Cruising Boston Harbor Since 1926
Matthew “Matty” Hughes claims two important places in history. At the tender age of 16 he became the youngest licensed captain ever in the port of Boston, and in 1926 he founded New England’s premier cruise company, what is today the nation’s largest private operator of passenger vessels, Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC).
Given Matty's glorious obsession with boats and Boston Harbor, no one was surprised when, soon after obtaining his license, he struck a deal with a local boat owner to operate the M/V Nelly with two full-time employees on a 30-minute cruise of the Charles River at a cost of 10¢.
For the next 16 years, area residents, in an attempt to escape the oppressive summer heat in their Boston flats, created a steady stream of seasonal customers for Matty and his cruises. Service had to be interrupted though in 1942 when Matty enlisted in the United States Navy, serving as a Seabee through the end of World War II.
Retuning home from service in 1945, Matty resumed operations at Boston Harbor Cruises, expanding the business to operate vessels inside Boston Harbor and on the Charles River. For more than a decade these sightseeing excursions ran three times daily for a fare of $2.00. It was during this era that Boston Harbor Cruises became a true family run enterprise with Matty’s daughters, Rookie and Rita, coming on board, followed closely by their kids.
Around 1960, the family made a decision to switch the emphasis of their cruises to deep sea fishing expeditions. Passengers would charter day and overnight trips for the amazing price of $6 for a full day in order to be able to cast their lines in search of cod, haddock, halibut, blue fish, tuna and more.
Fishing charters remained the company’s specialty until the late 1970s when Boston’s waterfront exploded with development. Tourist attractions such as the New England Aquarium and Faneuil Hall Marketplace brought a record number of visitors to the waterfront, and to Matty’s front door. Given this new opportunity, Boston Harbor Cruises moved back into the sightseeing market, but this time it would be Matty’s grandchildren, including current principles Rick and Chris Nolan who would be at the helm.
In the 1980s, their leadership was instrumental in BHC securing a contract with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to provide water transportation services between downtown Boston and Charlestown, a heavily traveled commuter route. This transformed BHC from a seasonal business to a year-round venture transporting more than 200,000 additional passengers each year. Since then, the MBTA has awarded 4 additional commuter ferry contracts to the company, the largest carrying 4,000 passengers per day.
Today, the company continues to grow with Rick, Chris and Matty’s great-granddaughter Alison Nolan (Rick’s daughter/fourth generation) as its managing partners and Chris’ son Patrick as a Partner. They’ve parlayed their nearly 100 years of maritime operations and management into building a fleet that has operated successfully in Massachusetts Bay, New York, Rhode Island, The US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
In addition to commuter runs, current service offerings include Whale Watches in partnership with the New England Aquarium, the Cape Cod Fast Ferry, a variety of sightseeing tours including lunch and brunch cruises, the Salem Ferry, private charters, Codzilla – a high speed thrill ride, two pier side patio bars -The Landing at Long Wharf and The Landing at the Salem Ferry, offshore support services for underwater survey, research, LNG work and more.
The company now employs over 200 full-time with the seasonal workforce topping 450. BHC’s 32 vessels make 317 scheduled weekday departures during the summer season carrying over 2 million passengers each year.
In 2013, BHC was recognized by The Family Business Association (FBA), the leading independent non-profit organization serving family business enterprises, with the Massachusetts Family Business of the Year Award. The FBA awards recognize the importance of family businesses in Massachusetts and the critical role they play in providing significant employment opportunities, revenue generation, as well as economic development and growth in their communities, the state, and the region.