- 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
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 oldtimers in a day when this kind of paternalism was a rarity.
“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.
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. 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.
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.”
Presently 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.