This Week in Block Island's history, May 15, 1921— The prettiest Island Belle —
This week in history 91 years ago — on May 15, 1921 — summertime officially began for the ferry Island Belle, with federal inspectors permitting the small 95-foot wooden craft to begin carrying 200 passengers, rather than the 66 people allowed during the harsher winter weather between October 16 to May 14.
She had been used as a Block Island ferry since 1918 when her name was the Juliette, but at that time, as a newspaper reported, “the best the Inspectors could do for her was to allot a capacity of 15 passengers during the winter and 90 during the summer.”
By contrast, today’s winter boat, the Block Island, is 208 feet long and could carry the whole year-round population at once — all 1,000 or so — not to mention two-dozen automobiles, a couple of trailer trucks, and all the dogs and cats.
The Island Belle’s 1921 winter schedule had her leaving the island once daily at 2:15 p.m., headed 22 miles away for the dock at Newport. That distance is nearly twice the length of the trip to the present-day port-of-call at Point Judith, which did not become a ferry terminal until the mid-1930s.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the steamer continued on from Newport, up Narragansett Bay another 21 miles to Providence, allowing Block Islanders a chance to visit a “big city.”
During the busiest part of the summer tourist season, July and August, the boat was switched to the New London run, and larger ferries plied the Narragansett Bay route from the island to Newport and Providence.
The Island Belle was built in 1892 in Maine, where she spent most of her life. During the 1920s and 30s, a half-dozen of these second-hand Maine ferries were purchased late in their lives to be used on Block Island runs.
In November 1925 the Island Belle left Providence for a trip that would not stop here. This 10-day journey covered 1,200 miles, taking the boat to southern Florida where a land-boom was underway, and many entrepreneurs were making a quick dollar.
The steamer was to be used as a floating home for 20 truck drivers, who formed a small but important cog in the area’s expanding infrastructure. A special captain was hired for the trip, with “knowledge of weather, and of all the harbors between this city and Miami, which is essential for taking so small a boat on so long a voyage.”
That newspaper writer sounded confident enough in his wording, but just a few weeks later the Island Belle broke up and was lost off the Florida Keys.
She was good-looking and there’s not much argument that she was the prettiest steamer here ever named Island Belle.
So, far, of all the motorized ferries to the island in the past 185 years — since steamboat excursions began coming here occasionally in the 1820s — that fine name Island Belle, has been used by only one Block Island boat.