SS NOBSKA Bringing her home
The steamer "Islander" (later the "Martha's Vineyard") was built by Bath Iron Works at Bath, Maine for the New England Steamship Company's (NESCo) island line in 1923. Designed at the Company's Newport maintenance shops by Warren T. Berry and Albert F. Haas, under the direction of J. Howland Gardner, she was particularly designed to carry twenty-five automobiles, and had the most modern safety features, including a sprinkler system. Her overall length was 210 feet; breath over the guards was 50 feet (Quiz - D4). "Islander" was the largest vessel building for this line up to that time. From her entry into the island service in August of 1923, she was found to be ideally suited to its needs. She replaced the last wood-hulled steamer, the "Gay Head" of 1891. Her running mates from New Bedford to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket were the sidewheeler "Uncatena" of 1902 and the 1911-built propeller steamer "Sankaty".
A fire on the line's New Bedford wharf on July 30, 1924 spread to the "Sankaty", which was tied there over night. Her lines burned and she was a spectacular sight drifting across the harbor, flaming from stem to stern. Coming to rest next to the old whaler "Charles W. Morgan" (which can still be visited in Mystic) on the Fairhaven waterfront, she was sunk as the firemen played their hoses on her to save the other vessel. Though the "Sankaty" was later raised and steamed to Maine under her own power for rebuilding, her days of island service were over. The design of "Islander" had proven so satisfactory that NESCo decided to have a nearly identical steamer built. Though Bath Iron Works was in receivership at the time, the courts granted permission for the yard to build the new vessel. Construction got underway in the fall of 1924 and proceeded at a rapid rate.
NESCo decided to name the new steamer NOBSKA, after the point of land at the southern entrance to Woods Hole. This spit is named for Nobsque, a Mashpee Indian chief. The steamer's hailing port would, of course, be New Bedford.
The NOBSKA was completed on the ways and was launched without ceremony at 12:40pm on Tuesday, March 24, 1925 with a full head of steam, her whistle proclaiming her entrance into the water. She was delivered to the NESCo on April 3rd at Newport, Rhode Island.
The most noticeable exterior difference from the "Islander" was the addition of a fifth, or middle, window in the front of the wheelhouse. This change was suggested by Captain James O. Sandsbury of the "Islander" in order to allow the helmsman to steer by landmarks more easily. "Islander" originally had three portlights in each side of her hull near the bow. NOBSKA did not have these and in "Islander" those ports were plated over. Also on NOBSKA another retiring space for ladies was provided on the saloon desk.
Like "Islander", NOBSKA had two Babcock and Wilcox watertube boilers furnishing steam at 200 lbs. pressure to her four-cylinder triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine with cylinder diameters of 16 inches, 26 inches, 30 inches and 30 inches; and a 24-inch stroke. this engine gave a service speed of 14 knots. She had a single four-bladed manganese bronze propeller which measured eight feet in diameter and turned counter-clockwise. By exploiting a phenomenum called propwalk this direction facilitated starboard docking at the Island Line's docks.
NOBSKA made her maiden voyage to the Islands on Thursday, April 9, 1925 in regular service. NESCo saw no reason for a special trial and inspection trip due to her similarity to the "Islander". NOBSKA received the traditional welcome from waterfront noisemakers at Nantucket, most notably from the whistle of the old steamer "Island Home", which was then installed on Killen's Ice Plant. In command was Captain Sandsbury, with James Negus as pilot and Frederick Chambers as mate.
The prosperity of the 1920s led to a proliferation of automobiles. This dictated still more island boat capacity. A third steamer was built on the plan of "Islander" in 1928 at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. This was the "New Bedford", which had greater auto capacity because the main stairway was placed further aft and the lunchroom located on the saloon deck above. The "Islander" was renamed "Martha's Vineyard" and the NOBSKA was renamed "Nantucket" before the summer of 1928. The name changes created confusion which persisted for years.
Even three steamers were not enough. In 1929 the longest vessel ever built for island service was completed at Fore River and placed in service. She was named "Naushon" for the largest of the Elizabeth Islands between Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay. The "Naushon" was 250 feet long and carried sixty cars on her main deck. "Naushon" also had many extra staterooms on her saloon and boat decks, because the NESCo planned to use her as a winter substitute on its night boat lines between New York City and southern New England ports. (She saw only a couple of winters of that service before the depression set in and eliminated the need for her use.)
While the "Nantucket" (ex-NOBSKA) was notable for her dependability and safe operation, she did have some mishaps. On December 27, 1930, before the days of good weather forecasting, she was caught in a storm between Oak Bluffs and Nantucket. The sea was so rough that the passengers had to sit on the deck and most were seasick. Captain Sandsbury realized the danger and ran farther east than usual before turning in the lee of Nantucket's Great Point. The vessel was hours late when she arrived at Nantucket. She was headed right into the dock instead of being turned to back in. The ticket agent there said he thought she was going right into the yacht club!
