The Former Jamestown Ferry is Now a Restaurant in Maine

Guests at DiMillo's On the Water can dine on baked stuffed lobster in a floating restaurant that once ferried passengers between Jamestown and Newport.

DiMillo’s On the Water in Portland, Maine, is housed in a former Jamestown ferry boat. (Courtesy of DiMillo’s On the Water via Instagram)

On June 28, 1969, the Newport Bridge officially opened between Jamestown and Aquidneck Island, changing the driving habits of Rhode Islanders forever.

Prior to the bridge’s opening, residents of Jamestown had to take a ferry to get to Newport, or else go the long way around through Providence using the already-constructed Jamestown Bridge. At the time of the new bridge’s construction, two steam-powered ferries — the Jamestown IV and the Newport II — still offered ferry service to the other side.

Jamestown residents can no longer hop on a year-round ferry to enjoy dinner on Thames Street, but they can head up to Portland, Maine, if they want to relive their ferry days in style. After its decommissioning, the Newport II had a long and roundabout journey that included stops in Pawtucket and New York before it was purchased by a Portland restaurant owner. Today, the DiMillo family still operates the ferry as DiMillo’s On the Water, serving baked stuff lobster and fried clams on the same deck where holiday-goers once enjoyed views of Narragansett Bay.

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The ferry boat Newport II transports passengers across Narragansett Bay. (Courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society Collection)

Jamestown to Newport

Even before its gig as the Jamestown ferry, the Newport II already had a long history of transporting people and vehicles. In 1941, the original boat was commissioned as the New York and opened as a car ferry transporting vehicles between New Castle, Delaware, and Pennsville, New Jersey. The boat was later sold to the state of Virginia, where it operated as a ferry between Norfolk and Hampton.

In 1958, the state of Rhode Island purchased the ferry and named it the Newport (the second ferry boat of that name). As the Jamestown Historical Society has recorded, the two islands already had a long history of steam ferry boats dating back to 1873. The first wood-powered ferry boats eventually gave way to the more dependable boats of the 1900s. In his 2015 documentary, We Took the Ferry, filmmaker Bob Sutton recalled how students in Jamestown had to take the ferry daily to attend Rogers High School.

In 1969, the Newport Bridge opened — it wouldn’t be renamed the Claiborne Pell Bridge until 1992 — and the ferries were no longer needed. The Jamestown IV and the Newport II enjoyed their final runs. (You can watch video of the ferries during their final week of service here.)

A Floating Art Colony

As with all good journeys, the Newport II then took an interesting detour. In a move that could only spring from 1960s counterculture, the city of Pawtucket purchased the ferry for $1 to turn it into a floating art colony for youth. The ferry moved to the Blackstone River, where city administrators planned to use federal grant money to host recreational and cultural programs. A 1971 New York Times article records the initial reaction of residents:

“‘I think before the ferry opened a lot of questions had to be answered,’ Mr. [Richard] Partridge [recreation and cultural coordinator for the city] says. Now the people are finding out that ‘it’s not a bunch of longhaired hippie freaks doing crazy things. They’re doing very constructive things,’ he said.”

David Quinn, a 23-year-old city employee who would later serve as tax assessor in Providence, was hired as the floating youth center’s first director. He recalls how the ferry would host plays and events and even served as a meeting space for the original Operation ZAP cleanup in 1972.

“It was pretty successful. We had lots of events for young people, more arts-oriented than there was at the junior and senior high schools,” he says.

The effort was short-lived, and in 1977, the Setauket Yacht Club in Port Jefferson, New York, purchased the boat. It became a clubhouse and storage facility until the DiMillo family purchased it in 1980.

DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant

Tony DiMillo, patriarch of the DiMillo family, had already spent several decades in the restaurant business when he purchased the former ferry in 1980. According to the restaurant’s website, he opened his first restaurant, Anthony’s, in 1954 and later opened DiMillo’s On the Waterfront across the street from its current location. In 1978, he purchased the wharf where the restaurant sits, and, after two years of renovations, he opened DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant on Portland Harbor.

Today, the restaurant continues to operate as DiMillo’s On the Water (the family also owns the surrounding marina and a yacht dealership). Guests can eat classic New England seafood dishes like scallop rolls and lobster mac and cheese in rooms that once encompassed the ferry’s many decks and seating areas. They can even dine outside for an opportunity to enjoy dinner overlooking the bay — even if it’s a different bay from the waters the boat once cruised in Rhode Island. The restaurant also hosts weddings and banquets, which means real Rhode Island history buffs can get married on the former Jamestown ferry.

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Dining outside at DiMillo’s On the Water. (Courtesy of DiMillo’s On the Water via Instagram)


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