For over 32 years the steamboat Block Island led a charmed life and was never involved in a major accident. This picturesque steamboat was part of an excursion fleet that plied the waters between the Thames River and Block Island. She was built to serve the growing summer tourist resorts of Watch Hill and Block Island which became popular after the Civil War. Block Island was originally discovered by the Dutch trader and explorer Adriaen Block in 1614 and was a great place to escape the heat of the summer before the advent of air-conditioning. Watch Hill also enjoyed the cooling breezes from the Atlantic and 8 large hotels sprang up there to serve the growing leisure class.
In 1881 the New London Northern Railroad serviced the island with the little 247-ton steamer Ella for weekly trips from Norwich but at 154 feet she proved too small for the rough open waters of Block Island Sound. Therefore, in 1882, Superintendent George W. Batty and the company directors organized the New London Steamship Company to answer the demand. They contracted Robert Palmer & sons of Noank, Connecticut to build a new vessel in their shipyard.
The new steamer was appropriately christened Block Island in July, 1882. The New London Day described her as “one of the staunchest and handsomest craft to be seen here.” She was much larger than the Ella at 566-tons displacement and measured 187 x 33 x 11. According to Custom House records she had one deck, two masts, and a square stern. Her first captain was Gilbert F. Jackson and her homeport was New London.
On her maiden voyage up the Thames River, to Norwich, the Block Island was greeted by large crowds at the wharf. For the most part she was a great success and she quickly paid off her investors after her first few seasons. The only complaint about her was her tendency to roll in any kind of sea.
During the summer months, between mid-June until Labor Day, she steamed back and forth to Block Island. She made several stops along the way, stopping at Montville, New London, Mystic Island, and Watch Hill.
In 1898 her schedule consisted of leaving Norwich daily at 8:15 except on Sundays, reaching Montville at 8:45, New London at 9:45, Mystic Island at 10:15, Watch Hill at 10:55, and Block Island at 12:50. On Sundays she left Norwich at 9 a.m. and by 6:15 she was back in Norwich. The Block Island even had regular commuters that consisted of hotel workers, musicians, and others who had jobs at the summer resorts.
In Watch Hill the Block Island docked at Larkin’s Pier. This long pier, sticking out into Fishers Island Sound, was constructed behind the large Larkin House Hotel, just up the hill from where the Watch Hill Carousel sits today. The hotel was demolished in 1906 but the pier lasted until 1918 when New England experienced a severe winter and the pier was destroyed by ice.
During the off-season the Block Island was used for special excursions. These trips sometimes took her up the Hudson River, other times she was a substitute for other steamboats when they were laid up for repairs. She was also a floating grandstand at the popular Yale-Harvard boat races held on the Thames River.
Although she was never involved in a major disaster, like the Larchmont and Metis, she did have a few minor episodes. In February 1890, on a run to New York, she ran aground in Hells Gate and had to be towed off. There was little damage. The following October the schooner Beecher ran into her breaking her flagstaff. Another accident at Fishers Island happened when she hit an uncharted rock, but again, she escaped serious damage. The only time she came close to sinking was one winter when she sprang a leak at the company wharf in New London. The leak was found in time and she was pumped out.
In 1907 the New London Steamship Company was in financial trouble. The Block Island along with two freight boats was taken over by the New England Transportation Company, a division of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. By 1914 and the advent of the First World War, larger ships were coming into service and the Block Island’s days were numbered. On September 9, 1914 she made her last trip of the season.
People had come to love the old steamer and as she swung out from the company wharf officers on the huge Steamer, City of Lowell, blew their brass whistle in salute. Other ships joined in salute and the passengers on the Block Island waved in return. Records show that the Block Island was formally abandoned June 30, 1926. She was then used for a floating mess hall and sleeping quarters for the New England Steamship Company up until 1930 when she was broken up.
Many people mourned the loss of the Block Island. It was really the end of the steamboat era and people had fond memories of the wonderful times they spent aboard these ships. The Block Island’s decks were always crowded with happy passengers enjoying the delightful summer breezes on their way across the blue waters to their island getaways.