Steamer history is Vineyard history, even now, for the arrival of the air age has not diminished the necessity of boat service.

It is likely that regular boat service between Martha’s Vineyard and the mainland was being operated by the year 1800. This does not mean daily service, however, for in the old times the packets and even the steamboats that followed them, would run on certain days of the week. Sailings were arranged according to the time of year and the needs of traffic.

In 1837 daily service was established between Edgartown, which was then the most important town on the Vineyard, and New Bedford.

The sloop Ann Eliza, Capt. John Merry, was an early boat in this service, and so was the Eclipse, Capt. William Harding. Other early vessels were the Oliver Cromwell, Capt. Samuel Cromwell; Hero, Capt. Caleb Thaxter; Amethyst, Capt. Holmes W. Smith; Escort, Capt. H. L. Cleaveland.

Many facts concerning steamboat operations of former times in Island waters were gathered by the late Harry B. Turner of Nantucket, who wrote The Story of the Island Steamers. At one time Mr. Turner wrote to the Gazette as follows:

The steamer Marco Bozzaris, which was then plying between Nantucket and New Bedford on a “regular schedule,” started the first “excursions” ever made in New England by steamboat.

Jacob Barker, the whaling merchant, who owned and operated the boat with his nephew, Capt. Edward H. Barker, decided to run the Marco Bozzaris on an excursion trip from New Bedford to Edgartown, and it was quite an event for the latter community.

Two hundred and ten persons took passage from New Bedford and the steamer went into Edgartown Harbor with flags flying and had a great reception, for it was the first time a steamer had ever sounded its whistle there.

The Bridgewater Brass Band was secured for the outing and before the passengers stepped ashore, the band rendered a brief concert, playing several familiar tunes. Barker made note of the occasion as “the first time a steamer ever entered Edgartown harbor” and also as “the first time a brass band ever paraded through the village streets.” The historic date was July 6, 1830.

In that early period of steamboating, almost all steam craft were sidewheelers, but a company of enterprising Nantucketers conceived of a propeller steamer which was called the Jersey Blue. This craft was placed in service to run between New York and Nantucket, making trips twice a month.

The Jersey Blue was 100 feet long and 35 feet in the beam, her model resembling that of a barge. The first trip made by the Jersey Blue to Edgartown was on June 19, 1856, when she carried several tons of freight which Capt. Nathan Kelley had obtained in New York.

Although on this first trip the vessel cracked her guard rails, she did better from then on.

In February, 1857, the Jersey Blue ran up to the whaleship Zenas Coffin off Cape Pogue and took her in tow to Hyannis where she discharged her cargo. The whaleship had been trying for several days to make either Nantucket or Edgartown.

The old Jersey Blue, one of the least known of the Island steamers, was a sensation in her day because of her speed, which is said not to have been more than eight miles an hour. She could be beaten by the old sailing packets.

The New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Company was formed in 1886 through the consolidation of the older New Bedford, Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Co. and the Nantucket and Cape Cod Steamboat Co.

The first named of the original two companies was formed to operate steamers from New Bedford to Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. It can be traced back, through predecessors, to 1845. The last named of the two companies was chartered in 1855 to run steamers between Nantucket and Hyannis.

The two companies gradually encroached upon each other’s territory until in the late 70s and early 80s the two lines were directly competing on the route between New Bedford and the Vineyard, stops being made at Woods Hole, Vineyard Haven, Cottage City and Edgartown, and also Nantucket.

A consolidation was arranged, and the new company began its corporate existence in March, 1886, with the following fleet of side-wheelers: River Queen, Island Home, Martha’s Vineyard and Monohansett.

Late in the summer of 1886 the new steamer Nantucket was added to the fleet, and the other steamers were commissioned as follows: 1891, Gay Head; 1901, Uncatena.

The River Queen was sold in 1893, the Island Home sold in 1895, and the Monohansett in 1903.