by Michael Bell

Echoes of a simpler time.

East Ferry, Jamestown, circa 1890. This view, looking north along the shore, shows the steam ferry Conanicut leaving its slip. From left to right are the Thorndike Hotel, Gardner House, Riverside, Bay View Hotel, and the Bay Voyage Inn. Only the Bay Voyage Inn survives.
Photo courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society.

Transportation played a key role in the folklife of Jamestown, from the introduction of the first steam-powered ferry, run from Jamestown to Newport in May of 1873, to the construction of the bridges after 1940. The steam ferry service ended two centuries of relative isolation and rural tranquility, and ushered in the era of summer residences. Prior to 1873, the sailing ferry had been used primarily by island farmers to market their produce and buy supplies, and by travelers going eastward or westward across the southern part of Rhode Island. The new steam-powered Jamestown provided a relatively safe and efficient means of access to and from Conanicut Island. As a result, a new folk group arose on Jamestown—the summer people—in contrast to an established folk group, the year-rounders. [Jamestown is the only town on Conanicut Island, but the name Jamestown is used interchangably for both the town and the island - ed.]

In becoming a seaside resort, Jamestown, of course, was not unique. The combination of improved transportation and city folks' desire to escape the crowded, noisy, and polluted industrial centers created a demand for the natural solitude, grand vistas, and slower pace offered at the shore. Each shore resort had its own character and mix of summer visitors and year-round residents. Newport catered to very wealthy families from cities along the Atlantic seaboard, while other locations, such as Rocky Point, Oakland Beach, and Crescent Park, attracted nearby working-class families. Jamestown and Narragansett occupied a middle ground, with a mix of hotels and summer cottages. Well-to-do Philadelphians and New Yorkers returned to Jamestown year after year, often spanning generations. More than a few eventually took up permanent residence on the island.

The Jamestown Bridge, opened in 1940, replaced the West Ferry service by connecting Jamestown to Saunderstown and making Jamestown accessible to automobile traffic. The Newport Bridge replaced the East Ferry service in 1969. Most of Jamestown's population growth came after the construction of the Newport Bridge. The building of the two bridges created yet another folk group, the "Newcomers," consisting primarily of commuters who have settled principally on the island's north end.

Where the East Ferry used to dock, including the Newport Bridge.
Photo © 1997 Dwight Primiano.

An important source for interpreting the role of the East Ferry in the lives of Jamestown residents is the material gathered for the "Rhode Island's Islands" oral history project, funded by the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities in 1985. As part of this project, Linda Wood and I interviewed 20 Jamestowners, both year-rounders and summer residents, asking questions directed toward learning about life on an island, and most of the residents discussed how the ferries were connected to their lives.

Rosamond, a lifelong resident of Jamestown and town clerk for many years, was a "pursurette" on both the East and West ferries, taking tolls. Her first nine grades of school were on the island, followed by four years of high school in Newport (that's right, she emphasized, 13 years of school, not just 12!). Students in her day traveled aboard the Governor Carr ferry to attend Rogers High School.

Over the years the ferry played an enormous part in the lives of everyone who lived in Jamestown... It was a delightful way to go to school. It was such fun. Someone played the ukulele and there was dancing. Every day was a new day. We were the envy of everyone in high school. It was a beautiful way of going and coming... a beautiful way to see the harbor.

Jamestown kids were referred to as being "from the country" according to Henry, whose grandfather was a captain of sailing vessels and sometimes ran the island ferries.

That was an enjoyable experience because the Bay was never twice the same. It's always something different.... My mother would have a heck of a time getting me off on time to catch the ferry. The ferry left at eight o'clock in the morning, and if you were a minute or two late, you were a little bit more than a minute or two late for school!

William, who grew up on Jamestown as one of 15 children of Portuguese immigrants, was always involved with boats and worked his way up to Captain of the East Ferry, serving from 1959 to 1969. He said he would always wait for late school kids if he saw them coming around Hunt's drugstore.

