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The steamer Providence, one of Fall River Line’s luxury steamships. Put into service in 1867, the Providence’s engine was the largest of its type in any steam vessel at the time. The ship’s overall length was 373 feet and could comfortably care for 840 passengers.  (Source: Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line published by Rand, McNally & Co. for J. F. Murphy (Chicago and New York). 1900.)

The steamer Providence, one of Fall River Line’s luxury steamships. Put into service in 1867, the Providence’s engine was the largest of its type in any steam vessel at the time. The ship’s overall length was 373 feet and could comfortably care for 840 passengers.
(Source: Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line published by Rand, McNally & Co. for J. F. Murphy (Chicago and New York). 1900.)

South Coast Rail will transport passengers to Boston from Fall River and New Bedford. Both South Coast cities have rich histories, including Fall River’s stint as a gateway to the mid-Atlantic. Until about 80 years ago, the most direct route to New York City from Boston involved a one-hour-and-forty-minute train ride to Fall River, followed by a nine-hour, overnight steamship ride to Manhattan. The fleet of steamships and connecting trains was known as the Fall River Line.

From 1847 to 1937, the Fall River Line served ordinary travelers and Presidents alike – including Fillmore, Grant, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As J. W. Reardon of the Boston Daily Advertiser put it, “if you went on a trip to New York and did not travel on the Fall River Line, you simply did not go at all.” Six days a week for almost a century, hundreds of Bostonians would board the direct-service train from Boston to Fall River – a connection that will be restored by the South Coast Rail project. They would then step off the train and immediately board the gangplank onto the massive ship awaiting them.

Fall River Line’s fleet of ships was anything but ordinary. They were “mammoth palatial steamers,” recognized worldwide for their lavish décor, palette of amenities, and state-of-the-art engineering. Aside from the staterooms, grand saloon, dining room, card room, and dance hall, you could get a haircut at the barbershop or have your suit or gown “sponged and pressed” overnight and delivered to your door in the morning.

Grand Saloon in the steamer Puritan, one of Fall River Line’s luxury steamships. The Puritan began service in 1889, and was decorated in Italian Renaissance style, “the ornamentation being brought out by judicious gilding on an ivory-white ground.” Her overall length was 419 feet.  (Source: Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line published by Rand, McNally & Co. for J. F. Murphy (Chicago and New York). 1900.)

Grand Saloon in the steamer Puritan, one of Fall River Line’s luxury steamships. The Puritan began service in 1889, and was decorated in Italian Renaissance style, “the ornamentation being brought out by judicious gilding on an ivory-white ground.” Her overall length was 419 feet.
(Source: Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line published by Rand, McNally & Co. for J. F. Murphy (Chicago and New York). 1900.)

An evening aboard a Fall River Line steamer could also include an array of interesting characters. One such person was James Fisk, aka “Jubilee Jim,” who owned the fleet of ships before it was acquired by Old Colony Railroad Company. Fisk was a financier, and a prototypical robber baron of the Gilded Age. He and his business partner, Jay Gould, were the fountainheads of the Black Friday scandal, the collapse of the U.S. gold market in 1869. Although he had questionable naval experience, Fisk deemed himself “admiral” of the fleet and dressed in full admiral garb while greeting and interacting with passengers. To assure his ships were the most spectacular of all, Fisk hung 200 canaries in gilded cages throughout the salons and corridors, among other grand features. The fleet outlived its owner, however, as James Fisk was shot to death in 1876 by a former business associate over money disputes.

The last and largest ship built for the Fall River Line was the Commonwealth in 1908. It had an overall length of 456 feet. Roger Williams McAdam, author of The Old Fall River Line, describes the Commonwealth as “a bulk of shining lights… a fairyland that moved and had being.” He believed that if everybody could have seen her in her glory, “the Fall River Line would never have been allowed to die.”

Fall River Line connecting train waiting to depart Fall River Wharf to Boston.  (Source: Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line published by Rand, McNally & Co. for J. F. Murphy (Chicago and New York). 1900.)

Fall River Line connecting train waiting to depart Fall River Wharf to Boston.
(Source: Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line published by Rand, McNally & Co. for J. F. Murphy (Chicago and New York). 1900.)

The demise of the Fall River Line is attributable to several complex events, all occurring in rapid succession. Intensified competition from a rival steamship company, diminished freight traffic, and dwindling numbers of passengers due to the Great Depression, were all part of the problem. By 1936, train fare was less expensive than steamship travel, which was also a factor. But the biggest blow was the 1935 bankruptcy of the Fall River Line’s parent company, the New Haven Railroad. On July 27, 1937, the Fall River Line abruptly shut down, marking the end of a glamorous era in travel.

Almost eight decades later, visitors can still get a taste of the Fall River Line at the Marine Museum at Fall River, where its legacy lives on through numerous stories and artifacts on display.

This post is part of a series visiting the rich history of transportation in the South Coast. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!

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