Early Rhode Island Ferries

Early Rhode Island Ferries

When, in traveling from one side of the bay to the other, there actually was a reason to pack a lunch.

Bristol Ferry Lighthouse, 2013.
Bristol Ferry Lighthouse. (June 15, 2013).

The following is excerpted from a longer article published in the Providence Sunday Journal on September 30, 1923, under the title "Rhode Island's Ferries Form Historical Romance." The portions not transcribed here had to do with a proposal to make Rhode Island's ferries an official part of the state highway system. Transcribed with minimal correction by Christopher Martin.

The proposition to make the Newport-Jamestown-Saunderstown ferry a part of the State's highway system naturally has aroused much interest in the history of ferries in Rhode Island. Of these cross-water transportation systems there have been but few, for, with the upstream bridging of the rivers—at Market square in Providence, Red and Washington bridges over the Seekonk River, connecting Providence with East Providence; at Pawtucket falls, connecting the two parts of the old town, now a flourishing city; at Pawtuxet falls, connecting Cranston and Warwick; and at Westerly, connecting the two sides of the village, ferries were not essential, except at Bristol, that travellers might get over to Portsmouth; and at Newport, for connection with Conanicut Island, and thence, via Saunderstown, to the west shore of the State. Providence, before the river was bridged at Market square, made use of a shallow place in the stream in fording from the east to the west side.

For many years there was a rowboat ferry between the foot of Ship street, on the west shore, and the foot of James street, on the east side of the Providence river, which went out of existence when the stream was bridged at Point street. Years ago, there was a ferry on the Seekonk river, at the foot of Waterman street, which [was] run to East Providence. In the early days of steam railroading a ferryboat was run to accommodate passengers who were travelling between Boston and Stonington and beyond, crossing the Providence river from in front of India street, to near what is now Allen's avenue. The ferry history of the State in Newport harks back to 1640, when the town of Portsmouth licensed a ferry, operating between the islands of Rhode Island and Conanicut.

Map showing location of railroad ferry, 1844.
This detail of an 1844 map of Providence by N.B. Schubarth shows the location of the railroad ferry connecting the Stonington road on the west with the Boston road on the east. Opened in 1837, the ferry ran only a short time until it was rendered obsolete by the construction of the railroad station at Exchange Place in 1848. (100 Years of the Providence Journal, July 23, 1929).

There would be very little known about the old ferries of Jamestown and Newport, the first record of which was made in 1700, through a special grant made by the General Assembly, were it not that Dr. Charles V. Chapin, Superintendent of Health for the city of Providence, and his wife, Mrs. Anna Augusta Chapin, becoming deeply interested in the subject, made a thorough search of old town and State records, and collaborated in the preparation of a paper which later was read before the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Some of the Early Ferries
As early as 1675, Capt. Church having been summoned from Rehoboth to Wickford, just before the Great Swamp Fight, reached his destination by travelling by the way of the nearest ferries, so he wrote. This would seem to imply that he crossed over the Bristol and Tiverton ferry, and the Newport-Jamestown-Narragansett ferries. "The wind being fair," he said, "he arrived safely in the evening." Traditionally, Governor Caleb Carr of Newport owned a ferry about that time which was operated between Newport and Jamestown. Another ferry, giving similar service, was set up by the Smiths in 1695. At that period anyone could run ferries, but in 1700 came the licensing system.

Painting of an early ferry.
An example of an early ferry, this one owned by Samuel Carr of Newport and piloted by Captain Timothy Peckham. From a painting passed down through the Peckham family.

Clarke's ferry, so-called, for the reason that for many years it was the possession of Samuel Clarke, was originally licensed May 4, 1700, to Thomas Winterton of Jamestown, who operated it for three years. In April, 1703, the franchise was secured by Jonathan Marsh, who died in the following year, bequeathing his boats on the east side of the island to his son, William, and those on the west side to his son, Jonathan. There is no record that either son operated the ferry, but in August, 1709, there is evidence that Robert Barker obtained the franchise. Barker, four years before that, had married Phebe, the widow of Jonathan Marsh.

Map of historic ferry landings around Narragansett Bay, 2013.
Map showing the locations of some of the historic ferry landings on the island of Conanicut (Jamestown) and the west and east sides of Narragansett Bay. From a historical marker at East Ferry in Jamestown. (August 10, 2013).

The next record discloses that the General Assembly, in February, 1728, voted that "Mr. Samuel Clarke of Conanicut provide and keep one other good ferry boat and ferry man more than he now hath, to ply and tend the ferry from Jamestown to Newport to answer the Point boat during his lease; and to be ready in four months [sic] time."

