In the summer of 1881, rumors of a planned exhibition race between the Mary Powell and the steamboat Albany were popular fodder for speculation in local newspapers. But despite the boasts of Captain Hitchcock of the Albany, Captain Absalom Lent Anderson could not be persuaded to join.
The following text is a verbatim transcription of "Rivals of the Hudson" published in the New York Herald on August 5, 1881. Many thanks to volunteer George Thompson for finding and transcribing this article.
Rivals of the Hudson. The Mary Powell and Albany as Speedy Travellers.
It is not a new thing for steamboats on the Hudson, in their eager competition for popular favor, to try to outrival each other in speed. This keen rivalry has been a source of endless entertainment to the denizens of the romantic banks of the American Rhine, and it has been useful at least in this, that it has given to the wayfarers in search of the beauties of the noble river the advantage of travelling on what are undoubtedly the fastest steamers in the world. No one who has travelled on the Kaiser Wilhelm or any of the others of the so-called palace steamers of the Rhine will for a moment compare them in point of speed to the Albany, the Vibbard or the Mary Powell. But still they are not happy — the people along the Hudson River. Fast steamers they know they possess, but they want to know which is the fastest. They want a steamboat race. Though many are supposed to be of Dutch extraction, and therefore presumed to be of that staid and sober temperament opposed to the pleasure of excitement, there is no doubt that a genuine steamboat race would be one of the greatest delights of their placid lives. Life in the Hudson River towns and villages is rather dull and news is scarce. There are a number of weekly papers in the Hudson River settlements which, whenever the news budget becomes slim, immediately reopen the favorite popular topic — i.e. the steamboat race. Anything on that subject is as sure to be read with the greatest avidity as the British government is sure to pay the interest on its consols. It stirs up a ripple of excitement in the whole region, is copied from one paper into another, and soon the banks of the Hudson, from Tarrytown to Albany, reverberates with the eager question, "When will it take place?" There is something very homelike and affectionate in the staunch adherence of the people to their favorite boat. As one of the captains expressed it the other day, travel on the Hudson boats seems like a "family affair." People get into the habit of riding on a certain boat, and go by it year after year unless, indeed, their boat allows itself to be "beaten" in too transparent a fashion. There is a great deal of room for "fine figuring" on the question of comparative speed, as no formal contest has yet taken place, and it is wonderful to hear with what accuracy and precision the friends of each boat will figure out by how many revolutions of the wheels and quarter lengths the one boat has the best of the other.
The Two Rivals.
The two great rivals just at present are the Albany, of the Albany day line, and the Mary Powell, running to Kingston, both guaranteed by their owners to "whip the universe" for velocity. Each boat has a host of friends who back the opinions of respective owners and captains with the most enthusiastic positiveness as to the vastly superior swiftness of the one against the other. That there has been no formal race — for, of course, every day that the boats are running they are trying to outdo each other — is a source of infinite disgust to those sanguine friends of the Mary Powell and the Albany. A number of times has the contest been projected, and immense excitement along the river has been the result from the moment the race has been on the tapis. Everyone, more or less, has been wanting to bet on the result from $10,000 down to a white hat. And after a ripple of excitement the fever of anticipation has subsided into keen disappointment when it has been ascertained that there would be no race after all, and that all bets were "off.” A few people have been found, to be sure, who have been old fashioned enough to declare that it was a very good thing that no race was to take place and that no one was to be blown up, but these were outvoted by a large majority and declared to be "old fogies." The man whose heart is bent on seeing a race, and particularly such a unique contest as a race between two great palace steamers, each noted for very remarkable speed, wouldn't mind a little playful diversion like that.
Is It to Take Place?
