Friday, April 23, 2010

Nemasket Steamboats, 1877-95

Won’t it be fun to hear the boat’s whistle blow and see people hurrying with carpet bags, valises, trunks, etc.
Middleboro Gazette, July, 1877

The Upper Factory mill pond, the pond which is formed by the damming of the Nemasket River at Wareham Street, was once the site of Riverside Wharf, the embarkation point of Pioneer and Assawampsett, two small steam-powered side paddle boats which were operated as excursion craft in the last quarter of the century by owner John Baylies LeBaron (1845-1918).

When LeBaron first proposed the construction of a steamer to ply the Nemasket River, he had to address the matter of the three road bridges above Wareham Street. Waterman’s Hill Bridge (Grove Street), Alms House Bridge (Wood Street) and Vaughan’s Bridge (Vaughan Street) were all of low height and unaltered would restrict the passage of any steamboat underneath. At LeBaron’s request, Middleborough established a Bridge Committee comprised of A. C. Wood, J. G. Vaughan and J. H. Shaw to consider the matter. The committee reported favorably, and the town expended just over $900 to raise the bridges. Of this amount, $550 was paid to Samuel Clark, John Carver and Edgar Thomas for the work (exclusive of materials); $55.50 was paid for the services of the committee; $103.19 to Vaughan for lumber for the Waterman’s Hill Bridge and additional work on all three; $29.75 to Wood for additional work on Alms House and Vaughan’s Bridges; and $14.00 to B. P. W. Lovell for extra work on Vaughan’s Bridge. The balance, presumably, was spent on material.

It is likely that the town was motivated to expend the funds for the promotion of a strictly private enterprise by the prospect of Lake Assawompsett’s development as a local resort:

Picnic parties are all the rage now, from the village to the borders of these beautiful lakes, which we hope a recent act of the town meeting in voting to raise the river bridges to permit John Baylies LeBaron’s steamboat to pass under, will be made more accessible.

First built of LeBaron’s two steamboats was Pioneer in 1877 with lumber milled at the Ivory Harlow steam mill on Vine Street in Middleborough. Built as a flat-bottomed steamer, the boat had her forty foot keel laid on the bank of Nevertouch Pond on Middleborough’s West Side, and was equipped with a coal-burning upright steam boiler and a driving mechanism designed entirely by LeBaron. The boat was built to accommodate fifty passengers, though later reports reduced the number to forty as the optimal number. Following a successful test on Nevertouch, Pioneer, weighing some 4,500 pounds was hauled overland down Center Street and launched into the river.

Though Pioneer had been built expressly to be operated under LeBaron’s command, problems soon arose when it was required that LeBaron hold a fireman’s license in order to operate the craft. LeBaron, who did not have such a license, argued that since it was he himself who had built the boat and boiler, he certainly had an understanding of how the boat operated. Confronted with this logic, the license was duly granted.

Pioneer enjoyed a brief first season, being removed from the river in October, 1877, by William Downing who hauled the vessel to LeBaron’s yard where it was laid up for the winter. Pioneer was overhauled the following spring, with larger paddle wheels being added, as well as additional planking on the hull. She was repainted at this time, as well, and launched by Downing into the river from Rock Street in May, 1878, at which time the Gazette wrote that “we expect she will give greater satisfaction this season.”

In the spring of 1879, the boat was once again overhauled, refitted and repainted. The Old Colony Memorial reported in June of that year that Pioneer “has commenced making her regular trips to the lakes, and has had several excursion parties. Captain LeBaron is a first class hand for a ‘time,’ sparing no pains to please his patrons.”

An 1879 advertisement for Pioneer (which was later described as “very safe, though slow”) provides a wonderful prospectus of the typical trip on the river. Pioneer departed Riverside Wharf at one p. m. each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, to cruise the Nemasket River and Lake Assawompsett. Once on Assawompsett, the boat would touch at Stony Point (Nelson’s) Grove before crossing the lake and passing through the Narrows into Pocksha Pond. The return journey would stop at Sear’s Grove before arriving back at Middleborough at four p. m. The three hour round trip covered seventy miles and cost fifty cents. Moonlight excursions were conducted every month and “societies, families and Private parties [were] accommodated any of the remaining days of the week at reasonable rates.”

Despite the promise of a successful third season on the river, Pioneer was temporarily disabled when soon after these reports she broke her shaft in June, 1879, putting her out of commission until mid-August. LeBaron believed the accident was due to an undetected crack in the shaft which occurred in July, 1878, “when her paddles became locked in the river grass and her gearing broke….”

Two years after her construction, Pioneer was joined – and later replaced – by Assawampsett. Built in 1879, Assawampsett was a sixty-four foot long craft, alleged to be capable of carrying one hundred passengers and an orchestra. E. T. P. Jenks, in 1943, affirmed that indeed the boat had “carried a load of forty or fifty people on the regular excursion to the lakes, three times a week and … on special occasions carried as many as a hundred or more.”

