Jamestown Historical Society

Ferryboats from Virginia

This article was written by Sue Maden and Rosemary Enright for The Jamestown Press on July 20, 2023.
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Narragansett Bay ferryboats made way from Virginia

For 78 years, from 1873 to 1951, the town of Jamestown through the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Co. provided transportation between Conanicut and Aquidneck islands.

On March 28, 1951, Jamestown voters agreed to lease the indebted ferry system to the state of Rhode Island for $1 a year. The Jamestown Ferry Authority assumed operation of the utility in June 1951.

Six years later, the state faced the reality that the three existing ferryboats (Governor Carr, Hammonton and Wildwood), which carried an average of 34 cars and 240 riders, could not handle the increasing traffic across the bay. In addition, the anticipated bridge would not be completed for another decade.

Following completion of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, the state of Virginia put two identical ferryboats, the Richmond and Norfolk, which carried 60 cars and 500 passengers apiece, on the market. The ferry authority in Rhode Island bought the 17-year-old boats for $50,000 each.

In January 1958, 10 local ferry crewmen drove to Norfolk to bring back the Richmond. Captain Mitchell Savard Jr. was in charge. He was joined by port engineer Manuel Neronha, engineer Herman Aherns, quartermaster Joseph DeTerra and firemen William Broadhurst Jr., Earl Caswell, Louis Cooper, Joseph McGonigal, Donald Richardson and Frank Sylvia.

The Jamestown on Narragansett Bay
The Jamestown on Narragansett Bay. Before arriving in Rhode Island in 1958 to provide service between Conanicut and Aquidneck islands, the ferryboat was named Richmond and served the state of Virginia.

It took three weeks to get the boat ready for the trip. They painted the boat, and removed signs segregating seating for white people from people of color. The bilges, which were filled with trash, had to be cleaned. Richardson wondered how the boats had passed U.S. Coast Guard inspections because clean bilges were required on the Jamestown ferryboats.

The life jackets had been stored on the upper deck between the two helm houses, and the fumes from the smokestacks had destroyed the cork flotation in the jackets. They all had to be replaced. The crew left the concession stands, but those were removed after the boat got to Jamestown.

During the three weeks, the men lived in a hotel. According to Richardson, the rooms had no heat. One of the crewmen used his own tools to try to fix it. The new boats were fueled by oil, and the local crewmen were unfamiliar with the engine operation. Two Virginia marine firemen joined them for the trip to Jamestown to teach them about the turbine blowers.

The trip north was not a pleasant one. The ferryboat had to come through open ocean from the Chesapeake Bay to Long Island Sound. The Richmond was designed for cars to roll on and off easily. The deck was flat, open fore and aft, and only wharf height above the water line. In an attempt to deflect waves, as a bow of the boat usually does, stanchion braces and four-foot metal plates were erected on both sides of the opening. The plates were ineffective; water came through into the engine room.

Caswell, in a 1986 interview, complained about food onboard.

“They nominated me cook for the trips north,” he said. “I didn’t volunteer. Know what they gave me to cook with? Two hot plates. I made coffee, boiled dinners, corn chowder, all that stuff.”

The Richmond spent the night of Feb. 7, 1958, in New London. The boat departed for the final leg to Rhode Island at 10 a.m. the next day and arrived in Jamestown at 2 p.m. to a gala reception.

Then days later, many of the same crew were back in Virginia ready to bring the Norfolk to Jamestown. The weather did not cooperate. Fourteen inches of ice locked them in port. They finally got underway Feb. 28, arriving March 4 in Jamestown.

Before the new ferryboats could start work, the ferry slips on each side of the bay had to be widened and new names had to be given to each boat. At the suggestion of Gov. Dennis Roberts, the Richmond was renamed

Jamestown and the Norfolk was renamed Newport.

By May, all was in place. The disposal of the Hammonton and Wildwood was authorized, and the Governor Carr officially was relegated to backup status.

The Jamestown made its first trips across the bay May 16 with three captains aboard to observe and test its operation. Savard, who had brought the two ferryboats up from Virginia, was on board. Captain Arthur Knowles was at the helm for the 2 p.m. trip, and C.D. Craig handled the 3 p.m. crossing. The Newport joined its sister ship when the summer schedule went into effect the following week.

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