America’s famed night boats on the East Coast regularly sailed between New York and New England for nearly a century, from 1847 until 1937, with Boston being the primary destination except for the summer season, from June to September, when Maine’s coastal resorts, such as exclusive Bar Harbor, rivaled as preferred ports of call.
The Old Fall River Line was the premier operation and operated the most famous night boats on which four generations of New Yorkers traveled between New York and Boston.
Their big paddle steamers, gleaming white, ornamental and luxurious, linking the growing cities, touching all the Islands and reaching up to the long tidal rivers, carrying what Ward McAllister, the self-appointed social arbiter, called “The Four Hundred” by declaring that there were “only 400 people in fashionable New York Society.”
No steamship service under the American flag, not excluding the North Atlantic liners, was more beloved by the traveling public or more greatly mourned when it was no more. A naval architect wrote, “The passenger steamers of the Fall River Line are absolutely the finest ships in the world for passenger service on inland waters. We may well be proud of the Fall River Line boats as creations distinctly American along with the elegance and service found in the greatest European hotels.”
Fall River Line ran the largest and most magnificent and most perfectly equipped vessels in the world for interior navigation. Lighted by electricity, steered by steam, enlivened by orchestral music, and provided with meals à la carte in the elegant dining salon gleaming with silver and white linen.
The palatial steamboats Priscilla and Commonwealth were the greatest of the Fall River Line fleet. It was claimed these ships that they could carry as many passengers and as much freight as the Lusitania and Mauretania on about one-sixth the displacement, and that their accommodations were, on the average, superior to those on all but the most luxurious North Atlantic liners. With over 300 first class staterooms, plus 15 parlor bedroom suites, a crew of 250 needed to operate the Priscilla and Commonwealth.
The ships interiors were heavily influenced by a variety of different styles, French and Italian, from neo-Byzantine and neo-Gothic to classicism. The main lounge was done in cream and gold in the period of Louis XVI. The Grand Saloon was Venetian-Gothic, with decorative panels and lunettes. The Empire Saloon was furnished in Honduran mahogany with gold ornamentation. The cafe featured Italian Renaissance. The main dining room’s windows provided spectacular vistas of sea and shore and were illuminated by indirect lighting set in three large domes in the ceiling. The owners could be excused for advertising them as “mammoth floating palace steamers.”
One of the most colorful periods of the line was when New York financier Jim Fiske secured control and built the first of its big modern floating palaces the Bristol and the Providence. They were the largest ships afloat except for the ill-fated Great Eastern. Fiske, a rival of Vanderbilt, announced that if Vanderbilt could be a commodore, he could be an admiral; and an admiral he became. Every night at sailing time he appeared at the ship’s gangway in New York, wearing an admiral’s uniform and remained aboard until the steamer was well underway in the East River when he was conveyed back to the pier in New York in a tug.
The Long Island Sound steamboats became firmly established with the public as the safe way for New Yorkers to go since they avoided the long, hazardous route around Cape Cod. Passengers preferred the fresh air of a sea voyage to crowded trains along with avoiding the added cost of an extra night in a hotel.
Inspired by the many honeymooners sailing onboard the night boats, popular songwriter Harry Von Tilzer composed “On The Old River Line.” A very popular hit during World War I, the song brought a good deal of national publicity to the steamboat company. It was a cheerful and up-tempo, typical of its time with a twist on marital bliss.
On the old Fall River Line
On the old Fall River Line I fell for Susie’s line of talk
And Susie fell for mine
Then we fell in with a parson
And he tied us tight as twine
But I wish ‘oh Lord’
I fell over board
On the old Fall River Line
Modern-day performers have included Steve Martin and Tiny Tim.
During the heavy travel days from late 1880 to World War I, the steamers transported 1,500 or more passengers each night, hundreds of bountiful dinners were served. The four-page menus included an extensive wine list.
The steamer’s pantry was copious — a passenger might desire Cape Cod Oysters: Half Shell, 35¢; Euchred Figs, 25¢; Mock Turtle Soup, 25¢; Roast Spring Lamb, 50¢; Sweet Breads Broiled with Bacon, 75¢; Porterhouse Steak for two, $1.50; English Plum Pudding, 25¢ … or well, you name it. There were 237 items on the à la carte dinner menu and a selection of over a hundred wines.
Sailing from New York, the Fall River boats paddled up the East River, in the early evenings of dusk; up to Hell Gate then down the Long Island sound; calling at Newport in the middle of the night and the morning they creaked familiarly against the piling of the Fall River dock. Boston was just a boat-trains ride away with connections north to Maine’s major cities and resorts.
One could hardly ask for more except, perhaps a moon; and the Fall River line had that, too, as much as anyone. And it had sunsets that silhouetted Manhattan’s skyscrapers and dawns that burst triumphantly over the water.
Even though the fare once sank to as’ little as 50 cents (from New York to Providence, Providence, including berth and two meals on board), the lines paid stockholders handsomely.