More recently, however, reports that a race was projected and was definitely to take place as soon as the busy season was over have assumed such a tangible shape that it was thought worth while to sift these rumors, and with this view, the captains of the two boats have been sounded, and the results of the interviews are here given. It will be soon seen that though both sides think there is no comparison to be made as to the speed of each other's steamers the matter of the race is still left somewhat dubious. The engineer of the Mary Powell remarks that should a race take place, a man who could charter all the available New York Central trains to follow the boats and charge $25 a seat (or $5 more than even the extortionate Patti is reported to expect in this American El Dorado) would make his fortune. But it requires no very lively imagination to picture to one's self the scene which such a race would call forth. The two steamers, followed by a perfect cloud of craft, from the biggest ferryboats to the smallest rowboat and trains and carriages and buggies and vehicles of every description lining the two shores and trying to keep up with the two gigantic racers for as long a time as possible. It was the universal opinion of all those whose views were sought on the question that more money would changes hands than probably at any horse race that has ever taken place in this country. It is certain that if the latest project again falls through there will be manifest disappointment, not only in betting quarters, but among many who are usually not interested either in racing or betting, but who would like to witness a trial of speed between the two steamers claiming to be the fastest in existence. And now the readers of the Herald will probably be interested to learn what the leaders of the rival hosts of steam boatmen may have to say on the subject.
Captain Anderson, of the Mary Powell.
Captain Anderson, of the Mary Powell, is a fine specimen of an old captain. He is a veteran in the service to which he has devoted over thirty years of his life. The Captain has a kindly shrewd face, but the most marked feature is an expression of predominant caution. There is a wary look out of his eyes, and his venerable gray mustache adds to this expression. One could very soon gather, even after a scant observation of the man, that however much the reputation of the Mary Powell might be dear to him, and though he would, no doubt, like to establish her superior speed as against that of the hated rival, he would still think more of the solid popular belief in her safety, which, he fears, might be endangered by such a devil-may-care proceeding as a race. When he spoke of the Mary Powell as being too much of a "family boat" for such a reckless procedure one could see that the proud glistening of his eyes, as he pronounced the words, spoke well for the safety of the lovely mothers and darling infants which are so numerously placed under his care on every trip. Of course, as will be seen later on in an interview with the Captain of the Albany, the latter sneers at this noble regard for the "family boat" feeling and pooh-poohs it, declaring that the Albany is just as much of a "family boat," and that he, nevertheless, would be perfectly willing to consent to a race. But, for all that, the "family" feeling will probably be on the side of Captain Anderson, and future generations will be grateful to him for not having exposed them in their present tender state of babyhood to the ignominy of having been conveyed up or down the river in what Captain Anderson gravely fears might be forever after dubbed a "racing boat."
How the Albany's Model Was Spoiled.
"What about the proposed race between your boat and the Albany?" the captain was asked.
"Well, I have heard a great deal about it," the good Captain replied with a smile.
"The weekly papers along the river have made a great outcry about it of late, but then they always do it when news gets scarce."
"Do I understand you, Captain, that it is only talk then, and that no race will be arranged?"
"Oh, I really can't tell you anything definite," the Captain replied. "All I can say is that the Mary Powell is not afraid."
"You think she is really the faster boat of the two, Captain?"
That word "really" seemed to be a little too much for the Mary Powell's commander.
"Why, I know she is," he replied in energetic tone; "the Mary Powell is the fastest boat in the world. She hasn't her equal anywhere."
"How about the Albany?"
"Well, the Albany is a good boat, too; but unfortunately she's ben spoiled. You see, her model is all wrong. She'd be a very fast boat and might catch up with the Mary Powell if she had not been built six feet too wide across. They ought to have modelled her after the Mary (this word the old Captain pronounced in a very affectionate tone) and then she would have been all right."
"What is the outlook for a race between the two boats, Captain?"
"Well, I have been pressed by a number of friends who travel by this boat to consent to a race, because they think they can make a pile of money out of it, and then they would like to see Captain Hitchcock's pretensions — you know, he's the captain of the Albany — silenced once for all."
Vast Sums to Be Bet.
"How much are they willing to bet?"
“Well, there is a certain party of capitalists who always travel by this boat who talk of putting up $50,000. Then there's another party wanting to bet $10,000. Oh, there's no lack of money," the Captain added with quite an exhilarated manner, being evidently warmed up by the subject.
"If the race comes off when is it likely to take place?"
"Oh, of course, it could only take place after the season, and then we'd take no passengers at all — that would be against the law."
"Would you consent to it, Captain?"
This was a "poser," but the Captain, after a little hesitation, said: — "Well, if my friends insist upon it perhaps I might, but then I'm opposed to it myself, and I'll tell you why. Not that there would be any doubt about our beating the Albany, there's another reason why I am opposed to it, and don't think I'd like to consent to it."