Martha began summering in Jamestown in 1927 and became a permanent resident in 1942. She described "walking over the ferry" to Newport.

Before, we all went to Newport. And when the ferry was running to Newport, we used to "walk over the ferry"—which meant you parked your car, went and did your shopping on Thames Street, and walked back again. It was really a lot of fun. Sociable. You sat down and talked with somebody. I miss talking with my neighbors.

Frank, born on the island in 1903, said that occasionally, as kids, they would have to spend the night in the Newport Jail—not because they were bad, but because they had missed the last ferry of the night.

We'd go to Newport—oh, you'd be, what?, 14, 15, 16—go to the movie. And the last ferry was 11 o'clock—that's Tuesday and Saturday. But your movie usually went to 11 o'clock. So you always wanted to see the end of that movie, so, boy, we'd tear down there, but, it's [the ferry] gone! The jail was right... near where we used to get off the ferry.... And if you took a launch—if you hired a launch—it was five dollars. And us kids, after we come from Newport and had your last hotdog, you didn't have no five dollars—you couldn't get five dollars between 20 of them! There wouldn't be that much. One thing, they didn't charge us on the ferry, you know, if we were going over to Newport. Young kids, they wouldn't charge.

The closing of the East Ferry dramatically altered the life along Narragansett Avenue—or Ferry Road, as it was called before the bridge—the main thoroughfare connecting the East and West ferries. Henry remembers herding cows and other animals down the road from one ferry to another. Most of the traffic on Narragansett Avenue was through traffic, since there was very little business on the road.

That was the most dangerous road there was on the island—between ferries. When the ferry got in, on this side [west side], the other one would be on that side, they'd race across to get in line, 'cause a lot of natives would be going to Newport, and some that didn't make the ferry before, they would be there. So these here would pass one another going across there, tryin' to get ahead of time so they wouldn't have to wait for two ferries to go. Five thirty used to be the last ferry over here [West Ferry]. If you didn't get off the island at 5:30, forget it. -- Frank

Anna was born on the island in 1902, married a grocer (who later became the island's pharmacist) and taught school on Jamestown for three years. She recalled that at one time there was a bus between the West and East ferries. When there was a tennis tournament at the Casino in Newport, she said cars would race across the island. Often the people would go ahead and chauffeurs would bring the cars across.

Alton and his wife, Caroline, were born and raised on Jamestown; most of the members of their families live on the island; and Alton and his father-in-law served together in the General Assembly for 17 years. The building of the Newport Bridge was a big issue at the time, and Alton took a leading role in opposing the bridge. He said that the Ferry Commission was the only industry in town and he wanted to protect it—and he wanted to keep Jamestown the way it was. Now, with the bridge, Alton said, "people don't know you."

The town is growing by leaps and bounds. Maybe it's selfish of me, but I knew that would happen and I didn't want it to. The ferries provided good service and made more friends. Newport lost business when the bridge opened, [the business went west to Saunderstown, across the Jamestown Bridge—with no tolls] and businesses near the ferry on Jamestown also failed. The Newport Bridge was a bigger shock to Jamestown than the Jamestown Bridge. While that bridge improved life—especially in winter when people would be stuck here—the Newport Bridge changed it. The island is more available, and there is more building now.

Opening the Newport Bridge and eliminating the tolls from the Jamestown Bridge not only signaled the loss of the ferry service and the exciting commute for high schoolers, it also considerably altered the folklife of the Islanders. The traditional tempo and rhythm of life would never be the same.