On Tuesday, November 17, 1931 the "Nantucket" left Edgartown dock at 4:45am as usual, bound for way stops and New Bedford. As everything appeared in order, Captain Sandsbury went below for breakfast leaving Pilot Joseph Gwodz and Quartermaster Joseph Richards, also a licensed pilot, on the bridge. Minutes later the steamer entered a thick fogbank. By 4:55am the "Nantucket" was aground on Sturgeon Flats, somewhat to the east of her channel. Since the grounding took place just after high water, there was no use putting much effort into floating the vessel until the next high tide. Various attempts were made by cutters and tugs to pull her off with no success. The crew lowered the lifeboats to lighten her. The water was so shallow that the tugs were forced to use long tow lines and pull at an angle of almost forty-five degrees. A straight pull in either direction was impossible. The steamer was on a hogback with her ends relatively free, but about thirty feet amidships firmly caught in the sand. Finally a dredge was brought to the scene to remove much of the shoal beside the grounded vessel. Tugs were finally able to free her on Sunday, November 22nd, nearly six days after the grounding. Examination at the NESCo maintenance shops found her to be undamaged.
Fog brought an even more serious accident the following summer. On Saturday, August 6, 1932 the "Nantucket" was bound west from Nantucket to Oak Bluffs. The "Martha's Vineyard" was headed in the opposite direction. Both vessels were proceeding at reduced speed and taking proper fog precautions, including the sounding of their whistles. For some minutes before the accident the people on both vessels were aware of the closeness of the steamers, reportedly able to hear the voices of people on the other ship. With her engine going full astern, the bow of "Nantucket" cut into the port side of the "Martha's Vineyard", destroying two staterooms, damaging a lifeboat, and opening a ten-foot hole from the guard to the boat deck. On "Nantucket" her stem was badly bent and some plates below the waterline were sufficiently buckled to cause leaking. One gent in a stateroom on the "Martha's Vineyard" beat a hasty retreat onto the saloon deck in his underwear!
With the "Nantucket" leading, both steamers went to Oak Bluffs. Nantucket-bound passengers were transferred there to the "New Bedford", which was making the regular late trip. The "Martha's Vineyard" remained at Oak Bluffs overnight, going to New Bedford on Sunday for temporary repairs by Pierce & Kilburn. The "Nantucket" was taken to Boston and drydocked on Tuesday. The "New Bedford" ran nearly around the clock on Sunday and Monday following the collision. The "Martha's Vineyard" returned to service on Wednesday morning, sporting a white patch on her side. The "Nantucket" was back with a new bow on Wednesday, the 17th, taking up the schedule of the "Martha's Vineyard", which then went to Boston for permanent repairs. The regular schedule wasn't resumed until the end of the month.
With Traffic at depression levels, the temporary schedule was apparently adequate. It became the regular summer schedule for the next four seasons. The "Nantucket" spent the summers of 1933-36 running weekend excursions from Providence, R.I. to Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. She was also available for moonlight cruises and other excursions on Narragansett Bay. She would return each September to run between the Vineyard and Woods Hole taking the cars off the Island at the season's end. By 1937 traffic had revived sufficiently for all four steamers to operate the summer service again.
The "Martha's Vineyard" and the "Nantucket" ran alone to the islands during World War II, because their running mates were requisitioned for war service. "New Bedford" and "Naushon" crossed the Atlantic under the British flag to serve as transports and hospital ships on the English Channel, seeing service in the Normandy invasion. Though they both came back to America after the war, neither came back to the Islands. The "New Bedford" ran from 1949 until 1955 in summer service between Providence and Block Island. After a long period of lay up, she was moved to a Staten Island junkyard in 1968, where her remains continue to rust away today. The "Naushon" was renamed "John A. Meseck" and saw summer excursion service between New York, Rye Beach, and Bridgeport, Connecticut until 1961. She was scrapped at Camden, N.J. in 1974.
In 1950, after the line was taken over by the state-sponsored Steamship Authority, the "Nantucket" (ex-NOBSKA) was rebuilt from the main deck up. Her lunch counter was moved to the saloon deck to allow for more cars on the main deck. She was thus much like the "New Bedford" had been built originally. She also got a new deckhouse and a wheelhouse which was reminiscent of that in "Naushon". With other improvements, including installation of radar and a gyrocompass, she was outfitted for another twenty years of service.
In 1956, the "Nantucket" became the NOBSKA again, in order that a new steamer could be named "Nantucket". Still more public confusion about names followed.