The boat had a flat bottom with a shallow draft which enabled it to pass over obstructions in the river with relative ease. The coal-fired boiler built by Lebaron was vented by an adjustable smokestack which could be lowered to allow clearance beneath the bridges upstream. Some accounts indicate that the smoke stack “was hinged and as the ship neared the bridges, a crewman went on the top deck and laid it flat, until the bridge was passed. Then it was raised again.” Other records indicate a different design for the smoke stack:

To allow for the boat’s getting under [the bridges, LeBaron] rigged a recessed smoke stack, which was lowered into a pocket in the top deck, until they cleared the bridge, then it was raised again.

In either case, passengers located on the top deck were required to go below until the bridge had been cleared.

Two men were required to operate the steamers, LeBaron acting as captain and either one of his sons, Elric H. or Jesse acting as fireman fueling the boiler, lowering the smoke stack and performing other tasks as needed. Among these latter duties was the removal of floating logs which had the potential of doing significant damage to the paddle wheels. On these occasions, the engine was cut and Elric LeBaron, “equipped with a saw, would crawl alongside the wheel and saw the log in two. The boat meanwhile was drifting down stream, but when power was again applied, that was made up, and the upstream trip was resumed.”

A “settin’ pole” was used to maneuver the craft off rocks and shoals, as well as to navigate tight bends along the middle portion of the route. At these spots, the engine was again stopped and the vessel powered and guided by means of the pole. Enabling the steamers to pass up river was a canal which had been cut just north of Vaughan Street in 1816. Initially intended to increase the flow of water to mills located further downstream, the canal “straightened the steamer path. It was a shortcut around a river bend of such small axis that the steamer could not make the curves.”

Occasionally, the steamboat excursions were marred by difficulty. Sometime in the 1880s while on a Fourth of July excursion, “the steamer met with an accident, losing part of her smoke stack, which caused some delay. A bolt was also lost, which delayed the passage, and the passengers were not landed until about half past one o’clock.” A similarly fated excursion arranged by E. T. P. Jenks and Fred Holmes set forth on a moonlit night but ended disastrously when the ship grounded on a rock at the foot of Rock Street. Disembarkation for the worn passengers was delayed until nearly dawn.

The steamers were highly popular with local residents, particularly during summer holidays when river outings were made to social events on the shores of the lakes, including the numerous picnics and regattas once held there. Personal recollections which survive nearly all speak highly of the delights of the river steamers, including at least one happy meeting aboard the boat:

Capt. Ezra Pickens of Foxboro, while on a visit to Middleboro, took a trip up the river in a little steamer, and on the way pointed out to a friend the place where he lived and worked as a boy. On remarking that a girl who lived there used to ride a horse at work, a lady near by interrupted the conversation to say that she was the girl. Upon this the old acquaintance was very happily renewed.

Children in the neighborhood of Wareham Street also were fond of the steamboats as they were frequently given free passage between Wareham and Grove Streets through the generosity of LeBaron.

Mr. LeBaron was a kindly man, and after he had delivered a party of passengers from a trip to the lake at the wharf at Wareham street, he always invited all the “young fry” within sound of his voice to “have a ride” as he took the ship upstream to its regular mooring berth near the so-called Japan bridge [at Grove Street].

There were always plenty of kids to go along on the slow trip up river, against the current, and that slow ride probably repaid them amply as they ambled afoot back to their home across the fields from what is now route 28 to the Wareham street section.

Though LeBaron is credited with “the distinction of being the first, and only, man to navigate a steamboat up the Nemasket River”, such was not the case. In 1857, Dr. Ebenezer W. Drake and Robert S. Capen were owners of a 28 foot boat, Namasket which had a capacity of twenty. The boat made trips down the river to Assawompsett, including a journey for a clambake in August, 1857, which was documented in the Namasket Gazette at the time. It is not clear whether the craft was a steamboat, however. Vigers’ History of the Town of Lakeville also credits William Young as having navigated the Nemasket successfully in a forty foot stern wheel paddle boat built for excursions up the river. Supposedly this boat made two trips up river before being relegated to Long Pond where it remained in use as a pleasure boat.

Young’s boat is likely the same as an unnamed one which was recorded as having been built during the spring of 1882 with a reported capacity of 200 passengers. Though this boat was planned to be in the water by June 20 of that year, it is was not in fact ready until the following spring when the Old Colony Memorial reported that “a new stern wheel steamer is to be put into Assawampsett lake this season, running in the excursion business from Middleboro to the lake…” This steamer was completed about late May, 1883, and had a draft of only eight inches. Its capacity had been downscaled somewhat from the original plans, carrying 150 passengers “comfortably.” In 1885, there is mention of yet another steamer, Nemasket, though this may have been identical with Young’s boat.

The Nemasket passenger steamers were joined by the private steam yacht Lavinia which was owned by Charles S. Stratton (better known as General Tom Thumb) and which was launched on the Nemasket in June, 1883, making “a trial trip which turned out very successful.” Named for Stratton’s wife, Lavinia W. (Bump) Stratton, a Middleborough native, Lavinia had been built three or four years previously in Plymouth and was considered “very fast.”