William Brenton owned all of the island lying south of present Narragansett avenue and east of Mackerel cove and the road to Beaver Tail. Joseph Mowry bought that property and by the inventory of his estate (1716), he had two boats, one of which had belonged to Phebe Barker. His granddaughter, Mary Coggeshall, became the wife of Samuel Clarke, and that is how Clarke went into the ferry business.

The first ferry is believed to have been located on the southerly side of the east end of Narragansett avenue. April 6, 1751, Samuel Clarke and wife deeded the ferry location to their son Joseph, "for love and affection and £500, current money." The same Joseph deeded the property for £500 old tenor, to Jonathan Remington, ferryman. Where Clarke located his second ferry house, ordered to be provided by vote of the General Assembly, is not known.

Upon the death of Jonathan Remington the ferry property fell to his sons, Stephen and Gershom, who on March 10, 1775, sold it to Samuel Slocum for $1600 silver. Slocum was the son of Ebenezer Slocum, who in the early part of the century was owner of the Conanicut side of the North ferry to North Kingstown. Samuel Slocum sold the estate with dwelling, wharf and boat, March 19, 1785, to Benjamin Reynolds. March 13, 1792, Reynolds and his wife sold the property to Christy Potter, who disposed of it a year later to Jonathan J. Hazard. The latter sold it to Freeman Mayberry of Newport, May 28, 1802, who in turn sold to Thomas Dennis and Gold S. Silliman, and they disposed of it to Thomas R. Congdon, July 28, 1806.

Two years before that time Congdon had bought the Ellery ferry from Joseph Allen, that ferry running to the Point in Newport. March 9, 1838, Caleb F. Weaver bought the Clarke ferry property, the Ellery ferry and the Hull ferry site, for $7000.

David Greene, who lived on the east side of Jamestown, tried several times to obtain a ferry license from the General Assembly, but was balked by Samuel Clarke, who was a Representative, and at one time Speaker of the House. When Clarke was no longer in the Assembly, Greene, representing that he had a good house on the east side of Jamestown for the accommodation of travellers, and a good wharf for landing passengers and for laying a boat, was permitted to set up a ferry from Jamestown to Newport, and to begin the same at the expiration of Clarke's lease of the other ferry. Greene and his wife, Sarah, sold their ferry in July, 1752, to William Martin, who, shortly before, bought one of the ferries on the west side of the island, running to South Kingstown. The Martins conveyed this property to Benjamin Ellery of Newport, under date of April 16, 1770.

The Jamestown ferry landing, circa 1890s.
The Jamestown ferry landing, circa 1890s. (Providence Public Library).

The British fleet, arriving at Newport in the summer of 1775, the passage of ferry boats was considerably interrupted until Dec. 10, when the British landed on the island and burned 15 houses—two belonging to the widow Franklin, who kept the ferry on the other side of the island. From then, until the close of the war, with the exception of the Ellery ferry, which was operated for a short time in 1776, no regular ferrying was done.

Upon the death of Benjamin Ellery, Dec. 12, 1797, his ferry passed to his son, Abraham Redwood Ellery, and his daughter, Mary Redwood Champlain, wife of Christopher Grant Champlain. The brother conveyed his share of the property to the sister in November, 1798, and in the following September the Champlains sold the "Ellery Conanicut Ferry" to Joseph Allen. The property was sold by the Allens in April, 1804, to Thomas R. Congdon of North Kingstown.

Up to this time all ferrying to and from the island was by means of sailboats, but in June, 1829, Congdon sold a portion of his wharf to the Narragansett Bay Company, which was to operate a horse ferry, like the one then in use between Bristol and Portsmouth. The Jamestown horse ferry lasted but one year, when the wharf property was reconveyed to Congdon, whose ferry property was sold to Caleb F. Weaver. The Widow Weaver sold the same to Philip Caswell, Jr., and wife, in March, 1860, who sold it to William H. Knowles, on March 25, 1871.

* * * * *

Up to that transfer the ferriage was but 10 cents a passenger, but Knowles boosted the fare to 20 cents. The people revolted, and then came in the first steam ferry, for the Newport and Jamestown Ferry Company was organized, and its steamer, the Jamestown, made her first trip May 12, 1873.

Capt. John Hull of Jamestown was granted a license in 1756 to run a ferry from Long Wharf, Newport to the island, which, after passing through various hands, was finally purchased by Thomas R. Congdon, who bought off that competition against the Clarke and Ellery ferries. All the old boats were sloops, carrying a mainsail and jib. They were about 35 feet long and 14 feet wide, and drew about four and a half to five feet of water. They were very heavy, and planked with two-inch oak. There was a place at the stern for passengers. The animals were carried to an open cabin, amidships, and one vehicle was carried on a little deck forward. None of the boats is now in existence, but the old Ellery ferry house remains and is in fine condition. It dates back to just after the Revolution, and presumably was the one built to replace the house which the British soldiers burned in 1775.

