Rhode Island Boat Builders Project

The Rhode Island Boat Builders Project will bring to light the stories of boat builders across the state, from the eighteenth century until now. New research on different builders will be posted to this blog approximately every month, and we welcome additional information or insights. 
Francis Frost, IYRS Maritime Library


Luke Bliven                                                                                                                     NEWPORT

On Spring Wharf in Newport in the late nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, opposite the bottom of Pope Street and where Casey’s Marina now operates, Luke Bliven was one of the busiest boat builders in the city.

Bliven was born in 1826, and grew up in Providence. He left school at age 10, and spent the next six years working with his father, who had served on whaling ships in his youth and at that time was working as a master of packet boats running between Providence and New York.

At age 16 Bliven was apprenticed to boat builder Thomas Thurston, at Fox Point Wharf in Providence, however a year later he moved to Newport and began working as a carpenter. A few years after this, in about 1846, he
returned to boat building, going to work for the Newport boat builders Silas and Joseph Cottrell, who he remained with for the next ten years or so.

Bliven first begins to appear in the annual Newport city directories on his own account in the 1860s, initially listed as a carpenter, by 1878 as a provider of “pleasure boats”, and from 1884 as a boat builder based on Spring Wharf. He remained in business at this location until his death in 1907, when the operation was taken over by his son Walter who carried it on until 1920.

Reports in the Newport newspapers during the 1880s and 1890s give an interesting picture of the activity of local boat builders, most of them clustered to the north along Long Wharf and in the Point, but a few others further afield, like Bliven who was described in 1891 as a builder “who almost has a monopoly of the boat business in the southern section of the city.”

The variety of boats he built was wide. In 1885 he built a 24’ Lake Como-style boat for T. W. Phinney who planned to sail her on Almy pond a few miles away; “a flower garden, of plants in pots, will occupy the stern-sheets, an awning over the centre of the boat furnishes the accommodation for her owner and friends.” The following year he built at least three cat boats over 20’; in 1891 he built an 18’ catboat for the Rose Island lighthouse keeper, an 18’ yawl for the city engineer’s office, a 15’ double-end lapstrake surf boat for the Point Judith rescue station, as well as two catboats for Block Island customers, “both these boats are able-looking crafts for their size, and are fitted with very heavy shoes, which give their prows a ram-like appearance.” In 1893 he built a 38’ auxiliary sloop and at least two catboats, including the 32’ (13’ beam) Hazel.

Bliven also ran a busy boat storage business, and over the winter of 1885-1886 for example, he had  “no less than eighty boats of all kinds hauled up on the wharf, and in his buildings.” A few years later he had built a new boathouse; “38 by 50 feet on the ground and two and a half stories high, which affords him more room than any other shop in the city. The upper portions used for storing small boats and yacht supplies, of which he has every winter a large number, as his place, Spring wharf, is the popular place for laying up, the entire south side of the dock both land and water being taken up with cats and yachts.”

Over the years he had between three and ten employees at a time working for him, and he appears to have remained busy, and adaptable, even as the boatbuilding trade in Newport was declining. In February 1899 it was reported that he was building “a centreboard half-rater for his own use. This is apparently the only sailboat now under construction in Newport”, and in 1900 he was fitting out a new 37’ foot electric launch, the framework of which had been built in St Louis."

Bliven died in October 1907 at age 82, and the Newport Mercury eulogized that “Probably no person was better known to all yachtsmen and mariners than Captain Bliven. He was one of the best known boatmen in the city and up to within a short time was able to be at his boat shop on Spring wharf, which was a favorite spot for men to congregate and spend heir spare time listening to interesting stories told them by the Captain.”

After his son Walter’s death in 1920 the business closed, and Tallman and Mack Fish and Trap Company began operations on the wharf, with new buildings at the far western end. They remained in business at this location until 1998, and the wharf is now occupied by Casey’s Marina. However, just to the east of IYRS’s Brooks Building at the end of the wharf, there is a short alleyway and a reminder of Luke Bliven’s history at this location.

Newport City Directory
H. F. Walling Newport County map, 1850
Sanborn Fire Insurance map, 1884
Newport City Directory

Newspaper references:
Newport Mercury
Newport Daily News

© 2024 Francis Frost. All rights reserved.