The "Martha's Vineyard" was retired that fall, remaining tied up in New Bedford until she was sold in 1959. Her engine and boilers were removed, and she was repowered with diesel-electric (Quiz - E3) machinery from the World War II submarine U.S.S. "Finback". (This submarine is notable as the vessel that rescued George Bush after he was shot down in WW II.) She ran in the 1960s from Hyannis to Nantucket and from Boston to Provincetown. In 1968 the "Martha's Vineyard" entered service across Long Island Sound between Bridgeport, Connecticut and Port Jefferson, Long Island. She continued there through the season of 1985. She was later sold and moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she sank in September of 1990 and was subsequently scrapped.
The final island steamer trips from New Bedford were run by the NOBSKA on the last day of 1960. Thereafter all service originated at Woods Hole on the Cape.
On Friday, February 3, 1961 the NOBSKA left winter layup at New Bedford to make a special trip to Nantucket, which had been without service due to ice on the Sound and the Harbor. Her sharp bow and protected intake for cooling water made her better suited to the situation than the other steamers. She made the trip successfully, taking several hours more than usual. The harbor ice was particularly difficult. The story is told that she had freight everywhere, some even had been carried up to the saloon deck. NOBSKA was frozen in there for the weekend. On Monday she was able to return to the mainland and her winter rest.
On Friday, July 17, 1964, while entering Woods Hole in fog, the NOBSKA ran aground near Mink Point on Nonamessett Island about 9:20am. Captain George Prudencio stopped the engine when he heard a horn nearby. The tide caught the steamer and, when the engine was started again, she went ashore, damaging her hull on the rocky bottom. After a futile attempt by the Coast Guard to pull the steamer off, at about 11am her passengers were ferried ashore by the cutter "Point Banks". The Coast Guard called out the buoy tenders "Hornbeam" and "White Sage", but all decided to wait for a proper tug and the rising tide later in the day. She was aground for only a few hours. Some bottom plates had to be replaced in drydock. NOBSKA was back in service by Monday evening.
On a September evening in 1966, Captain John Nickowal of the NOBSKA was prevented from making the usual turn toward the Woods Hole wharf by racing sailboats on the harbor. Trying to avoid both the sailors and the ledges in the harbor, the steamer ran into the corner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's wharf. The wharf was damaged; the steamer was not. In August of 1970 the NOBSKA, commanded by Capt. Prudencio, rescued two couples from their disabled cabin cruiser two miles southwest of Cross Rip despite difficult wind and sea conditions (Quiz - N2).
After 1965 the NOBSKA normally ran only in summer and on some holidays when traffic was heaviest. The rest of the fleet were end-loaders by this time, which were more efficient for the number of vehicles carried. Her one period of winter service was undertaken in the winter of 1971-72 when the small ferry "Uncatena" was being lengthened.
In the summer of 1973, the Authority inaugurated Hyannis-Nantucket service, leaving NOBSKA as the only passenger vessel on the Woods Hole-Oak Bluffs-Nantucket run. The NOBSKA made her last trips to the Islands on September '73 under the command of Captain Richard Faria with Joseph Dawicki as Chief Engineer, both New Bedford men. She was then laid up at Vineyard Haven and Nantucket. In May of 1974 the steamer was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, largely due to the efforts of Joseph Morin, a Nantucket terminal employee. The NOBSKA was sold by the Steamship Authority in June of 1975 to become a restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland. Later that month the last of the traditional island steamers was towed away.
In the summer of 1975 the 'Friends of NOBSKA' organized to save the steamer. Soon the group recognized that the only economically feasible way to do this was to put her in operation on a revenue run. The group was to persevere in that effort despite considerable adversity for over twenty years.
The NOBSKA went to Baltimore and had a restaurant operated aboard for a couple of years. Friends of NOBSKA visited occasionally to keep her steam plant in operating condition. Then, with a new owner, the vessel was stripped of all furnishings and equipment except her main engine, as part of a further renovation for restaurant use. This never came to pass and she sat derelict in Baltimore for several years.
Finally, in 1988 the Friends were able to acquire the NOBSKA and return her to New England. NOBSKA tied up at Fall River, Providence, and New Bedford with volunteers keeping her pumped out and doing maintenance as possible. Meanwhile the Friends reorganized as the New England Steamship Foundation (NESF). In April of 1996, the NOBSKA moved to the historic drydock in the old Charlestown Navy Yard for replating of her hull. Her engine was removed and transported to the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School for restoration.
The Foundation sponsored restoration of New Bedford's historic Sundial Building for its headquarters in 1996-97 with virtually all work done by students of the Greater New Bedford school.
The future of SS NOBSKA is bright with the NESF's plan to return her to summer island service from New Bedford.
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Please feel free to contact NESF for additional information. We encourage your participation and questions.