Editor's Note: This account is from the January 1, 1885 Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle. The tone of the article reflects the time period in which it was written.
RIVER BOATS. An Interesting Sketch of Steamers Whose Names Are Familiar.
Fulton's Clermont Seventy-seven Years Ago and the Fast Steamers of the Present Day - The Limbo Where Old Hulks Rest from Their Labors - Durability of Engines.
A little over seventy-seven years have elapsed since Fulton's Clermont started from New York and splashed and spluttered away toward Albany. Although several inventors had previously succeeded in applying steam as a propelling power to boats, Fulton's was the first venture which was followed by practical results, and the growth of steam navigation since that day has been remarkable. Previous to this, many of our Western rivers were practically closed to commerce by reason of their swift currents, which precluded any attempt at navigation. The commerce of the Hudson River was carried on by small sloops, and it is interesting to note the great results which have sprung from that trial trip of the Clermont in 1807.
According to the latest statistics the number of steam vessels plying on our inland waters is not far from 5,000, including canal, towing and freight boats of every description, and as we look it the splendid floating palaces that sustain our inland commerce to-day, we can imagine the astonishment that would mark the faces of the honest old burghers of four score years ago, if they could return for a brief period, to their former homes. Their amazement would not be lessened either, when informed of the various improvements that have been made from time to time since "Fulton's Folly," as they called her, made her successful trial trip. Notwithstanding the many improvements made in marine architecture, it is a curious fact that the engine has undergone but few changes, and the old "walking beam" type is still in use on nearly all of our river steamers. An engine generally outwears two hulls, and many steamers on the Hudson River and in this vicinity have in them the engines of boats built forty and fifty years ago.
The recent rebuilding of the famous Dean Richmond, of the People's Line, and the breaking up of the old Thomas Powell, recalls some of the memorable days previous to and during the war, when the opposition was so fierce between the rival lines on the Hudson River. Many of the steamers of that period have long since passed out of existence, while some of them are still in service as tow boats, and others are rotting away at Port Ewen, on the Hudson. This place is called the cemetery for old steamboats, scores of them having been brought here, their engines taken out and placed in other boats, and their hulls broken up.
No North Riverboat was better known than the Thomas Powell. She was always a favorite with the traveling public, and during the forty years of service on the river no boat of her inches could equal her in speed. She was built in New York in 1846, for Thomas Powell and Homer Ramsdell, of Newburgh, and was placed on the line between that place and New York: After running here a few years she was sold to parties in Philadelphia, who ran her on the Delaware River, and was subsequently brought back and placed on the North River again as a day boat to Rondout. Later on the Citizens’ Line, of Troy, purchased her, and, after lengthening her and putting on a suite of state rooms, placed her on the night line to Troy, where she ran for a number of years, with the old Sunnyside. From the day she was built until she was broken up, the Thomas Powell carried the same name, which fact speaks volumes in itself, in those days when so many old boats are palmed off on the traveling public as new, by the use of a little paint and putty and a new name.
The New World was another famous boat, built about the same time, and ran for a number of years as a day boat to Albany. Old steamboatmen to-day say the New World was the fastest steamer that ever turned a wheel on the North River. Her engine is now in the St. John, of the People's Line.
Three other steamers engaged in the traffic on the river about this time were also famous for their speed. They were the Alida, Armenia and Reindeer, which, with the Henry Clay, formed the two opposition day lines to Albany in 1852. These boats made the principal landings along the river, and so fierce was the opposition between the two lines that scarcely a day passed that one or the other of the boats did not narrowly escape a serious collision at some place in the race for first landing. Runners for each line were on the docks and tickets sold as low as ten and twelve cents for a passage from Albany to New York, and it is said that the confusion at some of our excursion wharves to-day would be peaceful in comparison to the scene at some of the up river docks at this time. During a race on the down trip in the Summer of this year the Henry Clay caught fire around her boiler and was burned to the water's edge - many of the passengers losing their lives before the opposition boat, which was some distance astern, could reach the burning steamer. The Reindeer was also destroyed by fire a short time after this; the Armenia continued on the day line until a few years since, when she was taken to Washington, D. C, where she is still in service on the Potomac River. The Alida was until quite recently engaged in the towing business, and her hull is now among the decaying hulks at Port Ewen.
The steamer Senator was built at New York, in 1846, and taken to California during the "gold fever” in 1849, and ran on the Sacramento River until 1854, when she was fitted up for outside business, running to San Diego. She continued on the southern route until purchased by the Pacific Mail Company. While running on the Sacramento, the cabin passage was $35 and deck passage $15, and it was not long before she paid for herself ten times over, her receipts averaging close to $20,000 a trip. Although fitted with new boilers on several occasions, her engine, a vertical beam, remained in her from first to last, and her after cabin through all changes was never touched, as the joiners on all occasions declined, for the reason that the highly polished rosewood and mahogany could not be improved on. At the lowest calculation over a million passengers have traveled on her, and it is said she made more gold than could be carried on her. She outlived scores of the finest steamers afloat, and about a year ago was converted into a coal hulk and sent to New Zealand.
