This Was Then: Last of the bumboats

The Eben A. Thacher.


During the 19th and early 20th century, the most recognized ship captains in Vineyard Haven Harbor were not its storied whaling masters, but rather its bumboatsmen. Bumboatsmen sold anything and everything — water, food, tobacco, and supplies of all kinds to coasting schooners and foreign ships stopped in Vineyard Haven, and even vessels passing through the sound.

Also liquor. In 1925, antique collector James (“Jump Spark Jim”) West acquired a chest inscribed with the name of Holmes Hole resident David Smith. In 1803, Smith received his innkeeper’s license and with it permission to operate a bumboatman’s bar. Inside this chest, West found six two-quart square bottles (one still full) and a set of horn cups.

From about 1894 to 1908, Capt. William Randall operated one of the more celebrated bumboats ever to sail in our harbor, the Susie D. Topped with a derrick, a smokestack, and a storeroom, this odd-looking vessel was a ubiquitous sight in Vineyard waters. Randall sold water and groceries, delivered mail and telegrams, and sold eggs, anchors, rubber boots, oilskins, ropes, chains, and a whole lot more. “It carried almost every conceivable commodity outside of fancy lacework or ladies’ hats,” reported the Boston Herald in 1908. “The little steamer cruises slowly about the harbor all day,” wrote author Charles Hine, “and no sooner does a vessel drop anchor than the captain puts his boat alongside and trading begins, much as it would if a good-sized department store rolled up to your own door, and you living 20 miles from nowhere. Our modern idea is also provided with a wrecking outfit, carries anchors, supplies water, and can carry passengers if she wishes, and altogether is as handy as a pocket in a shirt.” Motor Boat magazine described the Susie D. as “familiar to navigators in the sound as Cape Pogue and Nobska lighthouses.” During the course of one year, the Susie D. reportedly delivered 5,000 letters from passing ships to the Post Office. 

In 1909, a brand-new bumboat arrived to replace the retired Susie D. — the 40-foot Eben A. Thacher, built that year in Chelsea and designed as a floating grocery and ship chandlery. (Eben Allen Thacher was a wealthy Hyannis insurance agent who bought and sold boats, and later, was mixed up in rum running. How his name wound up on this vessel is forgotten.) The Thacher was built with tanks to carry more than 4,500 gallons of water, as well as room for kerosene, gasoline, lubricating oils, salt pork, needles, tobacco, cordage, wire rope, and other goods. The new boat “will cruise about the sound from dawn till dark, intercepting shipping,” wrote Motor Boat magazine. Also installed was a 20-horsepower engine and a sturdy derrick for lifting anchors and chains. (Anchor dragging was a lucrative side gig for bumboatsmen; they would pull a weighted cable across the bottom of the sound, seeking lost, forgotten anchors, then lift aboard their catch via derrick and winch.)

The Thacher soon found additional work as both a freighter and a tug, helping float the schooner Alaska ashore on Hedge Fence Shoal in 1910, the schooner Henry P. Hallock stuck on the flats north of Edgartown Light in 1912, the schooner Parnook grounded on Squash Meadow Shoal in 1914, and many others.

The owner and captain of the Thacher was Henry Stevenson, a native of Odense, Denmark, who had immigrated to the U.S. as a child. His mate — and soon, captain — was Armindo (“Joe”) Pinto, a Portuguese immigrant who came to the Island in 1909 as a cranberry picker. Other longtime crewmen included bosun Carl Merry, and crewmen Antone Canha, Frank Manning, Wilbur Gerald, and Claudino Paiva.

In an interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in 1983, Erford Burt of Vineyard Haven recalled, “Captain Stevenson, he was running Eben Thacher then, and he was servicing these tugs and schooners and whatever with water and food or whatever they wanted ashore; he’d come in and pick up for ’em, called it the bumboat … He was strictly serving the commerce that were coming in the harbor, schooners and mostly big sailing ships he was taking care of, ’cause they had no way to come in except in a small boat. So he’d supply water, this boat was sheathed inside so the whole main part of her hull was watertight; they kept it scrubbed out and so on, that was called a water boat, and she could take, I don’t know, tons of water, and they’d pump it aboard these other boats … They’d take ’em groceries if they ordered ’em, pick up the mail, and whatever they wanted.”

