Ferry Tales

The story of getting here by sail, paddle, steam, and diesel is its own voyage at the M.V. Museum.

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If you think regularly getting to and from our beloved Vineyard now by ferry can sometimes be challenging, imagine relying on the very first ones, in the 1700s. Powered only by the wind in their sails, they ran once a day, a few times a week … weather permitting. It made getting to the mainland for business or pleasure, as well as access to off-Island supplies, unpredictable to say the least.

This is where the exhibition “Ferry Tales” begins, running through April 20, 2025, at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The show delves deeply into the shift from wind to steam to our diesel-powered boats of today, with interesting texts, photographs, informative timelines, nostalgic memorabilia, reproductions of historical documents, and models of beloved and not-so-beloved boats that have made the crossing over the centuries.

There is far too much to cover in a single article, but a brief overview starts with Abraham Chase. He operated the first ferry service to the Island in about 1705, sailing his sloop from Falmouth to Holmes Hole, now Vineyard Haven. Before this time, the only way to get to and from our shores was to hire someone to take you across. The model of a sloop similar to the one Chase sailed reveals that it was a far cry from the luxury boats that were to come in the next century.

That evolution began with steam-powered paddle ferries in the 1830s. Initially, though, these ferries primarily served Nantucket, because its booming whaling port made it a more lucrative route, and the boats only sometimes stopped here along the way.

The situation improved in the second half of the 19th century, as Martha’s Vineyard became a popular summer destination, and relied on the ferries to bring tourists and summer visitors to our shores. Black-and-white photographs of the paddleboats, including ones that stopped in Oak Bluffs with the enormous Sea View Hotel just a stone’s throw away, evoke an era gone by.

The model of the Canonicus, which began service between Fairhaven and Edgartown in 1851, provides a three-dimensional sense of how much more passenger-focused these ferries were, compared with the early boats under sail. Tucked throughout the exhibition are fascinating facts. For example, the Canonicus was pressed into service during the Civil War. The New Bedford and the Naushon were also used as troop transport and hospital ships in World War II.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the 1880s through 1910s, ferries ran day trips from down-Island towns up to Gay Head (now Aquinnah). This cut down what would have been a half-day journey along bad roads to three hours by water, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the Cliffs, lighthouse, and ox-cart rides.

Just before the Civil War, two new boats began servicing the Cape and Islands — the first Island Home and the Monohansett — finally providing more reliable service. Interestingly, the exhibition label explains, “These boats represented the 19th century steamboat in its fully developed form, and weren’t prone to as many of the problems as their predecessors, which tended to suffer from failing parts, occasional fires, or exploding boilers.”

As technology advanced, so too did the ferries. In 1911, the Sankaty became the first steel-hulled propeller steamer with an enclosed car deck to the Vineyard, ushering in the golden age of steamboating to the Island.

By the 1920s, its design inspired four such luxury, ferries with sleek lines and a knifelike prow. Dubbed the “White Fleet,” passengers enjoyed the rich carpeting, polished woodwork, brass hardware, and private staterooms.

From the mid-20th century on, we enter more familiar territory, with diesel roll-on, roll-off ferries. Color photographs from the 1950s might bring back memories for those who came here as children. One such boat was the beloved 1950 Islander, which ran until 2007. It was the first Island ferry that could transport 18-wheel tractor-trailers, making it much easier to move groceries and other freight to our shores, and it foreshadowed the enormous commercial trucks with items that stock our store shelves today.

As part of the final section, “Ferry Tales” adds a bit of levity with the photograph of a skeleton sitting on a beach chair in the crowded standby line with a handwritten sign claiming, “Next Time I’ll Make Reservations.”

While a humorous commentary on a familiar experience today, it also reminds us that this same trip to and from the mainland has a centuries-old history — one that first-time tourists, frequent visitors, and longtime residents all share.

 

“Ferry Tales” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through April 20, 2025.