A ferry is more than just a boat
If they’re lucky, something happens to a young person that sparks an emotion so powerful it creates a lifelong passion.
That’s what happened to Joe Giglietti in the mid-1960s, when his family first started to spend their vacations in Pt. Judith. It seemed like a different world than Pawtucket, where he grew up.
“My dad used to take me down to the dock and we would see the Quonset,” he said. In 1965, the Gigliettis visited Block Island for the first time, and that’s when Joe Giglietti saw the Yankee “up close.”
These were the images that would spark that lifelong passion and time has not diminished that passion. Earlier this year, Giglietti created a Facebook page, Block Island Ferry Memories, that has since seen an outpouring of photographs and remembrances from people all over the country, and from other parts of the world, about their experiences on the boats and the people who crewed them.
For him, the boat trip to Block Island wasn’t just part of the experience, it was the experience. He’s gratified that so many people — old friends, acquaintances, co-workers — are reconnecting through the page.
The memories, photos, and films that have been posted on the page indicate that people who took the boats 40, 50, or 60 years ago look upon the ride, Giglietti said, as something romantic. The photographs bring out wistful, nostalgic memories of those who experienced traveling on them.
Posted in reaction to a picture taken in the 1960s: “Does anyone have a time machine?? Let’s build a time machine and go back to the past, circa 1965, summer, Block Island, Rhode Island.”
The boats bring out a similar reaction for Giglietti.
When he was a child, and knew he would be leaving for Block Island the next day, Giglietti said he was so excited he couldn’t sleep, and he’d get up early. He remembers these trips as a time he could spend with his dad, Luigi, who would bring his camera with him to record the trip.
Part of the appeal of the photos is that, compared to today, deciding to take a picture meant, by definition, that it was of something special. Precious Kodak film wasn’t to be wasted on a trivial event. A camera would hold a roll of film that could only take 12 or 24 pictures. Color film prior to the 1970s was a luxury, and images were captured even more sparingly. It is these photos of an ever-receding past that spark the strongest emotions.
Sometimes a photo isn’t needed to trigger a memory. Carder Starr posted this on the page:
“As ‘cottagers’ in the 1950s my parents built (or as my dad would say, started) a cottage on property down the Neck that they bought from my grandmother, Rose Champlin. We did not have running water, electricity or a phone.
“Back then many fathers would leave early in the week either Sunday afternoon or 1st ferry Monday morning and come back on the ‘daddy boat’ on Friday night. Sometimes our dad would be able to catch the Thursday night boat. But without a phone we never really knew.
“So my mom would pack the three of us kids into the car and point it to west as the Yankee was heading up West Beach towards the New Harbor. She would flick the lights on the car (later in the summer when it was getting dark earlier). If our dad was on the ferry Capt. Billy Evans would toot the whistle... and we would drive out to meet the ferry. If he did not toot the whistle, then back into the house we went until the next night.”
Giglietti said the photos from the 1950s through the 1970s seem to get the most reaction. Photos taken prior to that time, he said, are too far in the past for most people to remember or care too much about.
Even so, the images on the Facebook page keep flooding in. “I’m surprised how much it’s grown,” he said. Giglietti said that the cooperation he has received from Interstate Navigation, former and current crew members, and many others, has been instrumental in the page’s success
Martha Ball has been writing about the island for more than 25 years.
“For me, this page has been a real gift,” she said. “Growing up here the boats were utilitarian, they brought goods and people, they carried us on our way to mainland visits, it was only by a fluke I once rode the Block Island from New London, and experienced the sheer magic of that big old vessel and passage on a calm summer day, coming into that jewel that is the New Harbor, everyone above decks, in the sun, wondering at the blue water and rolling green land.”
Giglietti realizes that today the boats are looked at a bit differently.
In a fast world, one in which no one has to wait for film to be developed at the local drugstore, they could be seen as an outmoded way of travel, but that is why he took to social media to capture the way people used to — and to a large extent still do — feel.
When he was asked why he didn’t work on the boats himself, Giglietti said that, for a kid growing up in Pawtucket, “Pt. Judith was too far away,” he said. “Maybe I’ll do that when I retire.”
He does have a favorite boat trip memory of his own.
It was 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, and the Tall Ships were in Newport. “There was a boat running out of Providence to Newport. It was $25 a person to ride that boat and they had to stay a mile away” from the Tall Ships.
But a ride from Providence on the Yankee was only $5.25.
“We came to Block Island. Went to the beach, did all of that,” he said. On the trip going back home, they had to travel right through the visiting Tall Ships. “We saw them better than anyone else that day,” he said.
Above: The Yankee, Old Harbor, 1940s, William Ewen, Jr. Collection