In the early ’20s, Stevenson replaced the engine and had the vessel lengthened significantly. “He had 20 feet put in the middle of it,” Burt told Lee, “cut right in half like they did the Uncatena, and they lengthened it up, put 20 feet in, and they run it for years like that.”

“That’s when they done more freighting,” Burt continued. “It wasn’t big enough before that to do much … They was bringin’ freight from Woods Hole to the Vineyard … trainloads of stuff. You know, coal, hay, grain, fertilizer, bulk freight, everything before that had to come in a dolly, this way they’d load a whole trainload, a truck car, right on the boat. They’d load it themselves. A track came right down on this side of the dock, and they’d swing it around with a derrick, and move it up to the hold and then on the deck. They’d bring all that stuff over here, and they’d carry stuff to Nantucket and Naushon, Cuttyhunk, and so on. She was a smaller freighter, that’s what it was.”
The Thacher sank once. In April 1929, while carrying a load of iron pipe through heavy seas, two huge waves swept over the boat, filling the hold with water. Within two minutes, it keeled over and sank a half-mile off Naushon in 10 feet of water. The crew escaped unharmed, and the boat was soon raised and returned to service. In 1932, the Thacher was sold to an East Boston fisherman and renamed Uno.

In 1932, a new boat was designed by Burt and built in Fairhaven. It was again christened the Eben A. Thacher. Burt told Lee, “I designed a 65-footer that filled [the old Thacher’s] place. We took the engine out of the other one and put in the new one. And she went a little faster than the first one did, and carried almost twice as much freight. So that was a pretty successful boat.”

The new Thacher was principally a freighter and tug; the age of bumboating was over. When dense fog and ice stopped the ferries in February 1936, the Thacher helped free them. When the schooner Minas Prince grounded on the Hedge Fence Shoals in 1935, the Thacher was there to help pull it off. When the British steamer Fort Amherst hit a rock (or, as some theorized, a submerged wreck) off Oak Bluffs and rent its side, the Thacher helped shift 125 tons of potatoes and salt fish so that the ship could limp into port. But mostly it hauled freight — coal, grain, lumber, calves, bottled gas, hay, and ice. Captain Pinto eventually bought the Thacher from Captain Stevenson, even as their enterprise began losing freighting business to the steamships.

A series of steamship strikes between 1937 and 1946 crippled passenger and freight service between the islands and the mainland. In April 1937, 40 striking seamen tied up the steamers in New Bedford and refused to cast off until a longstanding pay cut was restored. The second strike, in July of the same year, was backed by the International Seamen’s Union. In both strikes, passengers were marooned, the mail was delayed, and the delivery of food and other necessities halted. There was only mild sympathy among islanders for the strikers. A movement began on Nantucket, only initially in jest, to secede from the nation and establish a protectorate in the model of Bermuda. The U.S. Marshal in Boston ordered the arrest of any striker interfering with the delivery of mail to the islands.

Stepping in to fill the ferry service void was Captain Pinto’s Thacher, carrying as many as 150 passengers at a time, together with 50 tons of freight, including automobiles. Captain Frank Vincent’s On Time carried another 75 passengers and 10 tons of freight between Woods Hole and the Island.

Another strike in July 1940 caused four more days of travel and delivery chaos. Again the Eben Thacher was enlisted to bring mail to Nantucket, and cars, two at a time, from the Vineyard to Woods Hole. Governor Saltonstall issued an ultimatum authorizing the establishment of a new steamship line, but withdrew it when a settlement was reached.

In September 1946, 175 steamship employees called yet another walkout in sympathy with a national maritime strike. The Nantucket, Islander, and Martha’s Vineyard were tied up in Vineyard Haven; the crewmen slept aboard the vessels and refused to move them. The strike lasted three days, while the Thacher was once again drafted to deliver fresh food to the islands.

The Eben A. Thacher left Island waters for good about 1950. But the vessel is still afloat today under the same name — modernized, rebuilt, and converted for oystering in Norwalk, Conn. “We use it regularly,” explains Stephen Lubrano of Hillard Bloom Shellfish. “She’s one of our most important boats.”