From the late 1870's to the 1890's a side wheeler operated on the Nemasket River. The Pioneer was built in 1877 by John LeBaron. It was 40 feet long and could accommodate about 40 passengers. The following advertisement describes the trip:
Steamer Pioneer. On and after June 1, 1879, a steamer will leave Riverside Wharf, Water Street, on the wing days: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 1 o'clock, sailing up the Nemasket River to Assawompsett, touching at Stony Point and Lake View, sailing through the narrows to Long Point; returning, stopping at Sear's Grove, then returning home at 4 o'clock in time for any train on the Old Colony Railroad, making a trip of about twenty miles. Fare for the round trip, 50 Cents. Charities, Families, and Private Parties accommodated on any of the remaining days of the week at reasonable rates by contacting Baylies LeBaron, Box 26, Middleborough. Moonlight excursions every month.
Three years later this side wheeler was replaced by a larger one. The Assawompsett was about 60 feet long with a hinged smokestack which was lowered to allow passage under bridges. The claim that it could hold 100 passengers seemed a little high, since a count of passengers from a photograph reveals about 65 people. Although Mr. LeBaron built the boilers for the boats, he had to be issued a special fireman's license to operate them on the rivers and lakes only.
A canal dug by hand in 1816 with the aid of horses was to provide a greater flow of water in the river for the cotton mills located further down the river. The project failed and was abandoned. The canal was used by the steamer eliminating a section that contained two almost right angle turns. This canal is still visible from the Vaughan's bridge today (1984). There were several places along the river where "settin poles" were required to push the craft off the rocks and shoals.
The steamer took many passengers to the memorable 4th of July celebrations at Stony Point, now known as Nelson's Grove. As the side wheeler entered the waters of the Lake a salute from a two foot brass cannon mounted on a boat would announce its arrival. The boat was owned by Tom Thumb, one of the well known Little People. He married Laninia Bump of Middleborough, also a little person. They owned a home not far from the river in the Warrentown section of town. They were best known for their appearances in the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus. On this day a sudden squall came up and the tiny boat, cannon, and owner aboard, capsized. The owner and boat survived, but the cannon was never seen again.
The joy of riding the side wheeler ended around the turn of the century when the City of Taunton built a gatehouse across the mouth of the Nemasket River. They were authorized in 1875 to use the lake as a water supply. The gatehouse allowed them to regulate the water by raising or lowering the planks. Although a big rock north of Bridge Street, visible only from the river, had a drill hole made in it back in 1897 to designate the high water mark of the river, the water rarely reaches that point even today. Without access to the lakes and the low level of water in the river, the side wheeler cruises were stopped.
The side wheeler was pulled up on shore and left to rot near the East Grove Street Bridge. The watershed waterworks built, to take water from the Nemasket River to supply inhabitants with water for domestic, manufacturing, and fire fighting purposes, has been located near the East Street Bridge since 1885. According to a letter from Ralph Sampson who worked at the pumping station across the river, the vessel laid near the bridge, but broke loose, floated to the bridge, wedged against the abutment, and blocked the river entirely. The vessel was pulled upstream to a cove across from the pumping station. He further states the engine was used to haul ice at LeBarons ice houses, and the smokestack was left in the meadows to rust away. He recalls, during World War one, two boys carrying a long birch pole between them ripped most of the iron parts, hung them on the pole, and trotted them away for scrap. The keel may be the only part still buried in the mud today. A letter of Harold F. Dunham relates how a cousin and he would borrow a rowboat hitched to a post in back of the pumping station, cross the river, and play pirates around the ribs of the vessel. George Ward Stetson, not far from the river, remembers as a young boy seeing the ribs of the boat when he went for walks with his father.