They doubted her before she arrived, scorned her while she served and forgot about her after she left.
But the ancient Hudson River ferry Hackensack — which adopted the name Islander and sailed bravely if not always reliably between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven for three years right after World War II — turns out to have been one of the most consequential vessels ever to steam between Martha’s Vineyard and the mainland.
Though it proved awkward and costly trying to run a river ferry on an open-water route, the Hackensack-turned Islander invented the basic type of ferry service in use now. And though the first thing the Steamship Authority did after it was chartered in 1949 was order her replacement, the dowdy old vessel did more than anything else to close down the era of private ownership of the boat line and hasten the creation of the SSA, the state agency that operates our ferries today.
To burnish her unremembered legacy just a bit this week, the Gazette presents previously unseen color film of the Hackensack-Islander making a complete trip across Vineyard Sound during the first year of her service in the summer of 1946.
The film comes from the collections of Northeast Historic Film, a nonprofit conservation group in Bucksport, Me. It was edited by John Wilson of Edgartown.
In scenes both warmly familiar and slightly, eerily different, we see the old Islander load up at Woods Hole, shoulder her way past West Chop and land at Vineyard Haven. In the movie, she’s painted Tin Man silver, her two tall stacks evoking an Edwardian past while everything else about her foretells the mass transportation future.
Up to the time of her arrival in 1946, Vineyarders had never used the word ferry to describe the boats on which they traveled back and forth to the mainland. For more than a century they had sailed on steamers — long, downswept vessels with sharp, vertical bows and low, yacht-like sterns. These boats loaded a few cars from the side, offered passengers staterooms, writing tables, lunch counters and stewards for their comfort and evoked the feeling of a true sea voyage with every departure from the dock.
By contrast, to generations of Islanders, a ferry was a blockish, inelegant, drive-through tunnel with a maw at both ends, devoted to packing aboard as many cars as possible, with passengers jammed brutishly to the sides of the boat or shoved impersonally to bench seats above the freight deck. A darkly Gothic looking pile of steel and wood built in 1906 for service on the rivers surrounding Manhattan, the Hackensack was certainly no steamer.
“Admittedly the Islander is a ferry-boat and no amount of engineering can alter that fact,” sniffed the Gazette as the refitted and renamed boat began service on April 19, 1946, “but it is apparent that the company has done much to increase her comfort for passengers . . . She is not quite a lady, it is apparent, and her shopping was done on Fourteenth Street rather than up-town, but the old girl has something of an air.”
The Hackensack arrived at a moment in Island history when stasis was suddenly giving way to overwhelming change.
For more than 20 years, four steamships had served the Islands with old-world courtesy. But in 1942, the government had requisitioned the two largest steamers, the New Bedford of 1928 and Naushon of 1929, to serve as hospital ships on the English Channel, leaving the Islands to cope with only one boat apiece through the war. (Both boats served off the coast of France on D-Day and both later returned to the United States, but neither came ever home to the Islands.)
At the end of December 1945, the New Haven Railroad unexpectedly sold the remnants of the Island service to an ad hoc company called the Massachusetts Steamship Lines.
Equipped with only the older and smaller steamers Martha’s Vineyard of 1923 and Nantucket (later Nobska) of 1925, the new firm had less than six months to prepare for a summer that, for the first time in 15 years, would be unfettered by the burdens of depression or war.
“They had had the war, and traffic was down because of the gas rationing and all those kinds of things, and then after the war it all came back big time — cars all over the place — and people wanted to get cars on and off the Island like crazy,” said Barry Eager, a retired schoolteacher from Berlin and expert on the history of the Island line. “And the capacity of the two steamers was nothing compared to what the demand was. And that’s what [the reconfigured Islander] did — pick up a lot of that.”
The first thing the Massachusetts Steamship Lines did was buy the Hackensack, which in late 1945 had been laid up for two years in Passaic, N.J.
The Pennsylvania Railroad had built the Hackensack and a near-twin sister ship for use on the East River in 1906. Originally the two ferries were called Hempstead and Babylon, and later they steamed across the Hudson as the Hackensack and Tenafly. They lay low over the water because river ferries seldom face choppy water, and the ends of both boats were wide open to sea and sky. But they were nearly 200 feet long — only 40 or 50 feet shorter than Island ferries today — and they loaded at both ends and crossed without ever having to turn around, the same efficient way the Island Home and Governor do now. They could also carry large trucks, which the old Island steamers could not manage.
