The hamlet of New Baltimore is an unincorporated community of less than 200 homes situated on the west bank of the Hudson River approximately 15 miles south of Albany. From the river, New Baltimore is identified by several early nineteenth century houses with verandahs, the steeple of the Dutch Reformed Church and the squared bell tower of a former Methodist church. Driving through the hamlet, one might notice the well-preserved nineteenth century houses, carriage barns and church buildings, as well as the lawns and mature trees which contribute to its attractiveness. The core of the hamlet was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. At its height of its prosperity and physical development, New Baltimore was a substantial community with hotels, stores, hundreds of houses, docks and industries. Of the latter, shipbuilding and ice harvesting were dominant. Today’s New Baltimore reflects little of the urban density and industrial character typical of much of its waterfront during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The hamlet was first settled by several Dutch families and New Englanders at the end of the eighteenth century. By 1800, the place had accumulated two dozen houses and the name New Baltimore, often abbreviated as simply “Baltimore.” New Baltimore was strategically located just below an area of the river choked with islands and bars that often impeded ship navigation to Albany. One of these obstructions, the infamous “overslaugh” bottled up shipping during periods of low water. New Baltimore had the advantage of being below these obstructions and still close to Albany. A promotional map from 1809 encouraging investment in real estate describes the place as “commanding a spacious harbor and intersected by extensive turnpike roads opening a fair prospect for the mercantile and seafaring adventurer.”
Shipbuilding was clearly underway in New Baltimore by 1793 when the sloop Sea Flower was built by Nathan Dunbar. This was followed by more than a dozen new sloops, schooners and a brig built for the river trade and even trade with the West Indies. These sailing vessels tended to average 60 to 70 feet in length on deck and carried freight and passengers up and down the river while maintaining communications between Hudson River towns, New York City and southern New England. At least one New Baltimore sloop remained in service locally into the 1870s. The town’s yards also thrived repairing and rebuilding sailing vessels. By 1830, a community of shipbuilders, masters, owners and merchants had emerged building docks, warehouses, several shipyards and a series of mostly frame houses on small lots along what are now Main and Washington streets.
A drydock was added to New Baltimore’s yard facilities in 1835. Sloops continued to be built and repaired here into the 1850s, when steamboats and barges began to be produced. In 1858, Jedediah R. and Henry S. Baldwin purchased the Goldsmith and Ten Eyck shipyard and began a business that continued almost uninterrupted until 1919. The Baldwins built at least 100 steamboats, canal barges, hay barges, tugboats and a large steam dredge over their 61-year history and repaired many more. A marine railway was built at the company’s Mill Street yard in 1884 which facilitated the launching of new boats and the repair of passenger steamboats of all but the largest sizes. Among the more notable boats built here were the 182-foot sidewheeler Andrew Harder in 1863, 253-foot propeller steamboat Nuhpa in 1865, the sidewheel towboat Jacob Leonard in 1872, the 127-foot sidewheel steamboat G.V.S. Quackenbush in 1878 and the 139-foot hay and excursion barge Andrew M. Church in 1892. Between 1905 and 1906, 13 boats were launched at the Baldwin yard. Photographs of the yard taken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show the marine railway in use, new boats being built on the shoulders of the railway slip, an office and loft building, several storage buildings, a steam mill for sawing and planning lumber, a basin adjacent to the river to keep logs from drying and checking, several steam boxes with brick furnaces and teams of workers with caulking mallets in hand. Launches of the larger boats were often celebratory events for the community and recorded in photographs.
Small boats were also produced and serviced in New Baltimore. In the 1880s, Herrick & Powell produced yachts and launches with steam and early internal combustion engines. In 1898, William H. Couser moved his boat shop to Mill Street where he produced and repaired small craft for some years. The Baldwin firm built or repaired at least one small auxiliary schooner at its Mill Street yard and briefly operated a small yard nearby at Matthews Point for building smaller tugs.
New Baltimore’s mid and later nineteenth century prosperity was expressed in its fine homes and churches. Stylish homes with verandahs overlooking the river and sometimes distinctive cupolas were built by the town’s leading industrialists and merchants in the latest styles of the day. Steamboats connected New Baltimore to Albany, Hudson and ports in between and a five-story hotel was built on the town square. Large warehouses flanked the public dock and coal pockets were built near the steamboat dock and a short distance south on Mill Street. By the 1890s, the waterfront was flanked by enormous icehouses at its north and south ends and across the river on Hotaling Island.
New Baltimore’s decline was gradual. The West Shore Railroad by-passed the hamlet by more than a mile when service began in 1883, limiting the possibilities that direct rail service might have provided. Major fires in 1897, 1905, 1912 and 1929 largely destroyed the business center of the community. The natural ice industry declined during this same period due to public concerns over bacterial contamination from polluted river water and the simultaneous rise of clean manufactured ice.
The Baldwin shipyard was purchased by William Wade in 1919 and incorporated as the New Baltimore Shipbuilding and Repair Corporation. It may have built one or more wooden tugs. The last launch in town was the 90-foot wooden steamship Kittaning built in 1922 for the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island. Thereafter, the yard became a dock for Wade’s adapted sand and dredging company. While ideal for building wooden sloops, barges, tugs, ferries, and small to mid-sized steamboats, New Baltimore did not have enough available flat land along the river or the access to rail shipments necessary to create an efficient yard for building with steel. Steel shipbuilding succeeded elsewhere on the Hudson River where adequate land and infrastructure were available, notably at Kingston, Newburgh, and Cohoes.
With its prime industries lost, New Baltimore lost status, population, and a number of ancillary businesses that once thrived on its booming economy. Images taken by Office of War Information photographer John Collier, Jr. in October 1941 show a town with little apparent activity, dilapidated fences, unpainted porches and a waterfront with rotting barges. Buildings continued to be lost to fire and neglect and trees reclaimed industrial sites and yards. Areas of dense-packed housing were gradually thinned and by the 1970s, the town had lost as much as one-fourth of its historic building stock.
The hamlet’s stabilization and recovery, beginning in the 1970s, paralleled a broadened appreciation for the Hudson River and the gradual clean-up of its waters. Today, the hamlet is an attractive bedroom community for families and individuals with employment in adjacent communities and nearby cities. Its maritime heritage is echoed in the houses of the shipbuilders, captains, shipwrights and rivermen, the remains of the earth-filled docks and slips, a lone derrick, several subbing posts along the shoreline and the stone foundations of some of its lost buildings and industrial sites.
Bush, Clesson S. Episodes from a Hudson River Town, New Baltimore, New York. SUNY Albany, 2011.
Gambino, Anthony J. By the Shores of New Baltimore: Its Shipyards and Nautical History. Self-published C.D., 2009.
Historic photos courtesy of Town of New Baltimore Historian's Office and Greene County Historical Society.
Mark Peckham is a trustee of the Hudson River Maritime Museum and a retiree from the New York State Division for Historic Preservation.
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