The ferries kept us here. Except for Tuesday and Saturday or when a group would hire a launch, people were right here. You knew everybody. There was no danger then.... There was a greater feeling of safety; no one locked doors.... Because of the ferries people had a sense of timing. The ferry regulated their lives. The five-minute whistle was a long blast; when it cast off, there was the toot. When you heard the whistle, you darned well better hurry! -- Henry

The ferry was twenty minutes of relaxation and beautiful views. Now, it's just continuous travel: get on one bridge, cross the island, and get over the other. -- Anna

A lot of people who voted for that bridge are really sorry today. The island isn't like it used to be. As a kid, you knew everyone on the island—all the names, where they lived and what they did. The island has just growed up. It's not an island anymore—stepping stone on one side, one on the other side. It's changed. -- William

Everyone knew each other. Parents, they knew who you belonged to. And all the kids knew one another. And when it got a certain time, the chief of police—they only had one policeman (the first one I can recollect, he had a horse and buggy, and he was very good to the kids)— all he'd do is point, you know, time to go home. Had another one there, he'd say, "You kids got any idea"—because we'd always be in groups, you know, four or five—"You kids got any idea what time it is?" ...Then he'd pull his watch out, "It's such-and-such a time. You know what that means." And somebody'd say, "Yeah, it's time to get home." -- Frank

One had the feeling of being on an island and tight. At the end of the last ferry run, people had the feeling that "now we're all settled down for the night," don't you know. -- Rosamond

Although the split between the summer people and the year-rounders was sharp and unequivocal, there was a mutual respect between them. They knew that they were socially and economically distinct, yet they also realized that each depended on the other.

People who came to the island in the summer—the summer people—were known as "Jamestowners." We were just the "Islanders."... There was a sharp division. There are interesting things about it. I knew one young fellow that was part of the summer colony and I was working delivering groceries when I was in high school. And this boy said to me, "You're lucky." And I said, "Why?" "Well," he says, "you can work and you can get your own money. You can do what you want." He says, "I can't work. And I've got an allowance. But I can't do what I want. And you can." That really made me think—just what do you want out of life? -- Henry

Anna said that Sunday night during the summertime "was quite a sight in the old days." The summer men returning to New York City took the East Ferry at 8 p.m. to Long Wharf to board the boat for New York. At the end of the summer, as the Jamestowners left for the season aboard the East Ferry, the Islanders performed a local custom—a rite of passage of sorts—overtly marking the annual departure and implicitly expressing their appreciation.

In the fall of the year, when families were going, other families would go down and they'd light these flares—red fires, you know. And stand them on the dock as the boat went out. That was just a farewell, you know. And come back again next summer and see us.... People would gather there and bid them farewell, just as the big ocean liners in New York are throwing ribbons. We didn't throw paper ribbon streamers, we just lighted flares. All of those things have passed now. It's a different world, entirely different. —Anna

The world began changing on June 28, 1969, with the last run of the East Ferry.

I remember the last ride of the ferry.... We were coming in for a landing. But what we realized was that we were not slowing down. And Gil said, "Oh! No way! We're going to hit." So, we watched it happen.... The captain was totally impassive! We could see him and he wasn't showing anything in his face. And it was low tide; the ferry slip was lined with vertical, wooden pylons. It came in, hell bent for leather. And we went KABOM! And knocked them forward, downward, and the ferry boat went KAWHOOO! And ended up stuck.... The people in the cars were hysterical. There were people like us who realized that we were going nowhere. And we're mad as hell 'cause our bourbon was [laughing] back in Newport! -- Elizabeth

Was it an accident? Was the captain making a statement? Whatever caused the boat to slam into the dock, this final ferry run ended, perhaps appropriately, with a bang and not a whimper.

These stories show that constructing the Newport Bridge and eliminating the East Ferry service did more than alter the built environment, creating yet another invisible landmark. The East Ferry timed people's lives. It was relaxing and sociable. The existence of the East Ferry made it possible for the Islanders to feel distinct, separate from other communities. The impact of eliminating the ferry was also felt off the island, as Newport and North Kingstown changed places. Islanders now look to North Kingstown, and students attend high school in North Kingstown instead of Newport. The effects of discontinuing the East Ferry service have gone well beyond simply providing a more convenient means of entering and exiting Conanicut Island.

Pick Another Invisible Landmark

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.

This article last edited December 10, 2001

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