloon and decks, eyeing the drummers and men of property and occasional flashy women (could that be one ? the youthful voyager wondered in a slight tingle of worldliness), and never awoke to peer through the porthole at Hell Gate Bridge and take a hearty breakfast while the “mammoth palace steamer” steamed round the Battery and swung into her Hudson River berth.
Of all the fleets that plied the Sound, there was never any quite like the Fall River Line. Songs were written about it. Nearly all the presidents and most of the great men and women of that long period traveled it—the famous boat train from Boston in the late afternoon, then off the cars and into the boat at the Fall River wharf, in time to dine in the line sea air while steaming down Narragansett Bay, past Newport, to head around treacherous Point Judith and thence westward through The Race into the Sound. A fine sleep and into New York in time for business in the morning: it was the recommended route.
Strictly speaking, this was the Fall River Line; but to a great many travelers the name came to include, in a generic sense, many of the other lines which the New Haven Railroad, proprietor of the Fall River during the last 45 years of its existence, operated through the waters of the Sound—New York to Providence, to New Bedford, to New London, to Hartford, to New Haven and to other cities.