Beginning in approximately 1680, the site was used as a ferry service between Portsmouth and Bristol. By the mid-1800s a ferry house had been constructed, and a stable appeared to be present in 1900. In 1929, the ferry service ended with the completion of the Mt. Hope Bridge. Around 1950, the Marina House Restaurant opened in the original ferry building. In circa 1940, the pump-house (still standing today) on the property was built and the garage (also still standing today) was built circa 1950. In 1983, the Marina House Restaurant closed, and the original ferry house burned down and was razed in 1985. The cement pads of the buildings remain on site. Although briefly used as a staging area for repairs to the Mt. Hope Bridge in the 2000’s, the site remains vacant.
Excerpts and Photos
Below are Portsmouth-related excerpts and photographs from Traveling Around Aquidneck Island 1890-1930 (How We Got Around), by James E. Garman (1996). Click on the images to see them larger.
Bristol Ferry today is a quiet place in the northwest part of Portsmouth. It was not always so. This area was the location of the first ferries to the mainland and nearly 100 years ago it was the center of not only ferry and steamer travel, but also the railroad and the street railway lines. All of these forms of transportation came together at Bristol Ferry. It was the transportation and commercial center of the Town in the 1890s and 1900s. A "town common" had been established there in the early 18th century.
Genesis of the Bristol Ferry
The development of the Bristol Ferry came about on an informal basis. Early ferries were known by their owners' names, and were operated "on call." The ferryman would carry someone across when he was asked to. There was no regular service, but from the earliest days there was enough demand to warrant two ferries operating in close proximinity to each other.
Meanwhile, the steamboats had begun to run from Providence to Fall River. In July of 1858, the Fall River Iron Works was given permission to land its steamboat at Bristol Ferry for the ensuing 23 years. The company agreed to erect a freight building with a waiting room for passengers. This company formed a subsidiary, the Fall River and Providence Steamboat Company, in 1880. They continued the service until 1895 when the property was acquired by the Providence, Fall River and Newport Steamboat Company.
In the early years of the 20th century, the electric street railway came to Bristol Ferry from Newport. At the Bristol Ferry end of the line, passengers would leave the trolley and board a ferry owned by the Newport & Providence Railway Company. The first ferry owned by the company was the Sagamore, a converted steam yacht. In 1905 it was joined by the Bristol, a more traditional steam-driven ferry, capable of carrying passengers, horses and wagons, and even the newly emerging automobile.
It was a 20-minute ferry ride from Bristol Ferry to the wharf at Constitution Street in Bristol. There the passengers could make a connection with the electric cars of the New York, New York and Hartford Railroad that would carry them to Providence. This railway followed a route that is now the East Bay Bike Path.
The End of the Ferry
The Bristol Ferry ceased in 1929, having provided the transportation link between Bristol and Portsmouth for nearly 300 years. In 1927, the trolley line to Bristol Ferry was abandoned. It had been replaced by the more flexible bus line.
Passenger trains continued to stop at Bristol Ferry station, though with less frequency until the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad ceased passenger service to Newport in 1938.
Over the years, these vessels took many different forms. The first were simple sailboats, or even rowboats. In 1824 the Rhode Island Steam and Team Boat Company was chartered to operate a horseboat. In 1826 they placed in operation a boat which was propelled by horses walking a treadmill to turn a paddle.
In the 1840s, and 1850s Captain Jesse Chance owned the ferry and the wharf. The building on this wharf served at various times as a residence, a freight/passenger station, and later a restaurant. The building burned in 1985.
The ferry was operated by several people in the latter part of the 19th century, the most notable of which was Oliver G. Hicks. he took over the management of the ferry in 1863, at the age of thirteen, and ran it for many years.
In 1864, the railroad came to Aquidneck Island, passing through Bristol Ferry. After that, because of the proximity of the boats at Bristol Ferry, the railroad station there was a very busy place. Much farm produce was grown on Aquidneck Island then. Because it was necessary to get produce to market, at first the steam boat, and then the railroad become the principal means of delivery. The fact that the steamboats and the railroad came together at Bristol Ferry greatly enhanced the importance of the location.
Advent of the Mt. Hope Bridge
As the 20th century continued and technology improved, there was significant growth in the use of the automobile, the bus and the truck. These transit modes brought significant change to Bristol Ferry. Much pressure was brought to bear to construct a bridge link from there to Bristol.
The Mt. Hope Bridge was built under contract to the State of Rhode Island, and opened with great ceremony on October 24, 1929. Thus a second link was solidified between Aquidneck Island and the mainland. Certainly the Bristol Ferry had been more scenic, but as lifestyles changed, a quick car or bus trip over the bridge was much more efficient than a 20-minute ferry ride.
Bristol Ferry then settled into its retirement. The building on the wharf was a residence for the George Pierce family, who opened a restaurant there in 1932. This restaurant was shuttered after the Hurricane of 1938, and the building served as a residence again until the Hurricane of 1954. Raymond Mulveny opened a restaurant there in 1962 called the Mt. Hope Marina. After a couple changes in ownership, the building burned in 1985.
Bristol Ferry, once a very busy commercial center in Portsmouth, rests quietly now, virtually cut off from the traffic that passes on the Mt. Hope Bridge above. The quiet of today belies an earlier time in which there was a great deal of activity there.