Today is the 50th anniversary of the last voyage of the Hudson River Day Line steamboat Alexander Hamilton. Her last sail on Monday, September 6, 1971 - also Labor Day - marked the end of an era.
Built in 1924 by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation for the Hudson River Day Line, she was one of the last of the Hudson River sidewheel steamboats to be built. Originally plying the Hudson River between New York City and Albany, by the 1950s her route was reduced to Poughkeepsie, and by 1970 to Bear Mountain. The Hudson River Day Line had been previously purchased by the Circle Line, who continued to operate it as a separate institution, but in 1971 the Circle Line ended steamboat service to Bear Mountain, replacing the Hamilton with the Dayliner, a sightseeing boat purpose-built to replace her.
In the TV news spot below, the interviewer speaks to several crew, including Captain Edward Grady and Chief Engineer Elvoid Post, who retired with the boat.
The following day, the New York Times wrote an article about the Hamilton and her retirement:
BEAR MOUNTAIN, N. Y. Sept. 6—The Alexander Hamilton, the last of the Hudson River sidewheelers, made her final voyage on the river today.
It was the end of an era that began 164 years ago with a paddlewheeler called the Clermont. The captain of that steamboat was Robert Fulton. The skipper of the Alexander Hamilton today was Edward VI. Grady of East Keansburg, N. J., who has spent 25 years on the water and eight years as master of the Alexander Hamilton.
“There are not many of us left,” Captain Grady said on the last run, gazing out at the rain ‐ spattered river. “Steamboats?” a passenger asked.
“Steamboats and Irishmen,” the captain replied.
Replacement on Way
Built in 1923 and commissioned a year later, the Alexander Hamilton will be replaced next season by a sleek new twin‐screw all‐steel diesel powered vessel to be called, prosaically, the Dayliner.
The Hamilton, or the Alexander as steamboat buffs call her, may end up as a restaurant at the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, but her crew—at least some of them—secretly hope she will find some more work on the water.
“There are another 40 years In her, easy,” said Chief Engineer Elvoid Post of Harrington Park, N. J., who joined the ship as a young oiler in 1931 and has been with her ever since, except for a year in 1939 Spent on the Peter Stuyvesant, now serving as a restaurant in Boston.
Chief Post, 71 years old, retired tonight. There were rumors among the crew that he would set a speed record on the return trip from Poughkeepsie. “I'll open her up,” he said, “but I set my speed record on Sept. 23, 1942. We left Bear Mountain at 5:45 P.M. that day. We tied up and I was at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey at 7:15, where my wife was having a baby.”
Chief Post said that the owner of the line then, who lived in Riverdale, the Bronx, told him the next day that all he saw going down the river was steam.
“He told me not to have any more babies,” the chief said. “We did have one more, but it was off‐season.”
An Emotional Trip
To many of the 2,700 passengers today, it was a routine, enjoyable trip with stops at Bear Mountain and West Point, but to about 100 members of the Steamboat Historical Society, to the crew, to yachtsmen along the river and to hundreds of old‐timers along the shore it was an emotion-laden trip.
The powerful tenor steam whistle on the Hamilton was rarely silent as other vessels saluted the 338.6‐feet‐long old queen of the river.
“They know they will never see her like again,” said Captain Grady, as he hauled on the brass whistle pull.
The Hamilton, built at Sparrows Point, Md., at a cost of $850,000, is the last of the old generation of Day Liners, and she is following into retirement not only the Peter Stuyvesant but also the Robert Fulton, now a workmen's dormitory in Nassau, and the Chauncey Depew, long used as a launch in Bermuda.
The Hamilton's graceful wooden superstructure is of a kind now banned by Federal law but, as Chief Engineer Post observed, “We had a safety record the whole shipping world can admire.”
Miss Mary Doran, a retired Yonkers school teacher, who remembered 50 years of Hudson River history, said she came from Florida for the occasion “I never really liked the Hamilton,” she added, “because it was built in the twenties, when they began to get rid of the old elegance.”
Most of today's passengers—the last man to board the vessel in New York was James Norton of Jamaica, Queens —celebrated the day with Scotch and fried chicken served from huge plastic coolers.
The host at one private party on board was William Olcott, a descendant of the family that owned the Day Line for many years and first operated ships on New York's rivers before the War of 1812. The Alexander Hamilton was christened by his aunt, Mrs. A. V. S. Olcott, in 1924. His family owned the Day Line until 1948, the year the last boats ran all the way to Albany.
“My grandmother did not allow beer on the boats until the line went bankrupt in the thirties,” Mr. Olcott said. “They held church services on board every Sunday and there was no hard liquor until my grandmother died.”
The new ship will have the same passenger capacity, about 4,000, or almost double that the largest trans‐Atlantic liners But little boys on board will no longer be able to go below and gaze in awe at the huge paddle wheel cranks pounding up and down in the engine room as the Alexander Hamilton cut through the river at an average speed of 18 knots. Nor will they be able to peek through the portholes at the paddlewheels themselves.
The people on shore, too—the youngsters but more so their elders—will miss the paddles and the graceful glide of the Hamilton as she swept past on the Hudson.
