Today's Somerset was called Shawomet during the 17th century, and Shawomet was somewhat unusual among early New England towns because it did not develop from a planned center that encircled a village green. Shawomet's orientation was toward its rivers and the bay, and the earliest neighborhoods grew up around commercial shipyards. Shawomet's very first business venture was a reflection of the town's formative relationship with the Taunton River. The business was called Slade's Ferry, and it was underway in south Somerset before the shipbuilding industry began.
When young William Slade first made his home in Shawomet, he owned three shares of land which were scattered in three different locations throughout the settlement.
William, who had clearly anticipated the needs of a growing population for transportation across the Taunton River, began a series of transactions to consolidate his holdings into what would become an ancestral farm. The Shawomet Book of Records describes Slade's new property by assigned lot number and notes that it ended at "ye beach."
On the other side of the river, and directly opposite Slade's property, a man named Henry Brightman rowed paying passengers across the river from his lot in the Freeman's Purchase, now Fall River. In 1692, William Slade began his own ferry service , in a row boat, from the shores of "ye beach." Slade's Ferry was located on Riverside Avenue in the general vicinity of Magoni's Restaurant.
William Slade and Henry Brightman became partners in a business that their descendants would continue to operate for almost two hundred years. During the row boat and sail boat phases of the ferry's history,the Slades and the Brightmans owned and operated their individual boats. But they used each other's landing docks and terminal facilities without any charge.
As the service progressed to larger boats, the two families purchased them jointly and split the cost equally. Slade and Brightman owned a partnership boat; and when it left the Fall River dock, it was called the Brightman Ferry, and a Brightman collected the fares and kept them. But when the boat sailed from the Somerset shore, it was called the Slade Ferry , and it was a Slade who collected the fares and pocketed them. There were no tickets. Ever.
This remarkable business model continued without disagreement or significant change for nearly two centuries. When the Weetamoe, the ferry's last boat, sailed forth in the late 19th century from the Brightman dock in Fall River, Captain Horace Slade went into the pilot house and became commander of the vessel. Meanwhile, Captain Cory Brightman put on his tall stovetop hat , circulated the deck, and collected the fares which he put in his pocket. When the Weetamoe arrived on the Somerset side, it loaded passengers and freight for transport to Fall River. At that point , Captain Slade came out of the pilot house, and Captain Brightman went into it where he now assumed the role of commander. Then, as the Weetamoe left the Slade dock, Captain Slade took his turn walking the deck, collecting the fares, and keeping them.
The Slades and the Brightmans kept the ferry running year round from before sunrise until 9 P.M. After that, the boats were usually berthed for the rest of the night on the Somerset side. But if a boat was needed across the river, it could be summoned by the glow of an oil lamp placed in the window of the Brightman waiting room.
Over many years, the Slades and Brightmans maintained comfortable waiting rooms which were always called "shops." The Slade shop was about eighteen feet square and had plenty of seats. It was cooled by river breezes in summer and heated by a stove in winter. It was never closed. Eventually, these shops became popular spots for neighborhood philosophers to gather and exchange solutions to the world's problems.
Slade's Ferry passed into history on January 4, 1876. On that date, the Slade's Ferry Bridge opened. It was the first bridge to cross the Taunton River. And on that date, the business partnership that had sustained multiple generations of Slade's and Brightmans since 1692 came to an end.
William Slade, founder of Somerset and of the ferry, is buried in the Slade cemetery on the west side of Riverside Avenue, corner of Slade's Ferry Avenue.