Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2017 issue of the Pilot Log.
“. . .with the smell of clover from the river banks came the pungent odor of whale oil, mixed with the salty tang of the ships which sailed up from the sea.” --Edouard Stackpole, Sea-Hunters (1953)
The first great wave of economic expansion gripped the new American nation within twenty-five years after the ratification of the U. S. Constitution, at first with the creation of new municipalities and a flurry in turnpike building that opened the interior’s vast farming potential to the river corridor. This was quickly followed by a burst in industrial growth and a new sense of civic improvements in the riverfront towns in the emerging manifest destiny spirit. Some of the new ideas were not new at all, except in the novelty of their application here in the Hudson River Valley.
Whaling was one of them. The industry already had a curious history in a New England-based community that was established at Hudson (called Claverack Landing until 1785) by Seth and Thomas Jenkins, Quaker brothers from Nantucket, an island in the Atlantic Ocean that was terrorized by the British during the American Revolution. Providence, Martha’s Vineyard and Newport were also represented among the thirty heads of families who created the new town—a city, even—that by 1786 had twenty-five whaling vessels, more than in all of New York city. Four years later and rapidly growing, Hudson was designated a United States port of entry because it stood at the head of ocean-going navigation whenever sand bars prevented river access to Albany. In 1797, one ship, the American Hero, brought in the largest cargo of sperm whale oil in American history.
Hudson was a cosmopolitan port in these heady times, its trade including (much like today) exotic tapestries, Chinaware, English Staffordshire, French mahogany furniture—and visitors like the exiled French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who stopped while en route to a visit with a French marquise living near Schenectady, to examine the making of sperm oil candles and view an exhibition of Thomas Jenkins paintings. The city remained vibrant even after the whaling industry collapsed with the War of 1812.
Whaling was revived briefly in Hudson in 1829, when a new Hudson Whaling Company was attempted (not involving any of the original proprietor families). The industry also moved south as the Hudson River continue to be viewed as an amenable venue despite the extra time it took to come upriver. In fact, the river was also visited by whales, most famously in 1652 when a sperm whale (the world’s largest of the species) became stranded and died at Cohoes Falls, yielding spermacetti oil that made the best candles that local residents had ever had—and a horrific smell in its putrefaction for miles around.
The Jenkins brothers had first looked at Poughkeepsie before opting for Claverack Landing, but it was not until 1832 that an industry was established in Poughkeepsie, and in Newburgh, also involving Nantucket and New Bedford whalers but this time as crew, not proprietors. The Newburgh Whaling Company was established by an act of the New York state legislature on January 24, 1832, and, like the Poughkeepsie Whaling Company (created March 20), involved prominent businessmen desiring high civic accomplishments as well as profits. U. S. exports of sperm oil rose from 3,944 barrels in 1815 to more than 110,000 by 1831, leading the Poughkeepsie investors to expect as much as $6 million in profits in a scant four years.
By April, 1832, the Newburgh company purchased and outfitted the Portland for $15,250, added the Russel ($14,500) in August, and the Illinois ($12,000) in 1833—but each made only two voyages. Their future looked promising—the Portland brought in 2,100 barrels of oil and 19,000 pounds of whalebone for $40,000 in sales on its last voyage—but the industry collapsed due to falling oil prices.
In Poughkeepsie, the new corporation raised $200,000 in stock sales within six weeks after incorporating, and a vessel (the Vermont) was purchased and sailed by the end of October. A second ship, the Siros, sailed in April of 1833, and the Elbe left that August. A second enterprise, the Dutchess Whaling Company, was formed under newly elected U. S. Senator Nathanial P. Tallmadge that fall, and also worked with a New Bedford agent. They bought ten acres on the riverfront and leased half of it to the Poughkeepsie company.
Both good and bad news followed. The Vermont was spotted by a New Bedford ship off Cape Horn, South America, heading for Peru, but the Siroc was wrecked off Cape Good Hope (Africa). Another Dutchess ship, the New England, sailed in July of 1834 and by October had killed two whales in the Azores. The Vermont returned in early 1835 with $16,000 in whale oil, having traveled around the world, losing its captain in a stabbing incident probably involving one of his sailors.
On its second voyage, the New England returned with $50,000 in cargo. Another ship, the Newark, returned also full and to great applause, and the Nathanial P. Tallmadge was launched in 1836. The bottom fell out of the market when the price of whale oil dropped in half as a result of a new, more severe panic that gripped the nation in 1837, the result of Andrew Jackson’s misguided banking policies. By 1841, when the Elbe lay wrecked in New Zealand, ships were being sold on their return. The Dutchess Whaling Company lost money in the sale of its land and went into receivership in 1848.
Politics played against the whalers in the clash of Democrat and Whig philosophies. Senator Tallmadge was roundly criticized by the Locofoco faction of Democrats as the tide of public opinion turned against the whole notion of speculation. A new technology was emerging, the use of gas in home and industry lighting, that would survive until the electrification era almost a century later. These local industries were too small to sustain profits amidst the vicissitudes of a changing market and the crew requirements that they faced. They had to hire expensive New England mariners because no one on the Hudson had the experience of ocean voyages. Richard Henry Dana, author of the classic whaling account Two Years before the Mast, a crew member with a New Bedford whaler that met the New England at sea, remarked about a “pretty raw” Poughkeepsie youth who was “just out of the bush” and knew nothing about sailing.
The great promise at the beginning of the whaling industry on the Hudson River resulted from the size of the fleet and experience of the Hudson proprietors, but the industry in general just did not have the time to mature here. Like plank roads, Hudson River whaling passed into oblivion as another great idea of the antebellum era lost in the shuffle of “a go-ahead people”—as Poughkeepsie investor Matthew Vassar (in both whaling and plank roads) described his fellow Americans—whose future lay in a newer and much broader economy to come.
 Vernon Benjamin, The History of the Hudson River Valley: From Wilderness to the Civil War (New York, 2014), 260; David Levine, “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry: A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY,” in Hudson Valley Magazine, March 19, 2012 (http://www.hvmag.com/Hudson-Valley-Magazine/April-2012/Hudson-Valley-Whaling-Industry-A-History-of-Claverack-Landing-Hudson-NY/); Anna R. Bradbury, “The Rule of the Proprietors 1783-1810,” in History of the City of Hudson, New York . . . (Hudson, 1908; http://www.cchsny.org/uploads/3/2/1/7/32173371/-whaling_lesson_for_pdf.pdf); Du Pin Gouvernet, Henriette Lucie Dillion, Marquise de (ed. & tr. By Walter Geer), Recollections of the Revolution and the Empire. . . . New York, 1928 (1857?).
 Adriaen van der Donck, A Description of New Netherland (tr. Jeremiah Johnson, ed. Thomas F. O’Donnell), Syracuse, 1968 (1655).
 Patricia Argiro, “Whaling—A Short Lived Venture in Newburgh,” in Orange County Free Press (July 11, 1972); Mary McTamany, “Whaling Ships once anchored at First Street,” Mid-Hudson Times, March 7, 2007.
 Sandra Truxtun Smith, A History of the Whaling Industry in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1830-1845. Vassar College thesis, Poughkeepsie, May 2, 1956.
Vernon Benjamin is the author of The History of the Hudson River Valley: From Wilderness to the Civil War and The History of the Hudson Valley: From Civil War to Modern Times.
This blog is written by:
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.