A Steamboat Called Rhode Island – 1836

Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine – June, 2021

A Steamboat Called “Rhode Island” – another forgotten tale of New England

By Jim Ignasher

    The first successful steamboat was perfected by Robert Fulton in 1807, and by the 1830s commercial steamboats were navigating the waters of Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay on daily runs from New York to Providence. One of them was the Rhode Island, a “boat” with an interesting story which has all but been forgotten.

     The Rhode Island was built in 1836 for the Boston & New York Transportation Company. She was 211 feet long, 28 feet wide, with 170 berths, and was considered large and luxurious for the time. She was also considered fast, powered by a single 350 hp. engine that could take her from New York to Providence in a mere twelve-and-a-half hours. The cost of a one-way ticket was five dollars.

     The Rhode Island’s first captain was Seth W. Thayer, an experienced officer from Seekonk, Massachusetts, who’d previously commanded the steamboat Providence.

     Shortly after going into service, the Rhode Island gained widespread notoriety due to an onboard gold heist. On the night of September 19, 1836, the Rhode Island left Providence bound for New York with a keg full of gold coins valued at $39,000 – a huge fortune at the time. The gold belonged to a Boston bank, and had been locked in the captain’s office for safe keeping, but when the boat arrived in New York it was discovered that the keg was empty!

     Police speculated that someone had entered the office by climbing down the side of the boat and crawling through the outboard window. By the time the theft was discovered some passengers had already departed, and a search of the boat found nothing. Why a guard had not been employed to accompany the gold was not stated.

     Theories ranged form professional criminals to an “inside job”. Two weeks later, most of the gold was recovered by accident when the ship’s chief engineer went to oil the engine and discovered four bags of the missing gold at the bottom of a half-full oil drum. The rest was recovered after suspicion fell to two members of the crew.

     The following month the Rhode Island was heading to New York when she collided with the sloop Eliza Nichols. One woman was killed, and two passengers were seriously injured.

     It should be noted that in a time before modern navigational aids, collisions between ships on Long Island Sound were fairly common.

     In February of 1838 seven workers were severely scalded by a ruptured steam valve as they were cleaning the Rhode Island’s boilers while in port. It was uncertain if they would live.

     Later that year, the Rhode Island was involved in a collision with the ship John W. Richmond, but there was no loss of life.

     Two years later a passenger’s leg was crushed when he fell into an unguarded portion of the ship’s machinery.

     In 1842 a lawsuit was brought against Captain Thayer by millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt over damage caused to the steamboat Kosciuske during a collision with the Rhode Island on March 3rd. The two boats had been racing each other at the time, and the jury couldn’t decide who was at fault so the case was dismissed.

     In October of 1842 it was reported that a band of professional pick-pockets had relieved several passengers of their valuables. Three “suspicious” looking men were detained and searched, but nothing was found. However, the New York Police were well acquainted with the individuals and their “street names”; “Sheeney”, Jem Rose”, and “Dumpsy Diddledum”. The valuables were subsequently recovered.

     During a storm in November of 1846 the Rhode Island was driven aground in shallow water off Huntington, Long Island. Heavy seas breaking across her decks made it impossible to launch lifeboats. No lives were lost, but the danger of the ship breaking apart was real.

     It was also in 1846 that Captain Thayer left the Rhode Island to command the steamboat, Governor, but a short time later took command of the newly built Oregon. He died in 1848 of typhus.

     In September of 1849, with the California Gold Rush gaining momentum, the Rhode Island was purchased by a group of investors who intended to establish service to San Francisco. She began her first westbound voyage on January 25, 1850, but four days later broke apart in rough seas off Bermuda. Of the 44 passengers and crew aboard only 12 were saved.

     One unlikely survivor of the sinking was the 200 lb. ship’s bell. It was found months later floating at sea by the whaling ship Elizabeth, still attached to a crossbeam and section of decking which was apparently buoyant enough to keep it afloat. The bell was recovered and brought to Massachusetts. The maker was James Allaire of New York, who confirmed it was the one made for the Rhode Island. What became of the bell is unknown.

     In 1873, the Providence & Stonington Steamship Company christened a new steamship which they named Rhode Island, but that’s a story for another day.

Steamboat Rhode Island

     The steamboat Rhode Island was built in 1836 and sank in 1850.  In 1873, the Providence & Stonington Steamship Company christened another steamship with the name Rhode Island which saw service into the 20th century.  

Click on images to enlarge. 

Herald of the Times

September 1, 1836

Alexandria Gazette

September 26, 1836

Herald of the Times

(Newport, R.I.)

September 29, 1836

Alexandria Gazette

October 6, 1836

North Carolina Standard

November 24, 1836

Vermont Telegraph

April 29, 1840

New York Daily Tribune

August 19, 1844

American Republican & Baltimore Daily Clipper

Oct. 31, 1846

American Republican & Baltimore Daily Clipper

November 4, 1846

The Corrector (Sag Harbor, NY)

February 16, 1850

The Republic, (Wash. DC)

Feb. 19, 1850

February 19, 1850

February 19, 1850

February 19, 1950

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