Hurriedly the new steamship line built ferry slips with wooden gantries and ramps at Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven to accommodate the Hackensack. It also began to refit her to sail across open water. The wooden sheathing of her superstructure was remodeled in a more streamlined style. The outside lanes for cars were converted to spaces for passengers, which enclosed them just above the water. “She has been rather nicely fitted up,” said C. Bradford Mitchell of Fairhaven, “but sitting out on her wide, low guards gives one somewhat the feeling of being up to one’s knees in Vineyard Sound.” The main concern of the company was that breaking seas might roll through the vast opening at the bow and sweep cars and people off the stern, so it installed solid steel gates, about four feet high, at both ends. The main concern of the Vineyard, however, was that the reconditioned ferry might actually work too well. The boat could carry 50 cars, about twice as many as one of the old side-loading steamers, and she could make many more crossings a day. “In the years of growth and building which are to come,” said the Gazette in an editorial before the ferry went into service, “the Island itself . . . or even a few individuals here will, for the first time, have it easily within their power to ruin the kind of orderly and wise development which has kept the Vineyard unspoiled for three centuries. The new ferry enterprise, if it is successful, can be the first step in a type of exploitation which will favor cheapness and drive away those whose interest has given us a major part of our general prosperity.”
But the real challenge, at least at first, was making her work at all. With a draft of 16 feet, she was carried to and fro by the tides, had trouble forcing her way into a stiff breeze and kept missing or bashing into her new ferry slips. The new company had renamed her Islander to honor a steamer from 1923 and make her sound like something that really belonged to the Vineyard, but residents kept calling her Hackensack, or even more derisively, “the Hack.”
Discontent over the stewardship of the new company grew. “But most of the blistering epithets are directed at the new ferry Islander,” declared the Falmouth Enterprise that summer. “In one way or another, according to critics, the new addition to Massachusetts Steamship Lines has managed to snarl up all measures designed to relieve traffic tie-ups. If the weather is the least bit nasty the Islander doesn’t run. If the weather is fair, chances are that the capricious ferryboat has internal troubles.”
Yet captains and crewmen gradually figured out how to coax the old riverboat into doing her job more or less properly on a bumpy coastal waterway.
The 1946 film shows the ferry taking on bulky sedans at Woods Hole (with rows of railroad cars resting in the area where cars line up today), pushing purposefully past West Chop (on a return trip, with her bow riding easily over the choppy seas) and sailing into Vineyard Haven and unloading hordes of passengers and cars without fuss, very much as ferries do today. There is a nice scene of men in jackets and ties, and women in floral hats, strolling contentedly across her upper deck during an early evening trip, her stacks standing tall amidships and her forward pilothouse looking dainty with a conical roof.
She had all but vanished from the front pages of the Gazette when, on Nov. 28, 1947, the paper announced that the Marine Inspection Office of the Coast Guard had, without warning, cancelled her certificate of operation, ruling that a ferry with open ends could no longer operate on outside waters. This decision, said the Gazette, “was crippling to the present operation of the boat service and disrupted all plans for the summer season of 1948.” The paper swiftly called for the state to create a public agency to run the boat line “as it does for the provision of airports, bridges and highways.”
It was clear to everyone that the Massachusetts Steamship Lines had no money to build or buy a suitable new ferry. “They were in rough shape. They couldn’t really carry on. They didn’t have the funds to do it,” said Mr. Eager. With the population of the Islands so small and seasonal, “running the year-round operations was a killer.”
When state legislators filed a bill to create the Steamship Authority in May of 1948, the Coast Guard reversed its decision and allowed the Islander to keep steaming until the new boat line could establish itself and order her replacement. The Steamship Authority did this right after it was established in the spring of 1949. And a new ferry Islander — massive, all steel, as fully enclosed as a Civil War ironclad — went into service on May 18, 1950, and served for the next 57 years, longer than any steamer or ferry before or since. The Island Home, which arrived in 2007, is her successor.
As the new ferry Islander began work, the old one was towed away to New London. Mr. Eager said she lost her wooden superstructure and became a barge. Rumors have it that in the 1950s her hull was towed to Barges Beach on Cuttyhunk, where she might have been left with other hulks to trap sand and hold bluffs in place.
If so, it would be a typically anonymous ending for an old work boat. But with her reincarnation on film, the legacy of this pioneering if maladapted old ferry is assured on Vineyard waters. The Gazette itself was conceding that point even she slid away at the end of a towline in the middle of May 1950:
“As for the old Islander, once the Hackensack, she has left us with little regret, for she was never more than a makeshift. But nevertheless she supplied the proof that ferry service was what was needed, reversing the long habit of the Islands and the policy of previous managements. She was the turning point into this new era.”
The Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project was created a year ago by the Gazette to find, preserve and present old films of the Island before they are damaged or lost. Visitors can view the four previous films introduced on the Gazette website at mvgazette.com/historicmoviesofmarthasvineyard. Those with old Vineyard movies to transfer and share may contact Tom Dunlop at firstname.lastname@example.org.