From the Vineyard Gazette edition of July 9, 1940:
Now that the Island steamboat service is so much to the fore, and the problems of the future operation are before the state Department of Public Utilities, a history of the corporate development of the line and its operations becomes of special interest.
The first steamboat companies organized to serve Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket were financed by Island capital and were managed by Islanders. In February, 1833, a group of Nantucket business men chartered the Nantucket Steamboat Co., and the new company took over the steamer Telegraph which had been built and operated previously by a number of individuals.
This company built the steamer Massachusetts in 1842 at a cost of $40,000. A year later the Massachusetts began to make scheduled stops at Edgartown on her way between Nantucket and New Bedford, but this service was abandoned after a few weeks.
The first Vineyard company, the Martha’s Vineyard Steamboat Co., was organized in 1851, although the history of this line goes back, through antecedent operators, to about 1845. This company operated service to the Vineyard only making stops at both Holmes Hole and Edgartown.
All this time the steamboat lines had been free of any entanglements so far as rail connections were concerned, for the simple reason that there was no rail terminal accessible except at New Bedford. But in 1854 the railroad line was extended from Sandwich down the Cape to Hyannis, and thereupon the Nantucket Steamboat Co. decided to change its mainland terminus from New Bedford to Hyannis.
This shift was more logical than it seems today, for Nantucket was a port of the first importance. Only twenty years earlier it had ranked as the third city in the state, coming behind Boston and Salem. There was no particular need to be linked to New Bedford, and the shortest route to a railroad seemed to be advantageous. For a time the adoption of the new route seemed to have been wise.
Later, however, the change bore less fortunate results for the Nantucketers. In 1854 a new company known as the New Bedford, Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Company, was organized expressly to construct a steamer for the run between New Bedford and Nantucket. The new company built the Eagle’s Wing and had her ready for service in October, 1854. Thus there were two lines competing for Nantucket business, and also threatening to split the Vineyard traffic.
Vineyarders were indignant, and accused Nantucket of seeking to injure the interests of their Island. However, the new company had little Nantucket money invested in it. This marked, indeed, the first venture in steamboating on the Island run which was controlled on the mainland.
In 1855, the original Nantucket company was consolidated with the Nantucket & Cape Cod Steamboat Co. which had been formed by Nantucket and Hyannis capitalists to exploit the direct route from Nantucket to the Cape. The steamer Island Home was built by the latter group, and now entered service for the newly consolidated company.
There was now direct competition for business, but in course of time the New Bedford company agreed to run only as far as Edgartown, leaving Nantucket to the other line. Matters ran along without much change until 1872. In this year the railroad was extended from Monument Beach to Woods Hole, and the Nantucket steamer began to make stops at Woods Hole, renewing the former competition with the New Bedford line.
In 1872, also, the general business situation had changed greatly. There was a boom, and Oak Bluffs was a summer resort attracting visitors from all over the country, not by the hundreds but by the thousands. In fact, an extension of the railroad to Woods Hole was made possible by stock subscriptions taken by the Oak Bluffs Land & Warf Co., Dr. Daniel Fisher of Edgartown, and others on the Vineyard. Vineyard business, under the circumstances, was something worth competing for.
The Nantucket & Cape Cod Steamboat Co. now began to operate two boats daily in summer service, the first time such a schedule had been attempted. In a few years, however, this company was losing ground, and it accumulated a heavy debt and went through a long period without profit or an actual loss. In 1881, Andrew G. Pierce of New Bedford, for many years the principle figure in the New Bedford company, assumed operation of both lines; and in 1888 the two companies were formally consolidated.
This was the birth of the New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Co., which continued to operate for many years, and long after became the N. B., M. V. & N. line of the New England Steamship Co. The newly consolidated company built the steamer Nantucket. The Monohansett had been built in 1862 to replace the burned Eagle’s Wing, incidentally using the engines of that boat; the old Martha’s Vineyard had been built in 1871; and now, in 1891, the Gay Head was added to the fleet. The Gay Head was the largest steamer yet built for the Island service.
Compiled by Hilary Wall