Fall River Line luxury steamers linked to Newport’s Golden Age
FALL RIVER — The Ritz Carlton. The place. The four Seasons. Autumn river.
Not so long ago, the name of this city carried the same weight of grandeur and elegance. From 1847 to 1937, the Fall River Line’s steamboat service linked Manhattan and Boston, carrying the Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, Roosevelts, and several U.S. presidents in grand luxury aboard ships whose opulence rivaled the most beautiful hotels in the world.
“Some of the richest and most well-known people in the country passed through Fall River,” says journalist and author John Henry.
The Preservation Society of Newport County is hosting a Gilded Age Lecture Series at Rosecliff Mansion and via Zoom. Henry, an award-winning journalist with press day and the New York Daily News, will deliver an episode of the series on October 20, “Night Boats to Newport: Remembering the ‘Floating Palaces’ of the Illustrious Fall River Line.”
“If any steamboat company was worthy of the Golden Age,” says Henry, “it was the Fall River Line.”
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What is the Fall River Line and how did it start?
Steamship service between New York and Fall River began in 1847 by the Bay State Steamboat Co., founded by Richard Borden. He was born into an already prosperous family, but turned that into an even bigger success, building a small empire in town with the Fall River Iron Works, cotton and textile mills, gasworks, the Fall River Branch Railroad, and more.
Borden’s first ship, the Bay State, was a large sternwheeler built to quickly transport cargo and hundreds of passengers in style. The journey took place overnight, linking two of the country’s major urban centers at a time of rapid industrialization.
“It was really designed in its infancy as a service for business travelers,” says Henry. “They work a full day in Manhattan and leave at 5:30. [p.m.] and arrival at South Station in Boston around 8:30 a.m. [a.m.] ready for another business day. … It was the easiest, easiest way to head east. And you wasted no time.
It was also a huge success, leading the line of steamers to expand and then sell to new owners. Before long, what soon became known as the Fall River Line was the perfect way for the nation’s elite to travel. It was fast, reliable, comfortable, glamorous and high-tech for its time.
Night trains between the two cities existed, but trains in the area were not as comfortable. They didn’t even have electric lights in the sleeping compartments until 1910. “One of the Fall River Line steamers had it in 1883,” Henry says.
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The Fall River Line at its peak
In the late 1800s and just after the turn of the 20th century, the steamers of the Fall River Line – Priscilla, Plymouth, Providence and Commonwealth – were the pinnacle of luxury, the largest steamers in the world.
“The largest and last of the ships, built in 1908, had a dining room on the upper deck 50 feet above the water with French doors, which provided excellent visibility,” says Henry. “It was made in the Louis XVI style. This would have been the finest hotel of the Edwardian era.
Each leg of the journey was meant to house hundreds of travelers sailing through the night in unfathomable style. The ships featured libraries, writing rooms, barbershops and barbershops, telephone service in every room, live music with bands playing marches and classical music, a galley that would have been found in the best restaurants, served on linen with sparkling silver – porterhouse steaks, faux turtle soup, roast spring lamb, oysters, ice cream, a wine list with over 100 varieties. The line had its own publication—like in-flight magazines today—called the Fall River Line Journal, filled with jokes, light news snippets, and advertisements for luxury hotels and theaters. In a particularly lavish move, company president Jim Fisk “had 250 canaries put in cages aboard the two most luxurious,” says Henry, “and he reportedly personally named each of the canaries.”
“The vast majority of rooms didn’t have a view of the water, so they would have been a bit stuffy,” Henry says. “But the public spaces were just beautiful.”
The overnight voyage from Manhattan crossed the sheltered waters of Long Island Sound, across the open waters of the Atlantic until it reached Point Judith, Rhode Island, then stopped at Newport, its first port layover, “at some kind of inconvenient hour of around 4 a.m.,” says Henri. “But if you were younger it wouldn’t have mattered – you would have partied all night.”
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The boats docked at Fall River, roughly where Battleship Cove sits today, around 5:30 a.m., where passengers heading to Boston skipped sleep and boarded a luxury train whose carriages -salons reflected the extravagance of the ships. The train journey took one hour and 20 minutes and ended at South Station.
“By the way, I checked that – today it would take another 20 minutes if you used public transport,” Henry says. “You would take a bus to Providence and then the Acela if you were really in a hurry.”
The trip in reverse, from Boston to New York, was even “more civilized, because you didn’t have to make that awkward transition at 5:30 a.m. on a boat train,” says Henry. The passengers left Boston at 6 p.m. and spent their evening gliding along Mount Hope Bay, arriving in Newport around 8:30 p.m. They crossed Long Island Sound by moonlight and woke up in Manhattan the next morning.
Even luxury ocean liners carried freight – raw cotton from New York to the Fall River mills, and finished fabric and yarn in New York, making the line the heart of the city.
How Fall River’s Golden Age Ended
But the Golden Age could not last forever. The wheels of progress kept turning, and by the early 1900s the Fall River Line was being challenged by faster ships, those where passengers did not need to stop at Fall River to catch a train. the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1916 made competitors’ trips even faster, says Henry. As the Fall River cotton mills ran into financial difficulties and moved south, freight business also dried up. And the line would be challenged by the mode of transport destined to dominate the rest of the 20th century: the car.
In 1937, a sit-down strike by Fall River Line employees ended when the owners simply decided to close the service. The parent company, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, “was bankrupt and looking to shut down the line, and that was the perfect excuse,” Henry says.
Fall River residents who had been used to the line running like clockwork for nearly a century were stunned. The good times were over. A freighter, the City of Taunton, was scuttled on the Somerset side of the River Taunton, where her remains can still be seen at low tide. The floating palaces that once housed the cream of American high society have been sold for scrap.
“The last of these ships, these beautiful ships, was built at a total cost of $6 million. The junkyard bought them for $88,000,” says Henry. “Just amazing.”
“A great experience”
The Maritime Museum at Battleship Cove houses memorabilia from the Fall River Line – uniforms, stationery, keys, a beautifully carved starting post of a staircase on the Priscilla. While browsing the exhibits, Henry admires all that has survived and marvels at a giant model of one of the Fall River Line’s ships, joking that if it were to go missing, “you’ll know where to find it.” .
Henry’s love of steamboats began as a child in Buffalo, New York, watching nighttime steamboats cross Lake Erie to Detroit. “It got me hooked,” he says. “In about five years, I asked my parents to take me one of these four times.”
Henry is also the author of “Great White Fleet: Celebrating Canada Steamship Lines Passenger Ships”. His speech on the Fall River Line will include a special focus on its relationship with Newport and how the ships gave passengers a taste of that city’s sophistication and culture.
Aboard the Fall River Line, he says, “you really felt like you were going to have a great experience.”
Visit NewportMansions.org/Events to register for Henry’s talk. Tickets to attend the Rosecliff Ballroom in person are $15 for Preservation Society of Newport County members, $20 for non-members. To attend via Zoom, tickets are $10.
Dan Medeiros can be reached at [email protected] Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.