The popularity of steam boating on the river during the last quarter of the 19th century prompted the Old Colony Memorial to report somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

Middleboro’ is going into navigation quite extensively. Another steamer for the Nemasket River has just been purchased. If she keeps on this way the town will get included in some future river and harbor bill.

Yet despite its growing popularity, steam boating on the Nemasket River was fraught with difficulty. Young’s decision to abandon his boat to Long Pond may have been prompted by navigational difficulties along the river where rocks, small shoals, fluctuating water levels and a prodigious growth of grass often made passage difficult. In the spring of 1883, the Middleboro Gazette was calling “for local action to assist in clearing Nemasket River of rocks and shoals, so as to make steam boating practicable between the town and Assawampsett Lake, a fine sheet of water near by,” arguing that “such an expenditure might prove profitable to the town by attracting excursions to the Lake, the railroad also becoming a sharer in the benefits by increased travel.” The Old Colony Memorial echoed the Gazette’s sentiments, arguing that clearing the river would prove obligatory in the interests of navigation. “With such an interest in navigation, the town will soon have to undertake improvement of [the] Nemasket River.” One who took up this call was Stratton who in early August, 1883, “had intended clearing out the grass and blasting the rocks in the river to make a clear passage to Assawampsett Pond for his steam yacht ‘Lavinia’.” Stratton’s untimely death, however, prevented the plans from being acted upon and no further action seems to have been taken except for in 1885 when a portion of the river was dammed and drained to facilitate the laying of water pipes across the river bed at which time a number of rocks against which the steamer Nemasket had scraped were removed. LeBaron’s boats, with their very shallow draft, remained the only steamers capable of navigating the river with relative ease. Nonetheless, the lush growth of river grass (which was mowed periodically to aid the flow of water to the municipal electric light station) could sometimes hinder the boats’ progress upstream as witnessed by the disabling of Pioneer in 1879.

The romantic days of the Nemasket steamers continued until 1895 when the City of Taunton erected its gatehouse at the head of the river, appreciably lowering the level of water in the Nemasket and denying the steamers sufficient draft, as well as barring access to the scenic pleasures of Lake Assawompsett. At the time, LeBaron lodged a claim against the city for damages “because of the doing away of his steamboat business” and the fact that LeBaron’s claim ran “well into the thousands” is indicative of the popularity of the Nemasket steamboats.

With the end of the riverboat excursions, Assawampsett was pulled onto the bank at East Grove Street and the engine removed by Lebaron for use in hauling ice at his icehouses at Clark’s Springs. At one time, the boat broke loose and was carried by the current downstream where she became wedged against the stone abutments and blocked the river. Following this misadventure, Assawampsett was drawn back upstream into a small cove opposite the East Grove Street pumping station where she was left ignominiously to molder and rot. The smokestack was removed and left in the adjacent meadow where it decayed. By 1909, the decks were gone from the boat, and during World War I the boat’s remaining iron fittings were stripped by two industrious boys who reportedly hauled them away for scrap iron, carrying them on a long pole between them. Eventually, all that remained of Assawampsett was its keel and seven long ribs, though even this wreckage was long recalled as a landmark by those who saw her.

, photograph, late 19th century
John Baylies LeBaron's steam boat, Assawampsett, is seen on the lake for which it was named. Assawampsett was one of a number of steam boats which operated on the Nemasket River in the last quarter of the 19th century. Built in 1879, the vessel remained in service through 1894.

Brockton Enterprise, "Nemasket River Once famed for Steamboat Excursions", August 11, 1949, and Steamboat Days on Lake Assawampsett", June 15, 1953.

Middleboro Gazette, "What the Gazette Was Saying Twenty Five Years Ago", April 16, 1920; "What the Gazette Was Saying Fifty Years Ago", July 8, 1927; ibid., July 15, 1927; ibid., May 11, 1928; ibid., May 24, 1929; ibid., June 28, 1929; "Enjoy Stories of Old Times", June 11, 1943, p. 2.

Middleborough Antiquarian

Old Colony Memorial

Romaine, Mertie E. History of the Town of Middleboro, Massachusetts. Volume II. Middleborough, MA: Town of Middleborough, 1969.

Standard-Times [New Bedford], "Steamers on Water Supply Ponds, Resorts Features of Olden Scene", September 26, 1935.


Wally Glendye said...

It must have been a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible for someone to re-start the ferry service?

Mike said...

Unfortunately since New Bedford and Taunton began drawing upon the lakes that are the river's source as a municipal water supply in the late 1800s, the amount of water flowing in the river has been substantially reduced and there would not be a sufficient draft to permit any large size craft. Additionally, the construction of the dam at the head of the river prevents access to the lake (as do public health laws relative to municipal water supplies). Nonetheless, the river may be enjoyed by canoe or kayak and is an experience not to be missed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much! It was very nice reading all of that history. The Nemasket is a hidden jewel. I've paddled it a few times myself, never would have thought it could support a steamboat, albeit a small one!

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