It’s been 65 years since the first Steamship Authority was created, signed into existence by Massachusetts Gov. Robert Bradford in 1948 as the New Bedford, Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority. Regular ferry service had existed prior to that date, beginning in the early 1800s. The arrival of the Old Colony Railroad in the 1870s brought train tracks right to the wharf in Woods Hole, spearheading the growth of both the Island summer tourism industry and the boat lines, which were then privately owned. The 1870s also brought the first regular winter service, as the steamers of the time were powerful enough to break out of icy harbors.
Over the next several decades, trucking routes began to compete with trains, the country entered the Great Depression and the New England railroads became less profitable, bringing drastic consequences to the steamship lines they owned. One, the New England Steamship Line, was abandoned in the midst of a 1937 strike. Others simply went bankrupt or lost ferries to the Navy, which requisitioned boats during World War II. In the wake of the steamship shakeups, the Massachusetts Steamship Line was created in 1945 to serve the Islands, taking over the railroad’s Woods Hole terminal. It started operations with a fleet of two aging boats.
The Massachusetts Steamship Line made one particularly good decision in terms of serving Martha’s Vineyard: purchasing a double-ended steamer that it christened the Islander. The double-ended design allowed for easier transport of vehicles and easier access to the harbors. But the line never had the funding needed to maintain the terminals or to support the Islander with new ferries.
By the late 1940s, “the private operators were cutting back service more and more,” current Steamship Authority general manager Wayne Lamson said. With the 1948 legislation, the commonwealth paid $1.3 million to take on the Massachusetts Steamship Line’s assets and make the Steamship Authority a public entity. But as a 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Magazine piece noted, the boat line “bore an unusual burden: It was a transportation agency created by the government but actually expected to earn a profit.”
The Steamship Authority operates without government subsidies and always has. Any deficits are assessed to the taxpayers of the host communities. In 2003, the boat line added an embarkation fee to its tickets to help the port towns of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and Falmouth offset the costs of hosting the ferries.
For the first 12 years of the SSA’s existence, even after the agency was given monopoly power over freight cargo as a way to bolster revenues, it finished in the red. This was largely due to the cost of servicing a port in New Bedford, some 27 miles from Vineyard Haven. Under Chapter 701 of the Acts of 1960, the commonwealth’s legislation was reconfigured to eliminate New Bedford from the equation. Earlier in the year the Authority had been further crippled by a 76-day strike. It was illegal, as the original 1948 legislation included a no-strike clause, but it lasted from April to July. The cost of the strike accounted for just about half of the entire 1960 deficit.
There have been no strikes or stoppages since 1960 and by 1963 the “new” Authority had eliminated the deficit. Since then, there have been only three times when the taxpayers were assessed.
In the 1970s and into the 1980s, there was enough of an increase in automobile traffic to the Island to warrant commissioning new boats for the fleet. At the same time, the boat line made the switch to diesel-powered vessels. The Steamship Authority fleet now consists of nine boats: five that service Nantucket and four on the Vineyard route.
The last steamer, the Naushon, was sold in 1987.
For more about the Steamship Authority, read the article: Passage to Paradise, Bridge to America; Steamship Sails On.