No one knows for sure the name of the first steamboat to ever work the Pawcatuck River, but popular belief in 1932 was that the “Novelty” built by Sprague Barber in 1848 was the first steam-propelled craft to ever cruise the river. It was a crudely-built, double side-wheeler. Nearly abandoned, the “Novelty” was purchased sometime later by William D. Wells and his wife, Welcome Stillman. At the shipyard of Silas Greenman in Mystic, the boat was cut in two and lengthened. She was outfitted with a new copper boiler and re-christened the “Martha Jane” in honor of the Wells’ daughter. This began a long line of Pawcatuck River steamboats whose heyday lasted for roughly half a century.
Perhaps one of the more well-known steamboats of the time was the “Belle.” Commissioned by Messrs. Babcock and Moss (proprietors of the Dixon House Hotel) the “Belle” was built in Wilmington, Delaware and delivered here in 1868. Hotel guests were accommodated for free on her twice-daily runs to Watch Hill; forty cents for a round-trip was the rate for the general public.
While not all of the Pawcatuck River steamboats were built locally, most were. The most prolific local boat builders of the time were Silas Greenman and his sons, George, Clark, and Thomas. The Greenmans built boats of every kind at their operation in Mystic, but they also launched several boats from three locations along the Pawcatuck River.
Just south of Broad and Mechanic Streets in Pawcatuck is today the site of Donahue Park. The serene setting belies the bustle of an earlier time when the Wilcox Coal Company loaded tons of fuel onto scows and lighters from that exact location. Just down river from there was where one of the more well-known and older of the river steamboats, the “Julia,” was built and launched in 1882.
At that time Orlando R. Smith had already become involved in the riverboat business, having invested in a dredging operation. The “Julia” was commissioned (at least in part) by him and was named for his wife Julia Chapman Smith. Orlando Smith’s other steamboats included the “Sadie” (1884), the “Martha” (built at the Pendleton Dock in
Westerly at the intersection of Cross and Main Streets in 1891), the “Surf City” (1894), the ”Mystic” (1896), and the “Hildegarde” (1898). These last three were all constructed and launched at the site of the Hall and Dickinson lumberyard which was just further south of the Wilcox Coal Company than the original Greenman shipyard. George Greenman and Company built all of Orlando R. Smith’s steamboats and it seems as though George Greenman and Orlando R. Smith had a lifelong professional relationship. Historical records list George S. Greenman as one of the directors of the Smith Granite Company.
Greenman and Smith had also previously incorporated the “Westerly and Watch Hill Steam Ferry Company” in 1888. Goerge S. Greenman was president and Orlando R. Smith was the treasurer. Charles B. Coon, another prominent businessman of the time was also a financier and director of the company.
When the Pawcatuck Valley Street Railroad began operating in 1894, many beach-goers and tradesmen opted to ride the train to Watch Hill instead of the ferries. Undaunted, Orlando R. Smith went ahead with the construction of the “Mystic” and “Hildegarde” because he loved steamboats. In the words of Everett Barnes, “He realized that there were still many people that would enjoy the little cruises and excursions down and out of the river and to such places as Norwich, New London, Saybrook, Essex, Greenport, Sag Harbor, and the like.”
Orlando R. Smith died in 1898, the same year that the “Hildegarde” was launched. The “Hildy” was double-decked from stem to stern and was fully equipped electrically, including a searchlight. She was said to have been the most beautiful, the best appointed and speediest of all the Pawcatuck River steamboats. She was also the last to be built along the Pawcatuck River.
The golden age of the Pawcatuck River steamboats seems to have died with Orlando R. Smith. Folks still chartered steamboats for special occasions and moonlight cruises, but their great popularity had ended. Traveling by rail was the common way to travel as the new century had dawned.