19th-century steamboat men looked down on the railroads as mere “feeders,” and even after through trains ran rapidly along the shore from Boston to New York, the boats maintained, for some time, preeminence with travelers.
Presidents, as well as the common man, found joy aboard such magnificent steamboats as the Puritan, Priscilla, and Commodore, as did businessmen and professionals along with the “Nobs,” from old money and “Swells” of the nouveau riche.
Many would take their wives to celebrate a marital milestone or treat their secretaries for a trip to accomplish a little business in New York or Boston. An excellent tip to the ship’s purser would provide an adjoining cabin, all in the name of Yankee hanky-panky, with ship’s officers and personnel turning the other cheek, strict privacy was the rule.
Excited passengers who were destined for New York, would catch the famous boat train from Boston in the late afternoon, then step off the parlor cars and into the steamboat at the Fall River wharf, just in time to dine in the cool sea air while steaming down Narragansett. And after dinner, there would be dancing to the band’s quick rhythm of the latest tunes in the ballroom or perhaps a rubber of bridge or just relaxing with newfound friends in the lounges or verandas where a late supper was served.
Best of all, a deep sleep would follow in your cozy cabin with the tingling of sea air. Into the night, the steamer would call at Newport in the early morning hours, then head around treacherous Point Judith and then westward through the Race into the Long Island Sound.
In the morning, after being awakened early by a steward with coffee, you might take a glance out the porthole at the Hell Gate Bridge before heading down to the dining salon to enjoy a hearty breakfast. While the “mammoth palace steamer” steamed around the Battery and swung into her Hudson River berth and into New York in time for business, sightseeing or social engagements in the morning.
The Fall River Line, during its ninety years of service, was a major important employer for large numbers of black service workers, who filled the positions of waiters, cooks, bartenders, and porters, among others.
The hours were long and required spending time away from one’s family, but the pay was considered good for the time, especially for individuals employed in managerial capacities in the Steward Department, which oversaw the food, beverage, and housekeeping needs of the passengers and crew.
In Priscilla of Fall River, a historical novel depicting life aboard the steamboat Priscilla, first launched in 1894, the author described a boarding scene: “Scores of blue-uniformed, white-gloved, negro porters were lined up in an orderly array to assist the several hundred travelers with their baggage.”
The pages of the Fall River Line Journal regularly showed photographs of black crew members. Erick Taylor, a white native Newport, concurred with this impression of black-run steamers. He recalled: “A great industry for black people … in Newport was the New York boats. They were the pursers and the workers on the boats. They’d be all the carriers and porters and things like that. And they’d be the waiters in the dining room. The waiters were very well paid. In addition, to being waiters and being paid for that, they also were helping them load and do other things. The New York boats were frankly directed by black people. The captains and officers were always white people, but they [the blacks] would actually run the boat. They’d have hundreds of passengers on the boat and they had to feed and wash them, as it were.”
Following the great war, all of this endless press agentry ballyhoo and grandstanding about the good old days of steamboat’en from New York to New England, 1890 until 1914, refused to address the unwelcome facts that Fall River’s aging fleet was made of palatial dinosaurs and vulnerable to extinction. America’s contribution to La Belle Époque, the company’s paddlewheels were as high as elegant mansions, but the grandeur was dying, and the obits for Fall River were lying in wait.
The growth of through rail service at low prices made a further cut. The private automobile changed travel habits. As the 1929 depression wore on, the Fall River boats often ran with a bare handful of passengers. But trucks, competing for freight, caused the deepest inroads of all.
Times had changed.
The opening of the Cape Cod Canal, for one, brought new competition from the Eastern Steamship “all-water-route” boats. Their ships were modern, with hurricane decks and they could sail comfortably into the open seas.
Fall River Lines had also cut back on services, but they were still operating their night boats from New York to Boston supported by their loyal patrons.
But Eastern had the advantage of ocean-going vessels so they could offer the traditional Northeast night boat services along with expanding their cruise business to Bermuda, Caribbean, and Canada.
Then, one day early in 1937, when Fall River Line business was picking up again, but the ferment of early New Deal labor disputes was on, unheard of events transpired at the company piers in New York.
The Commonwealth and the Priscilla, each making ready to get underway at opposite ends of the route, were suddenly hit by sit-down strikes just as the cry went up: “All ashore that’s going ashore!”
No cajolery, no threats would avail. 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 shipbreakers. 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.
The stories and memories of the line were many. From memorable races between the night boats to tales of major Broadway stars being onboard or dancing with President Grover Cleveland. An inveterate fisherman, he was a regular passenger on the Commonwealth. Whenever he had a few days free from White House duties, he headed for his Summer home at Marion, where the fishing was excellent. Rudyard Kipling once wrote a stanza about the line. And then there was Fall River Line Captain Fred Hamlen, who estimated he sailed more than three million miles. That’s 120 times around the world. He said he did it all between New York and Fall River.
The Fall River Line was so greatly missed that over a thousand former passengers chartered a steamer in the 1950s to retrace the route from New York to Fall River, reviving fond memories of the cherished short sea journeys and sailing on the night boats.