Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective

Paddle Wheels and Steam

The transition to steam power encountered initial indifference in the Narragansett Bay ports and, later, active resistance from the operators of the commercial sailing packets, but when it was clear that the "newfangled" steam engine was here to stay, the changeover was dramatic.

Although there were a couple of earlier pioneers, James Watt, a Scot, is recognized as the inventor of the first successful steam engine. Men had been puzzling over ways to move their ships without wind or oars for centuries, and designs for paddle wheels turned by animal or human muscle power have been traced back to the Roman Empire. Watt's steam engine, built in 1770, offered a better source of power, and in 1783 Count Jeoffrey d'Abbans built the Pyroscophe, a steam-powered boat, in France. In 1790, John Fitch, an American, operated a paddle-wheel boat on the Delaware River, and two years later a Rhode Islander, Elisha Ormsbee, who had invented a power loom used in two Rhode Island mills, put an engine in his little boat Experiment and startled the waterfront community as he ran it up and down the Providence River. Both Fitch and Ormsbee failed to develop the commercial applications of their craft, and honors went to Robert Fulton, whose special genius lay in improving on an idea Fulton's first steamboat operated on the Seine in France in 1803, and his famous ClermonL the first practical commercial vessel, went into regular service on the Hudson between New York and Albany in 1807.

Meantime Narragansett Bay remained the exclusive domain of the fast packet sloops and ocean-crossing square-riggers. It wasn't until May 28, 1817, that the Bay's first commercial steamboat, the Firefly, arrived from New York and went on regular runs between Providence and Newport, but its career was short-lived; the salty packet boat captains reduced their fares and fought for survival with every trick and argument they could devise, and when the wind was fight, they outsailed the Firefly with ease.

In the summer of 1821, long after steamboating was firmly entrenched in the New York and Long Island Sound areas, the steamer Robert Fulton came up from New York on an excursion trip, and a year later the Bay at last began to accept steamboats. Regular service was established between Providence and New York; steamboat companies were formed in Providence and later in Fan and various Bay ports were linked with local routes.

The early ships were wood-burners, with paddle wheels amidships. Decks were piled high with stacks of firewood for the boilers, and masts still carried sails. In 1826, Joseph Babcock, a Providence mechanic and one of the first of a considerable group of innovative engine designers, introduced his economical Babcock boiler. His steamer, the Babcock made the New York run burning only two cords, of wood. With less space required for fuel storage, boatbuilders could begin to think of passenger comfort and cargo space. Some of the famous early steamers, such as the Washington, Boston, and President, provided staterooms, lounge areas, and dining salons. The President, for instance, had 34 staterooms, with berths for 150 travelers.

From about 1836 to the outbreak of World War II, steamboats were a dominant part of the life of Narragansett Bay. While some freight was carried as soon as space permitted, the steamers' primary role was to move passengers. Sailing ships remained for many years the workhorses of the Bay, doing the transoceanic crossings and the coastal runs. Actuary, until fairly recent times, and within the memory of some of the Bay region's oldest inhabitants, bulk cargoes, in particular coal and lumber, remained the province of the coasting schooners, which grew large enough to support five, six, and even seven masts. A few older residents today still can remember the big five-masted coal carriers which made regular runs up and down the Bay long after paddle wheels had been replaced by propellers on steamships, workboats, and steam yachts.

A geographical factor that determined the course of steamboat development in Narragansett Bay was Cape Cod, which thrust out into the Atlantic to add hazardous open-ocean miles to voyages between New York and Boston. The two cities had become the principal ports of the Northeast, and the safest, quickest route between them was over Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay. When the Rhode Island and New York Steamboat Company was formed in 1822, stagecoaches provided the linkage from Providence to Boston. The steamer fare was $10, extremely high for those days but soon to tumble under intense competition. In the heyday of the horse-drawn stages, 328 departed weekly from Providence to points east and west.

Then in the 1830s railroads appeared, and a close association grew between the steamboat companies and the infant rail lines. The rails spread westward from Boston, rather than eastward from New York because New Yorkers, with the Hudson River and Erie Canal for communication with Albany and upstate communities and with Long Island Sound for a water highway with New England, saw little need to push their rail lines into Connecticut

Between 1830 and 1831, Massachusetts chartered three rail lines: to Lowell, Boston to Worcester, and Boston to Providence. The latter was completed in 1835 and brought the stagecoach business with its wayside inns to an end. Steamer traffic increased, and competing lines vied for business on the Bay and Long Island Sound. By 1837 the railroad had been extended to Stonington, and that sleepy little port awakened to lively competition with Providence for steamer business. It wasn't until 1866 that the coastal railroad reached Groton, Connecticut, and plans were made to repeat the now familiar pattern of establishing steamer service from the most westerly rail terminus to New York. A series of accidents to the Groton-based steamer fleet bankrupted the company involved, and rail-steamer connections were returned to Stonington.

Meantime Providence, Fall River, and Newport more than held their own in the competition for the New York business. A Fall River to South Braintree, Massachusetts, railroad in 1845 led to a steamer link between Fall River and New York (the old Fall River Line). In 1863, the Old Colony Railroad completed a Boston-Newport connection. and the Fall River Line moved its headquarters to Newport, to cater to the rich and well-to-do who had begun to adopt the city as their favorite summer resort.

Although expanding rail service gradually made inroads, steamers continued to move passengers on the New York-Providence-Boston run. The ships grew larger and faster, and amenities such as lounges, bars, dining salons with quality foods, and private staterooms were powerful inducements to water rather than rail travel for many even when rails were finally laid all the way to New York. In good weather the voyage was a delight, the scenery spectacular, and the salt air bracing. In rough I weather, it was an adventure. Generally, holiday ambience prevailed. Fares were ridiculously cheap, down to 50 cents during the most frantic periods of competition.

Speed, good accommodations, and low price were the three sales tools which marked the wide-open competition for business during steamboat era. The first commercial Bay steamers, the Fulton and the Connecticut, were relatively slow and relied on sails as wed when the wind was favorable, but in 1826 the Washington made a round trip to New York in 48 hours, including a nine-hour stopover. The Chancellor Livingston, launched in 1828, could make 81/z miles an hour and accommodate passengers in its main cabin, where meals prepared by a master chef were served. By 1829, speed had increased amazingly. The President, launched that year, was reported capable of 17 miles an hour. A few years later, the 350-ton Providence beat the President in a race to New York by a tiny margin.

In 1835, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt put into service one of Narragansett Bay's most famous steamers, the Lexington, to tie in with the fledgling rail line from Boston. The 205-foot Lexington made the run from Providence to New York in 11'/2 hours, a new record.

The marine propeller was invented in Sweden in 1836 by John Ericsson, and the first propeller ship, the Napoleon, appeared in Europe in 1842. On Narragansett Bay, paddle wheels were not challenged until 1851, when the Commercial Steamboat Company introduced three propeller boats, the Pelican, Petrel, and Osceola. The change to propellers took many years. Even after the Civil War one of the most imposing steamers on the Newport to New York run was the big paddle wheeler Newport. She had four smokestacks, one pair on each side just forward of the paddle wheels.

The arrival of steam power on the Bay matched in many ways dramatic and far-reaching changes in life on shore as communities became more involved in manufacturing. Sharing a transportation mission with emerging railroad and street railway lines, the steamboat opened the Bay and its shores to an important new activityŚ recreation.

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