90 Years of the Block Island Ferry, Part 1
Interstate Navigation and the Block Island Ferry are thrilled to be celebrating its 90th Anniversary! It’s been a pleasure to serve generations of our riders! As our official birthday in September approaches, we’d like to take a look back through the years and explore the company’s birth and evolution to the Rhode Island staple that it is today.
We would like to extend a very special thanks to Greg Abbott for his extensive knowledge of Interstate Navigation’s history. Without his assistance this blog series could not have been possible.
While 2023 celebrates 90 years since the incorporation of Interstate Navigation, the company was operating in a smaller capacity 5 years prior. Founded in 1928 by Capt. Raymond H. Abell, the company started with only one ship. A fully wooden vessel, called the ELIZABETH ANN, started its life as a US Navy submarine chaser in Italy during WWI. When the company acquired it from the government, two chevrons and a star were painted on its smokestack to celebrate its naval service. The ship capacity was 100 passengers and some light cargo.
The name “Interstate Navigation” is a bit of a head-scratcher since, in modern times, it only travels back and forth from New Shoreham to mainland Rhode Island. However, in 1928, the ELIZABETH ANN, piloted by Capt. Louis A. Rounds Jr, ran a route that went from Stonington, CT to Long Island over in Greenport, NY and back to Block Island.
Rhode Island Ties & Incorporation
1933 was a big year for Interstate Navigation. The company signed a contract with the US Postal Service to become the official, year-round mail delivery vessel to Block Island. The ferry would start making mail runs from Providence, Newport and Block Island starting on July 1, 1933.
As a part of the contract, Interstate Navigation was required to purchase another ship. In August of 1933, the NELSECO II joined the ELIZABETH ANN as the second ship in the fleet. A significantly larger ship, the NELSECO II could carry 500 passengers and much more freight than its sister vessel. Within the next few years, it would become the primary ship in Rhode Island.
While this was all happening, Interstate Navigation was working to become a full-fledged company. In September 1933, Raymond Abell, Louis Rounds Jr., and Ellsworth “Dick” Lathan would sign the official Certificates of Incorporation with both Rhode Island and Connecticut to officially create the Interstate Navigation Company. Lathan would go on to assume the role of the president of the company.
The Company Grows… and Shrinks
In the next several years, the company grew exponentially. Along with the NELSECO II’s daily mail/passenger route from Providence, Newport, and Block Island as well as the twice daily summer service between Stonington, CT and the island, Interstate Navigation added additional ships and routes to their services. The VIKING made it’s trip out of Pt Judith while the WESTPORT traveled to Norwich, New London and back to the island. The ELIZABETH ANN, which had been replaced by the NELSECO II, had a new route that took her from Hyannis, MA to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. In 1940, the SS Block Island would take over the Providence mail route.
However, this all changes in 1941. With the onset of war in Europe, all Interstate Navigation’s ships except one were called into US military service. All the new routes were canceled leaving the ELIZABETH ANN as the only ship to make a run to the island. Most of Block Island is closed at this time, as well. The hotels would not reopen until 1946.
The Effects of World War II
Due to the prevalence of German U-boats in the Atlantic, the US Navy placed a submarine net across the mouth to Narragansett Bay, blocking ship access to both Providence and Newport. This forced Interstate Navigation to move their mainland port to Pt Judith. While the move was originally meant to be temporary, Pt Judith remained the ferry’s main port to this day.
After the war, some things changed for the company. The SS BLOCK ISLAND returned and was rechristened the YANKEE. In 1948, a former US Army Quartermaster supply vessel was acquired to provide a more reliable winter service from Pt Judith to the island. This vessel was the SPRIGG CARROLL.
The first 20 years of Interstate Navigation were tumultuous to say the least. What started as a simple one ship operation expanded into a fleet that was threatened by the onset of a World War. Luckily, the company managed to pull through and flourish. In our next blog, we’ll explore the post-war years leading to the turn of the century.