Editor's Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article written by George W. Murdock, for the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman newspaper in the 1930s. Murdock, a veteran marine engineer, wrote a regular column. Articles transcribed by HRMM volunteer Adam Kaplan. For more of Murdock's articles, see the "Steamboat Biographies" category
The steamboat “Water Witch,” although not originally built for Hudson River traffic, was the storm center of an attempt by private citizens to break a monopoly on Hudson River travel- an attempt which failed only when the citizens were “sold out” by the owners of the steamboat. Thereby “hangs a tale” which was one of the colorful events of early steamboating on the river.
Brown and Bell built the wooden hull of the “Water Witch” at New York in 1831, and her engine was the product of J.P. Allaire, also of New York. Her hull was 138 feet long, breadth of beam 22 feet and over her guards 40 feet. depth of hold 7 feet 10 inches. Her engine was of the cross-head type.
The New York and New London route was the original path of service for the new “Water Witch,” running between these two cities as a day boat. She left New York on her first trip on Saturday, July 30, 1831, with Captain Charles Davison in command; and the fare to New London was $2.50 with meals extra. During her term of service on this route, the “Water Witch” is credited with making the passage of 120 miles in 8 hours and 50 minutes- considered very good time for such a distance for a steamboat of that period.
An advertisement appearing in the New York newspapers on August 12, 1831, heralds the event of the appearance of the “Water Witch” on the Hudson river. This announcement contained the information that “the new and splendid steamboat “Water Witch,” Captain Charles Davison, will leave the foot of Warren street, New York, for Sing Sing and Peekskill daily at 7 o’clock a.m., touching at all intermediate landings; returning the same day, leaving Peekskill at 1 o’clock p.m. This boat is put on this route for the season, and no pains will be spared to render every accommodation to the traveling community.”
But there was a great deal more behind this advertisement than appeared on the surface. In the summer of 1831 a number of citizens of Putnam and Westchester counties, having for years been force to pay an exorbitant rate of fare between Sing Sing, Peekskill, and intermediate landings to the Vanderbilt Line which was at the time operating the steamboat “General Jackson,” among others, formed themselves into a stock company for the purpose of operating an independent line. Looking around for a suitable vessel to meet their requirements, they found the “Water Witch,” recently completed for the New London Line.
James Smith, Daniel Drew, and another, were called upon to manage the affairs of the new company, and thus in the summer of 1831 the “Water Witch” entered service on the Hudson river, operating until late fall in one of the most spirited “oppositions” that was ever staged on the Hudson river.
In meeting this competition, the Vanderbilt Line cut fares until the “Water Witch” was carrying passengers for 12 1/2 cents. The people of the lower river towns rallied to the support of the new line and the “Water Witch” often carried from three to five hundred passengers while the Vanderbilt Line steamboat was carrying only 20 fares. This state of affairs continued until the close of the season and gave the stockholders of the new line plenty of confidence to continue their venture.
In the spring of 1832 the “Water Witch” was again in the service of the independent group, running until May 1 and carrying almost all of the passengers. Then came the blow to the “independents”- for without any notice or the knowledge of the stockholders, the “Water Witch” was withdrawn from service! An investigation brought out the fact that Commodore Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt Line had “arranged” with Managers Smith and Drew, to halt the activity of the “Water Witch,” and since the stockholders had invested full power of operation in the hands of Smith and Drew, there was nothing that could be done. Law suits naturally followed this “treason” on the part of the managers, but soon the “independent stock” was selling for little or nothing to friends of the Vanderbilt interests - and Daniel Drew became the manager of there Vanderbilt Line!
In the fall of 1832 the “Water Witch” was placed on the auction block and finally went to the Hartford Line, and Daniel Drew and Commodore Vanderbilt proceeded to “make things lively” on the Hudson river for some years. Later the “Water Witch” returned to the Hudson river, and then was last heard from in service between New York and Elizabeth, N.J. [words cut off] 1849.
George W. Murdock, (b. 1853-d. 1940) was a veteran marine engineer who served on the steamboats "Utica", "Sunnyside", "City of Troy", and "Mary Powell". He also helped dismantle engines in scrapped steamboats in the winter months and later in his career worked as an engineer at the brickyards in Port Ewen. In 1883 he moved to Brooklyn, NY and operated several private yachts. He ended his career working in power houses in the outer boroughs of New York City. His mother Catherine Murdock was the keeper of the Rondout Lighthouse for 50 years.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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.