With eye to its heyday, Hull beach ferry revived

By the early 1900s, a fleet of steamboats carried tourists from Boston to Hull’s lively hotel scene. By the early 1900s, a fleet of steamboats carried tourists from Boston to Hull’s lively hotel scene. (Hull Lifesaving Museum)
By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / December 10, 2009

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HULL - For the first time in decades, ferries will take beachgoers between Boston and Nantasket Beach in the summer - albeit not in the grand scale of the steamship era.

In the early 1900s, a million people traveled by water to Hull’s beaches and hotels each summer. They rode on large ferries that carried more than 2,600 passengers in a single trip, according to local historians.

The latest venture will be considerably scaled down - the catamaran boats to be used will hold about 200 - and is being financed on a three-year trial basis by the federal government.

“We have over 500,000 visitors to Nantasket every summer, and we’re hoping to get a lot of their cars off the road,’’ said Hull town planner Robert Fultz. “Who doesn’t want to take a nice boat ride to a beautiful beach?’’

The money - $110,000 spread over three summers - comes from a federal grant program geared toward improving air quality by moving people from roads to less polluting public transit, Fultz said. He estimated the new ferry service could take 3,000 cars off the highways for the 15-mile trip between Boston and Nantasket Beach.

The town also hopes ferry service will stimulate the local economy and reduce summer traffic congestion and parking problems. Fultz said marketing the ferries and Hull’s restaurants and other attractions will be key to the plan’s success.

A tentative schedule calls for morning and late afternoon trips on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, from mid-June to mid-September. The boats also could be used for excursions, evening cruises, whale watches, and trips to the Boston Harbor Islands, Fultz said.

The vessels would run between Hull’s Nantasket Pier (also known as Steamboat Wharf) and either Rowes Wharf or Long Wharf in Boston, and trips would take about half an hour. The town still is working on details with potential ferry operators, Fultz said.

The program is independent of the MBTA commuter ferries that run during the week between Boston and Pemberton Point at the far end of Hull. Nantasket Pier, which has undergone extension improvements, is within walking distance of the state-owned beach.

“We’re hoping the [Nantasket Beach] ferry will be picked up [after the three-year grant expires] and kept sustainable through a combination of fares and other support,’’ Fultz said. The Hull Nantasket Chamber of Commerce, Plymouth County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Town of Hull, and state Department of Conservation and Recreation have agreed to supply time, expertise, or money toward the venture, he added.

“This is the restoration of the historic Nantasket Beach ferry service. We’re trying to re-establish that historic connection,’’ Fultz said.

The service has a long history, starting in 1818 with the Eagle, the first passenger boat between Hull and Boston, according to local historian John Galluzzo. The trip took more than two hours, he said.

As the town grew into a summer resort with numerous hotels, the number of ferries increased. The opening of Paragon Park in 1905 drew even more visitors. By 1915, steamboats were carrying one million people to Nantasket Beach in the summer, Galluzzo said.

“If you look at the Sagamore Hill area in Hull, all the cross streets there are named for the steam boats - Lincoln, Andrew, Standish, Mayflower. That’s where the boats came around the final corner, around the Weir River and up toward what’s now Jake’s [restaurant]. It must have been quite a sight,’’ he said.

Disaster struck, however, on Thanksgiving Day in 1929. While the entire Hull Fire Department - which doubled as the town’s football team - was out playing a game in Scituate, the steamboat fleet caught fire at the wharf in Hull. Five boats burned; one, the Mayflower, was saved and became a nightclub for the next five decades, Galluzzo said.

Meanwhile, the Depression was taking its toll on the local economy. World War II brought tourism to a grinding halt, and many private ships, including ferries, were taken by the government for use as troop transports.

The last steamship, the Nantasket, stopped running in 1950, said Richard Cleverly, a former president of the Hull Historical Society. The Wilson line took over the route, he said, with the diesel-powered Boston Belle and Sea Belle, which ran regularly between Boston, Nantasket, and Provincetown.

Cleverly, 61, worked as a deck hand when he was in high school in the 1960s on the next generation of boats, run by Massachusetts Bay Lines. The boats ran on a limited schedule until the mid-1970s and finally petered out, he said.

“People just didn’t take them anymore. When Paragon Park closed [in 1984], that was a big loss,’’ he said. All that remains of the giant amusement park - best known for its seaside roller coaster - are the carousel and clock tower.

“At its heyday, they had six or eight steamers a day and a railroad from Pemberton to Nantasket Junction, where it met the Old Colony line to South Station.’’

It’s funny how things have come full circle, said Cleverly.

“The boats disappeared and the trains disappeared, and now the boats are back and the trains are back,’’ he said. “Nobody had a car then, so they took the train and boat. Now there are too many cars, so they’ve brought back the boat and train.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at