Like just about all of the Hudson River's sidewheel steamboats, the Alexander Hamilton had a sad end. She moved from pier to pier after her retirement, and ended up beached in Atlantic Highlands, NJ until December of 1976, when she was purchased by developer Fred Lafko, who had her pulled off the sandbar and towed to the Navy pier near Monmouth, NJ, where he hoped to restore her as a floating restaurant and museum. In March of 1977, she was added to the National Register of Historic Places. But it was not to be. On November 8, 1977, a storm blew up and the Hamilton sank at her pier. Although several groups tried valiantly to raise the funds, the Hamilton never floated again.
You can learn more about the Alexander Hamilton and see artifacts from the boat at the Hudson River Maritime Museum's new exhibit, commemorating the 50th anniversary of her final year. If you have memories of the Hamilton, please share them in the comments!
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Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published September 3, 1972.
Today, when there are only two passenger vessels operating on the lower Hudson River during the summer months, it is difficult to realize how many passenger steamboats were once in operation on all parts of the river. It is even more difficult to realize there were once so many passengers that at times extra steamboats on the same run were necessary to handle the crowds.
When I was a deckhand on the Day Liner "Albany" during the seasons of 1928 and 1929, the Hudson River Day Line operated a fleet of seven steamboats with a total passenger capacity in excess of 25,000. On weekends and holidays it was not unusual to see all seven steamers loaded to full or near capacity. Since the "Albany" was then the oldest Day Liner in service and had one of the smaller passenger capacities, she was often used as the extra steamer on the regular runs.
Labor Day weekend in particular was always a big weekend with especially large crowds. In those days, many families still spent the summer in the Catskill Mountains and it seemed that during those first few days in September everybody would try to return to New York City at the same time.
Carrying the Crowds
On Labor Day weekend 1928, the "Albany" left New York on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. to help carry the crowds leaving the city for the last big weekend of summer. After making all the regular landings, we landed at Catskill at about 8:30 in the evening. There, we were to lay overnight and precede the regular down steamer from Albany on Sunday to carry the big crowds returning to the city from Catskill and Kingston Point.
I remember that early September Sunday morning at Catskill Point almost as if it were yesterday. When I came out of the foc’s’le, the up river air seemed so fresh after being in New York for a month or so. The smell of the flats at low water was just like being home.
The fog banks of September were rising over the river. I could hear a boat’s whistle blowing one long and two short, meaning a tow was coming down. As the sound of the whistle got louder, I recognized it as the whistle of the Cornell tugboat "Osceola."
As I looked out on the river, I caught a glimpse of the “Osceola" just above Catskill Point between one of the banks of fog. She had brick scows, cement barges, canal boats and a small schooner in the tow, strung out astern on about 450 feet of cable. The tug “George W. Pratt" was the helper and pulling alongside the tow.
A Strange Scene
As I stood on the deck of the "Albany," the scene assumed a strange look, for suddenly I couldn’t see the “Osceola" or the tail end of the tow. The fog banks closed in on both ends, leaving only the middle of the tow exposed to view. As a good ebb tide was running, it did not take long for the tow to be lost out of sight down river.
When the morning sun cut the fog away and the river cleared about 7:30 a.m., there was nothing in sight either way up or down the river. Later in the morning after leaving Catskill, the “Albany” overtook the “Osceola” and her tow down off Saugerties.
We preceded the regular down boat, the "Alexander Hamilton," landing at Kingston Point, Poughkeepsie and Newburgh about 15 minutes ahead of the "Hamilton," the two steamers being necessary to handle the large crowds returning to the big city.
The next day, Labor Day, we were the regular up boat to Albany since the big crowds were all going down river. To give an idea of the large crowds, that Labor Day there were three departures from Kingston Point for New York - the “Alexander Hamilton" at 12:40 p.m., the “Hendrick Hudson” at 1 p.m. and the “Robert Fulton" at 3 p.m. That night the “Hendrick Hudson” dead headed back to Catskill and the next day, Tuesday, preceded the old “Albany” to New York, two steamers again being required to adequately handle all the passengers returning to New York.
On Labor Day weekend in 1930 occurred an incident to the “Hendrick Hudson” which turned out to be just about the only unusual caper of her long, virtually accident free career. As was the general practice of the late 1920’s, on that Labor Day the “Hudson” was the regular down boat for New York and the "Albany" the regular up steamer. After arriving at New York, the “Hendrick Hudson" was to dead head back to Albany so as to make her large passenger capacity of 5,500 available for the still large crowds expected on Tuesday.
Going north the weather was hazy and on the upper river there were patches of fog. North of Hudson the river is quite narrow. Running through the fog banks, the pilot on watch apparently kept too close to the west bank and the "Hendrick Hudson” ran hard aground on the sandy bottom just below Van Wie’s Point — only about five miles from her destination. Unable to back off under her own power, she was pulled free at high water on Tuesday by the Cornell tugboats "Pocahontas" and “W. A. Kirk.” She then went back to New York, but too late to be of any help for the waiting passengers.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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