* * * * *

Old-timers who were boys when the sloops were run on the ferries, explain that there were no docks, but that stone wharves were built with inclined planes, so that the boats could lay up to the landings, no matter how the tide might be. Also, that only light vehicles were transported. Farmers and others drove to the landing places, the horses or cattle were unharnessed or unyoked and driven to the pit of the boat; the goods or produce was unloaded, the lightened vehicle drawn aboard, and when the freight had been placed on the dock [sic], the sloop sailed to the opposite ferry, where the process of carting the stuff ashore by hand, pulling off the vehicle, driving off the live stock, and reloading the goods was gone through. Only the very light wagon of the tin-peddler, with its relatively light weight stock, was taken aboard as it came down to the ferry.

The steamer Jamestown was 90 feet long. When she became too small to meet the needs of the east end of the island, the Conanicut was purchased, and the Jamestown sent to the south ferry. Up to then the boats had paid expenses, but their earnings did not permit of dividends being declared. The business of the company increasing, it bought the steamer Beaver Tail, which in the summer time runs between Saunderstown and the island, and in the winter plys between the island and Newport.

Postcard view of Saunderstown ferry landing, circa 1900-'07.
Circa 1900-'07 postcard view of the ferry landing at Saunderstown. (Providence Public Library).

The company passed through one costly period of competition in which it lost $30,000, while the Narragansett Transportation Company, its rival for general patronage, sunk $100,000. The Narragansett Transportation Company owned the steamers Newport, Narragansett, John A. Saunders and the West Side. During the fight for supremacy the passenger rate was dropped to 5 cents to Newport, while vehicles were carried for 15 cents each. When the collapse of the new company came, the Jamestown and Newport Ferry Company on Aug. 10, 1907, bought the J.A. Saunders and the Narragansett. Since then business has been increasing regularly on the line. It could be much larger in volume were the rate bars let down, for in August of this year 21,000 vehicles, mostly automobiles, and 127,000 passengers were transported, despite the high ferrying rates.

Ferry Narragansett, Bowen's Wharf, Newport, undated.
Ferry Narragansett docked at Bowen's Wharf in Newport. (Providence Public Library).

* * * * *

As previously noted, Providence had but three ferries, the most important of them being very short-lived. It was operated from Hill's wharf, at the foot of Henderson Street, to a dock which was at or near Fox Point, on the east shore of the Providence river. The original roadbed of the Stonington Railroad Company was built by the way of what is now known as Harbor Junction, extending thence parallel with the west shore of the river, to Hill's wharf, the road being opened to traffic Nov. 10, 1837. The Boston and Providence Railroad was opened June 2, 1835, coming into Providence by way of East Junction. To accommodate travel to New York City by the line of steamboats which had its eastern terminus at Stonington, a ferry was established in 1840, the Boston and Providence building a wharf on the east side of the Providence river, and sharing in the cost of maintaining the boat service. Two years later the discontinuance of the ferry was urged, which change could be brought about by a new layout of the Providence and Boston road, from Attleboro, and through Pawtucket to this city. If this were done, not only could the cost of operating the ferry boat be eliminated, but one-half hour of running time could be saved. At the same time, the Stonington roadbed could be extended from where it then swung towards Harbor Junction, through Elmwood and what is now the Cranston street district, through the valley at the foot of Atwell's avenue and into the Union passenger station. The various projects were carried through, and on May 1, 1848, the first train which permitted passengers to ride from Stonington, through Providence to Boston, without making a change here, was sent over the rails, and the Hill's wharf-Fox Point ferry went out of existence.

One other local ferry had a fleet of three or four large rowboats, each operated by one man.

Two boats were in commission from early in the morning until early evening, starting from floats at the foot of Ship and James streets, and usually passing each other at midstream. The ferry, which was controlled by the city, was for the accommodation of working people and others who, by patronizing the system, were not obliged to walk all the way round from the Fox Point district to Market square, and down to the Eddy street industrial plants and adjacent homes.

The fare was two cents, and during the summer months many rode back and forth for mere pleasure. With the opening of the first Point street bridge, in 1870, the James street ferry, so-called, was discontinued, although the boats came into use again at various times—when the draw of the bridge proved a failure, collapsing of its own weight, and during the necessary rebuilding of a new draw.