"And why is that's Captain?"
"Well, the Mary Powell, you know, is a family boat, and has always been a family boat. We carry in her all the time a great number of ladies and children, who go with us unattended. Why, they feel here as they would in their own homes. Every woman and child between New York and Kingston knows the Mary. Now, I would not like her to get the reputation of a racing boat. That is why I do not like to accommodate my friends who want me to race her against the Albany after the season."
The Albany's Faults Pronounced Hopeless.
“You have never had any actual contest, Captain?"
"No, except this. Everybody knows what time we make and that the Albany does not come anywhere near it. You ask anybody who has been travelling by the two boats and is not particularly friendly to either and they will tell you that. Well, last fall, after the season, the Albany, just to show what she could do, after all that had been said about the Mary Powell being such a superb boat, made a race against time up the river, and in the first nine miles up to Fort Washington she was five minutes behind the Mary's time."
"Hasn't she been doing better this season, Captain?"
"Why, no; she can't do any better unless they change her model and make her more like the Mary. Why, during that race against time her wheel made twenty-six and one-half revolutions to the minute to our twenty-five, and yet we go faster. That shows that there's something radically wrong with her."
"How fast are we going now, Captain?" was the final question asked, as the boat seemed to be under full headway and favored by tide and wind.
"About twenty-five miles an hour," the Captain proudly answered; “and that only with thirty pounds of steam, while we can carry fifty if we like. So you see what the result would be if we'd race with a boat like the Albany. Mind you, in whatever you say in the Herald, remember I have nothing to say against Captain Hitchcock or his boat; all I say is, that if he thinks he has as fast a boat as the Mary he is very much deceived; that's all."
What One of the Engineers Says.
One of the engineers of the Mary Powell was gently accosted; but he drew himself up, and in a serio-comic style, which would have done credit to an actor, said, "Well, now, we engineers have so often been misrepresented on this subject that, like other public men, we now decline to be interviewed." Presently, however, he became more communicative, and did not hesitate to give his views.
"Why," said he, "there can be no doubt as to which is the faster boat of the two. It takes the Albany three hours and twenty-five minutes to go to Newburg, and we make one landing more — Cornwall — and do it in three hours and twenty five minutes, beating her by five minutes. What do you think of that?"
An expression of high approval greeted this complacent query and drew out further interesting statements bearing on the question.
"Last fall, when she made her race against time, from Twenty-second street to Poughkeepsie, making the trip in 3h. 13m., she ran behind time fully 2 minutes. I'll show you how: — The Mary Powell left Twenty-second street at 3:34 and arrived in Poughkeepsie at 7:09, making the trip in 3h. 35m. Now, they only allowed us 2 minutes for every stop, but, as a matter of fact, it takes us 5, and counting only 4 minutes for each of the six stops, or 24 minutes in all, we did it in 3h 11m. and beat her by 2 minutes, didn't we? And then she carried forty-five pounds of steam and we carried only thirty-four, and they had her all cocked and primed for it, while we were not prepared in the least."
Why a Race Will Not Take Place.
"Do you think a race will take place?"
"Well, I don't know; I think it doubtful."
“For several reasons," and here the engineer smiled and his eye gave a merry twinkle.
"Just name one."
"Well, you see one of the boats would have to be behind, and that would be quite a damper on he business for the future. That's the principal reason."
"Do people, then, care so much whether the one boat reaches her destination a couple of minutes sooner than the other?"
"I should think they did! Why, this is our fast week, when we have the tide in or favor. Next week, when it is against us and we'll be five minutes later, a great many of the people riding with us this week will go up to their homes by the Central. This is a fast age.," the engineer added sententiously.
"Do you think that a race would create much excitement?"
"There never was anything like the excitement you'd see. The man who would charter all the trains in the New York Central to follow the boats and charge $25 a seat would still make his fortune. More money would change hands than at any race that has ever been held in this country. Why, it would be the greatest thing known!"
"By how much would you beat the Albany, do you think?"
"Oh, it's hard to say."
"Take a race to Poughkeepsie; would you beat her by fifteen minutes?"
