The George W. Danielson

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 10:45am

“What was the first ferry to bring folks?” someone asked and I realized I would have to look that up, and is so often the case with everything Block Island, how to define such a thing? Would it have been the first recorded excursion, a group rowed into the landing, before there was a proper harbor where a steamer would land? The first regular summer run? The first real year-round boat?

The last I know without looking it up: the George W. Danielson, built in Connecticut for a group of Block Islanders. It was just a few years after the Rev. Livermore penned his history in 1877, a scant year after actual post office boxes were made available. Prior to that the term “mail call” had a real application; people met the boat hoping for a letter or parcel.

I have always been partial to Livermore’s preface to his chapter entitled “The Mails,” apparently a common expression.

“No part of the United States, probably, has suffered more inconvenience from a want of mails than Block Island. For one hundred and seventy years it had none at all. Its correspondence was through offices on the main, principally at Newport.”

The Rev. went on to list various captains who had carried the “mails” on their own vessels, tough, seaworthy craft, open to the weather. There had come to be daily runs in summer, and three a week in winter but it was forecast that “there will be, at no distant day, a signal station, by which hourly information from all parts of the country could be obtained and great benefit conferred upon commerce. After that is done those upon the Island will talk no more of ‘going to America,’ for they will be in it, and not farther from Newport, communicatively, than they would be in Europe.”

“Communicatively” — what a great term.

The little 1884 booklet from which the etching of the Danielson was taken was written by a lawyer whose office was located on Washington Street in Boston. It had in it, still, his card, one Edward E. Pettee, “Attorney and Councilor at Law.” A handful of illustrations carry credits, most, including this one of “Landing and Stores” do not.

It is a beautifully crafted image with representations of recognizable buildings, from left to right, the since-razed Ocean View Cottage/Shamrock, the tower of the Manisses Hotel, the Old Adrian, where the “new” Adrian, now Harbor Church, now stands. There are buildings familiar from old photographs that I cannot identify with certainty, then, to the right of the front mast, the Billiards Hall and General Store, today the Seacrest and Ernie’s respectively, both moved but originally located at the foot of the hill below the Adrian/Church. One of the long, low fishermen’s sheds that dotted the rolling grassy sands that pre-dated the parking lot appears not quite where I think it should be.

There seems to be too much detail for the work not to have been taken from a photograph, but the placement of the vessel, especially the masts and stack in relationship to the buildings behind it appears too perfect to have been achieved with a camera of that time, even if it had been physically possible.

The booklet lists Routes to Block Island, from a number of cities linked by rail and steamer “lines,” too complicated to summarize.

The route from New York — Newport Line, among the less complicated, is described “Commencing on or about June 23, the steamers Old Colony and Newport will leave Pier 28, N.R. , foot of Murray Street, at 6 P.M., daily (Sundays excepted) for Newport, connecting with the Geo W Danielson for Block Island; returning, Leave Newport at 9 P.M. Sundays, take Fall River Line for Newport. Tickets sold and baggage checked through.

In addition to the Danielson, with pleasing lines but fundamentally a low, year-round boat, the “new and elegant” — and significantly larger — Block Island carried passengers from New York, but via Norwich and New London and Watch Hill on that last leg of their journey.

Who this George W. Danielson was I never thought to ask. Perhaps the vessel, important in Block Island history, was named for a Rhode Island journalist who died a few years after his namesake was launched. His death was noted in the record of the Rhode Island General Assembly, which approved $16.00 for rental of carriages for his funeral.

People were named for politicians, why not a ship for a respected journalist?