- 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
The Fall River operation, then called the Bay State Steamboat Company, was launched in 1847, backed, among others, by members of the famous Borden family (otherwise celebrated for their sinewy if ill-tempered connection. Lizzie, the ax-wielding parenticide). Of course, other boats had preceded it on New England routes, for example the Firefly , which began running between Newport and Providence in 1817. Outraged by the smoky interloper, the masters of the sailing packets offered to carry passengers free it they couldn’t beat her. After President Monroe rejected a proffered ride up the Sound on the Firefly she soon went out of business.
Steam came to stay in 1822 when the previously mentioned Fulton and the Connecticut , bigger ships, with gleaming copper boilers, began a regular summer service to Providence. Presently there were new boats and competing companies; the price of the trip dropped from $10 to $5 in a rate war ; by 1828 one could go from Boston to New York, first by stagecoach to Providence and thence by the “fast” Benjamin Franklin in a total of twenty hours and fifteen minutes—a trip that might have consumed a week and about $100 a decade before.
In 1835 Commodore Vanderbilt put a boat on the Sound that was accounted magnificent in her time, the Lexington , 205 feet long, commanded by his brother. She made it to Providence at sixteen miles an hour, to connect with the steam cars which had just reached that city from Boston, soon to drive the owner of the old Concord coaches into limbo. A few years later the Lexington became the first awful casualty of the Sound but Vanderbilt, before his interests shifted elsewhere, was a power in its broad waters. He ran boats to Bridgeport, to Sag Harbor and up the Connecticut River to Hartford, as well as along the Maine coast.
The steamboat proprietors competed fiercely in ratewars and lurid claims, but their greatest joy was racing their boats, government regulations to the contrary being happily ignored. One steamboat promoter. “Liveoak” George Law, a former day laborer, was so proud of his Oregon , then on the Stonington run, that he offered to race her against all comers. The C. Vanderbilt , another Stonington boat, modestly named for its owner, took up the challenge. The rival craft were stripped down for the race, their bottoms wiped clean. The wager was $1,000, but the real price was prestige.
As Ralph Nading Hill, steamboat enthusiast (and operator, on Lake Champlain, of one of the last two American sidewheelers), tells the story in his Sidewheeler Saga , Law even had his crew mop up the last bit of moisture from his bilges with sponges. And on a fine June morning in 1817 the race began at the Battery in New York, heading up a Hudson lined with cheering spectators. For thirty long miles they paddled bow to bow. Then, at the turning point near Ossining there was a mild collision, damaging the Oregon ’s wheelhouse but slowing her not at all. In the confusion, Vanderbilt interfered with his own pilot, and so many signal bells sounded in the engine room that the baffled engineer stopped his engine dead. By the time the error was retrieved. Law in his Oregon had a fine lead. But a crisis was soon upon him: in trying to save weight hehad failed to carry enough coal and just south of Yonkers, the bunkers gave out entirely. In desperation Law sent his crew after loose benches and chairs and, after they were exhausted, the berths, the doors and even the wainscoting. Black wood smoke poured from her and she lurched forward again. Vanderbilt was gaining but the finish line was too close for him to close the gap.
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.