This Was Then: Transfer steamer Maryland

Harrowing tales of a railroad at sea.


To see a huge, open-ended car ferry in Vineyard Haven Harbor is normal. To see one in 1875, a full generation before the first automobiles arrived, was a spectacle.

In mid-December 1875, the 234-foot transfer steamer Maryland appeared in Vineyard Haven Harbor, towed by the steam tug Cyclops. It was headed from Havre de Grace, Md. to Boston. It remained in our harbor for about three days, then continued its journey north. 

It was a car ferry, to be sure, but not for automobiles. It was for train cars, and was said to be the first ferry ever built to have railroad tracks laid directly onto its deck. Built in 1852, it ferried trains for a decade across the Susquehanna River for the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. Trains were rolled right on, and at the end of its short voyage across the river, rolled right off again onto the tracks on the other side. During the Civil War it was used briefly as a troop transport, but then resumed its river service until a bridge was finally built over the river in 1866.

In 1875, after years of disuse, the Maryland was purchased by the New York & New England Railroad with a more ambitious route in mind. By creating a train ferry route between the Bronx in New York and Jersey City, N.J. (via the Harlem and East Rivers and across the Hudson), train travelers could bypass Manhattan entirely, which, in the days before the Hell Gate Bridge and the North River Tunnels, required a lengthy detour and a change of trains.

So in December 1875, the old ferry left Vineyard Haven and continued its long tow to Boston, where it was heavily remodeled. The Maryland was rebuilt to accommodate eight passenger cars or sixteen freight cars, on two tracks. The walls of its 130-foot saloon deck were finished in ash and black walnut, and it also had a large dining room, a newspaper and fruit stand, a promenade deck, ladies’ apartments, a sitting room for gentlemen that featured prominent oval mirrors, crimson-lined curtains, leather-cushioned sofas, and six heavy “beautiful, swinging” chandeliers; together with a “complete” kitchen with a large range that was “kept in constant operation.” 

By the end of March, the rebuilt steamer was ready for service. It departed March 27, put in at Provincetown a few days later, and soon continued slowly south, under the command of Capt. Roswell B. Brooks and under the tow of the tugboat Charles Pearson. 

On April 4, 1876, a terrific gale struck. The worst storm of the season, more than a foot of snow fell across New England. Ships were wrecked; telegraphs were cut off; trains were delayed. The Maryland anchored in Vineyard Haven Harbor again, just ahead of the storm, but as the gale intensified that night, the massive steamer slipped its chain. It first struck Capt. Hiram Daggett’s 82-ton schooner Antoinette M. Acken, doing serious damage to the vessel; then it struck the railway wharf on Beach Road, carrying away a portion of it; next it struck Captain Dillingham’s 45-ton schooner Frolic, doing only minor damage. Finally, it swung alongside Captain Harding’s 49-ton packet schooner John B. Norris, crushing its bulwarks, doing serious damage, and driving both vessels high up onto the beach near Union Wharf. It remained stuck in the sand in Vineyard Haven for 17 days.

Early reports stated that the Maryland was “badly injured,” and indeed the bowsprit of the Norris had wrecked much of the ship’s top deck (and “cleared out the captain’s stateroom”), but upon closer inspection the damage was declared to be relatively minor. However, the Pearson was not strong enough to pull the huge steamer off the beach. Telegrams went out calling for assistance, and over the next couple of weeks they were joined by two more tugboats, the steam dredge Knickerbocker, and a revenue cutter. It was determined that a channel 600 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 12 feet deep would have to be dug before it could be floated again. Huge piles of sand were extracted.

On April 16, 1876, the steamer was finally freed. It commenced its journey to New York the next day, and on May 8 began its new route, part of what would soon be known as the Centennial Trains. It was just in time for the opening of the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, the first official World’s Fair to be held in the United States. For ten dollars, a traveler in Boston could reach Philadelphia in only 12 hours, without changing cars. “The traveller is conveyed in Pullman palace cars, if he desires, all the way, the train being transferred … on board the steamer Maryland, enabling him to make the entire journey to Philadelphia without leaving his seat or berth,” reported the Boston Globe about the new “all-rail” route. By 1881, the Maryland was transporting 60,000 train cars and nearly 20,000 passengers a year on its 70-minute leg around Manhattan.

The City of New York, angry at the loss of business, immediately sued the railroad, claiming that they were operating a ferry without a license. But the railway company eventually won the suit in federal court, under the claim that the Maryland was not technically a “ferry,” but rather a part of the railroad. 

A group of Vineyarders commenced a suit as well. “There is a feeling among the people of Vineyard Haven that injustice has been done them,” reported the Boston Post in May 1876. “Capt. Hiram Daggett, a prominent and respected citizen of Vineyard Haven, writes to the POST indignantly… relating more in detail the injuries done by the ‘Maryland’ while drifting about the harbor in the storm.” Detailing the significant swath of damage done to the ships in the harbor, and relating Daggett’s opinion that the Maryland was “insufficiently equipped” for a gale, the Post concluded, “This is certainly a record of considerable damage, for which it was not unreasonable to ask compensation.” How this argument was ultimately settled is unclear. The transfer steamer Maryland continued its route for another dozen years.

Shortly before midnight, on Dec. 7, 1888, the Maryland arrived at its slip at Mott Haven on the Harlem River, as scheduled, part of the Boston Express run from Washington, D.C. On board were three passenger coaches, a heavily loaded Adams express car (carrying safes full of jewelry and banknotes, together with a shipment of 18,598 false teeth), a baggage car, a combination car, two Pullman sleepers, and 24 passengers, most of whom were asleep. Just as the crew prepared to transfer the cars out, a fire broke out in the saloon kitchen above. Within minutes, burning timbers were falling onto the roof of the cars below. “Wild” panic ensued. “The men prayed and swore alternately and climbed over each other, scrambling like wild beasts in their efforts to get out,” read one report. An elderly lady had to be dragged out of a car by a porter. Through stifling smoke, all the passengers, some half-naked and many only in their nightclothes, evacuated. While some were badly seared, no lives were lost. The Maryland was consumed in the flames; it burned down to its waterline and sank in the mud. Everything aboard was lost.

A new transfer steamer, also named the Maryland, was launched in 1889. The route continued into the early 20th century.


Comments are closed.