Stillman Saunders on the beach at his boatbuilding facility in Saunderstown, circa 1905. Unhappy with the ferry service across the West Passage, he launched a rival company in 1906 to compete with the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company. (JHS, P2012.107.010)

For almost 20 years — from 1888 to 1906 — the steam ferries of the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company operated uncontested across the West Passage between North Kingstown and Jamestown.

For the latter 11 of those years, the mainland wharf, where the ferryboat Jamestown docked, was a pier in Saunderstown owned by a shipbuilder named Stillman Saunders. Becoming increasingly unhappy with the ferry company’s management, Saunders felt he could do better. In 1906, he organized the Narragansett Transportation Company and used four boats he built on the route.

Some of Saunders’ boats were specially adapted to conditions on the West Passage. The drafts were shallow in response to the shallower waters of the bay at this point. The J.A. Saunders, built in 1902, reached a depth of only 7.1 feet; the boat was used mostly to fill a U.S. Army contract to take passengers between Fort Greble on Dutch Island and Saunderstown. Both the J.A. Saunders and the ferryboat West Side, constructed in 1904, had built-in freshwater tanks to carry water to Fort Greble from Casey Farm. The Narragansett (1905) and Newport (1907) were less specialized. Only the Newport compared in size with the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company’s boats, and it also was faster. According to Saunders, it could sail from Jamestown to Newport in 10 minutes.

In Saunderstown, ferryboats with the Narragansett Transportation Company docked at the wharf Saunders leased to the Jamestown business, which added a bridge and float to try and prevent the Narragansett company from using the improved wharf. The lease had no exclusivity clause, however, and the plan failed. Many Jamestown residents never forgave Saunders’ business tactics. In Jamestown, he built a ferry slip just north of the West Ferry wharf.

Saunders then extended his service to the East Passage. He purchased a waterfront lot near the foot of Knowles Court, where he built a ferry slip and a complete machine shop. Most mechanical failures with his ferryboats could be repaired on site.

In Newport, the ferryboats docked at a slip just north of Commercial Wharf. They also stopped at the Fall River Line wharf for those making connections to New York. To make his service more attractive, Saunders bought two electric buses to carry passengers and their luggage across Jamestown between the east and west landings. Each night, the buses were charged using a dynamo in Newport.


Traffic across Narragansett Bay, however, was not sufficient to support two ferry companies. Both businesses were losing money. Since the town of Jamestown owned 60 percent of the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company, and the ferry system was the life blood of the local economy, bonds and loans covered its losses. By 1910, the company owed between $55,000 and $70,000, which included $10,000 in unsecured notes.

The Narragansett Transportation Company was a family-owned company with less access to money. Saunders got ill early in 1910, and by August, he realized he would never be able to fulfill his dream of competing with the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company on both sides of the bay.

He offered the Jamestown company all its infrastructure, including the ferryboat Newport for $50,000, which was about 50 percent its worth, in exchange for the company’s withdrawal from the West Passage. By December, he was offering a merger or a total buyout.

The Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company refused all offers. “The title of the property of the Narragansett Transportation Co. at the East Ferry is of desputable (sic) title. The lease of the property at Newport is not desired.”

The Jamestown company counter-offered “what is the very lowest cash price” it will accept for the steamers Newport and Narragansett, and “all rights of franchise that Narragansett Transportation Co. now hold.”

As Saunders’ health steadily declined, so did the possibility of salvaging remnants of his opposition line. He died July 7, 1911. The J.A. Saunders and Narragansett became part of the Jamestown company’s fleet. The Narragansett company’s other assets were sold to satisfy its creditors.

This article was written by Rosemary Enright and Sue Maden for The Jamestown Press. It appeared in October 2023.