Little seems to be known about the third ferry—that which afforded accommodations for those wishing to get to and from East Providence, by crossing the Seekonk river, about where the Red bridge now is.

* * * * *

When the Slade ferry was established at Fall River, the latter was a constituent part of Rhode Island, remaining so until March 1, 1862. The ferry landings were where the Brightman street bridge now is, that being the narrowest part of the Taunton river. As early as 1622, Governor Winslow of Massachusetts Bay Colony was ferried across at that place by the Indians. The first regular ferry was opened by William Slade in 1655.

Another ferry was established across the Seaconnet river, at Stone Bridge, in 1680, which was known as the Durphee ferry, afterward as the Howland ferry until 1795, when the first Stone bridge was opened. That structure was washed away in the following year, and rebuilt in 1797. The bridge was later out of service for several years, and was not again open to travel until 1810.

In the late '50s, when ship-building began at Somerset, on the east shore of the Taunton river, a ferry was opened about where the Somerset Iron Works and the Somerset Country Club properties run down to the water. When the new highway between Fall River and Bristol was opened, that ferry was discontinued.

In 1865 the Providence, Warren and Fall River railroad was opened, with steam ferry connection across the river, between Brayton's [Point] and Fall River.

* * * * *

Slade's ferry was made a continuation of the stage coach line between Providence and Fall River, when the stages began running in 1825. At this period horsepower boats were in service. The boats were too small to take over the stagecoaches, and to accommodate them and other vehicular traffic, a steamboat, costing $6000, was placed in commission in 1847. This service was continued until 1876, when the Slade ferry bridge was opened. The "Daisy," which in the last few years of the service, transported passengers and vehicles, is now in use as a spile driver.

Slade's Ferry Bridge, circa 1875.
Slade's Ferry Bridge, built in 1875, connected Somerset and Fall River. It was removed in 1970. From a circa 1875 advertisement for The American Bridge Company.

The Bristol-Portsmouth ferry dates back to colony days. Little is known of its history, other than the fact that a horse-ferry was operated there in 1825. Fully half a century ago Capt. West, the lighthousekeeper, accommodated the public by running his sailboat between the two towns.

Bristol Ferry Lighthouse, pre-1927.
The lighthouse at Bristol Ferry, prior to the beginning of construction of the Mt. Hope Bridge in December 1927. (Providence Public Library).

The ferry fell into general disuse when the Bradford Durfee was placed on the Fall River-Providence line. That boat touched at Portsmouth, when on her way to this city in the morning, took on passengers for Bristol, and then continued her trip to Providence. On the return trip in the late afternoon, she stopped at Bristol, took on passengers bound for Portsmouth, and then sailed to her dock at Fall River. With the opening of the ferry between Bristol and Portsmouth, connecting with the New Haven's electric road, and the trolley line between Portsmouth and Newport, the old ferry stops ceased to be made. The electrification of the Providence, Warren and Fall River road was completed Sunday, Dec. 2, 1900, but the steam ferry connection with Portsmouth was not established until two or three years after.

Editor's Notes
Much of the information in this article appears to have come straight from Charles V. and Anna Augusta Chapin's "The Jamestown and Newport Ferries," published in Rhode Island Historical Society Collections in October 1921. In 1925 the pair published a book version of their research, A History of Rhode Island Ferries, 1640-1923.

Jamestown's Ellery Ferry House, noted as still remaining "in fine condition" was moved about 1889 to make way for the Bay View Hotel. In its new location "two or three hundred feet to the northwest" on Knowles Court, the Ellery House was used as employee housing and was known as Scup Hall. The interesting thing is, the Newport Daily News reported on January 9, 1908 that "Mr. Seth Pierce is tearing down the cottage on Knowles court known as 'Scup Hall.'" If that's true, then the Ellery Ferry House did not still remain "in fine condition" in 1921 when the Chapins published their article, or in 1923 when this article was published. And it certainly can't be visited now.

Bridges have since replaced all of the historical ferries mentioned here. In 1929 Bristol and Portsmouth were connected by the Mount Hope Bridge. The Jamestown Bridge came next, connecting North Kingstown and the island of Conanicut in 1940. Jamestown and Newport were joined by the Newport Bridge in 1969. In 1956 the Sakonnet River Bridge reconnected Tiverton and Portsmouth, replacing Stone Bridge which had been wiped out by Hurricane Carol in 1954. All of these bridges were built right next to, or very close to, former ferry sites.

And of course there are still well-established ferries in Rhode Island, the Block Island Ferry and the Prudence Island Ferry being the most obvious. Other ferries ply the bay sporadically depending on the season and the state of the economy.

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