- 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
Many 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. 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.