The old Oregon and Isaac Newton ran for many years. The former was sunk in a collision with one of the Stonington boats in the North River, off Desbrosses street and the latter was destroyed by fire near Fort Lee while on the up trip. The Erie, Champlain and Ohio were peculiar looking craft, having a separate engine and walking beam for each wheel. The Santa Claus, South America and Francis Skiddy were also famous "old timers," the latter being at one time one of the regular Albany day boats. She had four boilers and carried four smoke stacks and did not run long before she was sunk, her engine being placed in the Dean Richmond. The last mentioned boat has just been rebuilt at a cost of over $100,000. When she was first built she was the finest river steamer afloat, many novel arrangements now common to a first class passenger steamer being introduced for the first time in her construction. Among these were the bedstead berths in the staterooms, gas lighting, card rooms, barber shop, smoking room, etc.
Among the famous boats of to-day on the Hudson River may be mentioned the Mary Powell, which after a service of twenty odd years is still in the prime of her life, having been entirely rebuilt a few years ago. She is the "grayhound," of the Hudson, and the most popular boat on the river, and has never been off the line between Rondout and New York since she was launched. Until quite recently she was owned by her commander. Captain A. L. Anderson, but on account of failing health he very reluctantly sold her to Thomas Cornell, of Rondout, and Captain John Brinkerhoff, of Poughkeepsie.
The latest addition to the fleet of Hudson River steamers is the iron propeller City of Kingston, built by Harlan & Hollingsworth at Wilmington, Del. Besides being a new departure in the line of river steamers, she is also noticeable from having a type of engine heretofore unknown on the Hudson River. It is a compound direct action engine, with high pressure and low pressure cylinders, of the same pattern in use on the finest ocean steamers of to-day. She is lighted by electricity, and has steam steering gear, and all the latest appliances known in marine architecture.
The freight steamer City of Fall River, built two years ago, was the first boat ever built with a compound walking beam engine, and her success has far exceeded the hopes of her builders. The second steamer supplied with a compound walking beam engine is the new ferryboat built for the Newburgh and Fishkill Ferry. She was built by Ward, Stanton & Co. at Newburgh and is now running on the above named route.
Strange as it may sound in those days of progress, it is nevertheless a fact that among the steamboats built in recent years none have ever succeeded in breaking the record of fast time made by the steamers of the ante bellum days. The principal reason for this is found in the fact that the boats of to-day are built too deep; the great consideration being ample freight and passenger accommodations rather than speed. Then again, the boats of to-day do not have the power in proportion to their size which the old timers possessed. Twenty-five years ago it was a common occurrence for one of the Albany day boats to average a speed of twenty-four miles an hour; to-day the boats on the same route average from eighteen to twenty miles an hour.
Fulton's Clermont ran from New York to Albany in thirty-two hours actual running time. The fastest recorded time over the same route was made by the New World, when she ran from Chambers street to Albany dock in six hours and thirteenth minutes, making eleven landings, which would bring her actual running time inside of six hours. The Chauncey Vibbard has made the same run in six hours and forty-two minutes. On another occasion the New World ran from New York to Anthony's Nose, a distance of forty-eight miles, in two hours.
"The North River steamboats don't go as fast now as in old times," said an old engineer, not long ago. "There's no such opposition among the steamboat lines now as existed then. The crafts have it in 'em, though, I think. Short runs ore not the best tests of steamboats relative speed. I remember once the old South America ran from the foot of Jay street up to a mile above Piermont in an hour, distance twenty-six miles. She had a strong southerly wind and the flood tide in her favor at the time. This is pretty fast traveling, but I don't care what they say to the contrary, when the New World first came out and clinched the Thomas Powell in a run up the river, floating craft never traveled through the water faster than they did."
The question as to which is the fastest boat on the Hudson River at the present day remains to be settled between the steamer Mary Powell and the steel steamer Albany, of the day line. Old steamboat men incline to the opinion that the latter is the fastest, but be that as it may, it is a fact that the Albany has never yet been run to her utmost speed, and if a race were arranged between them thousands of dollars would change hands in wagers on the relative merits of these two crack steamers. The owners of both boats are reluctant to have the question settled, as in either case a reputation is at stake, and they are quite content to let the matter stand in doubt. D. B. F.
Thank you to HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer for sharing and transcribing this article and for the glimpse into nineteenth century life in the Hudson Valley.
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