“Oh, no; we'd do well to beat her by a few lengths. But, then, as I said before, I don't think you'll see a race. I know that if I had the two boats I wouldn’t consent to it. Now, each boat has her friends and is considered the fastest by them, while the race would put a damper on one of the two. And then you can't always tell what might be happening on a certain day. The water might not work well in the boiler or a journal might become hot; some mishap might happen and the reputation of the boat might be jeopardized, while she might really be the faster of the two."
Captain Hitchcock "Ready for ‘Em.”
"We're ready for 'em!" Captain Hitchcock, of the Albany, stoutly exclaimed when approached on the subject yesterday. The Captain is also a weather-beaten veteran, like his rival of the Mary Powell.
"I'm told your model has been tried and failed?" was the next query.
"Why, I know they told you that on the Mary Powell, and of course they did. They think there never was a model like hers."
"I'm also told you ought to have fashioned the Albany more after the model of the Mary Powell to have made a really fast boat of her."
"I'll never make the Albany like the Mary Powell, because then she'd be completely spoiled. Why, the man who made the Mary Powell's model told me that Captain Tallman, of the Daniel Drew, came to him and told him to spoil her, and that he cut her away so as really to have spoiled her; and Captain Anderson tells you that the Mary Powell is the better model? Well, that's rich, I must say."
“Captain, I am very much perplexed," the interviewer appealed, "by the conflicting statements I have heard about the two boats. Now tell me, please, which is which?"
“Why, there's no comparison. We had the Mary Powell some years ago, and if she had been such a superior boat don't you think we'd have kept her?"
"But since then it is claimed she has been remodelled."
"Remodelled? A few old rotten timbers taken put and a few new ones put in their places," the Captain responded, with an expression of unmistakable disgust stealing over his face. "I tell you just all there is about the Mary Powell. The Mary Powell is a wonderfully good boat when she's got a tide like a millrun and a regular gale of wind blowing in the right direction — then she'll make first rate time. But the Albany is the only boat in the world I ever saw that could make time against tide, wind or anything else, and always does make time!"
"But isn't your boat six feet too wide?"
"Oh, Captain Anderson told you that too, did ne? Why, if she was twelve feet wider than his boat she'd still be faster. I really wish the Albany were five or six feet wider than she is!"
The Money Behind the "Albany."
"The Mary Powell has a fifty thousand dollar pool behind her in case of a race, I'm told, Captain?"
"Fifty thousand dollars? We can go that better and triple it," was the contemptuous reply. "Does Captain Anderson tell you he's got a party willing to bet $50,000 that the Mary Powell beats us?"
"That's just it, Captain."
"Well, I don't believe it — unless these are men who travel with him and he's filled them up with good things and deceived them. Now, mind you, I have nothing against Captain Anderson or his boat — all I say is that if he thinks he has a faster boat he is a very much mistaken man."
"We won't stickle at a few thousands, Captain, but do you really think that considerable money would be bet on the Albany in case of a race with the Mary Powell?"
"Do I? Why, Joe Cornell, of the Citizens' Line, wants to take $20,000 right off, and John Chase, of the Hoboken Ferry, says to put him down for $10,000. Those are only two men. They'll get all the money they want — no trouble about that, my friend!"
"Would you consent to a race?"
"I'd like to see it. It's really the only way to settle the question," the Captain added, in a firm decided — almost bitter — tone. "If Captain Anderson thinks he has the faster boat, why the only way to settle it is to put the two boats together. It's the only way, and I'd like to see it done."
"What do you think the result would be?"
The Captain's answer was sharp and quick. "I don't think they'd go very far before they would go back," he replied, and he added vigorously. "I think they'd feel sick at their stomachs before they were out any long distance."
The Mary Powell Misproportioned.
"Why do you think so, Captain?"
"Why, the Mary Powell is all out of proportion. She wasn't made right. She was cut away too much, to begin with, and they she has a 72 cylinder, while her air pump, bed plate and condenser are made for only a 62 cylinder. Now, the Albany has a 73 cylinder and is proportioned for it throughout."
"What time are we making now, Captain?"
"About twenty miles an hour."
"Five miles less than the Mary Powell?"
"Did they tell you she was making twenty-five miles and hour? (In a tone of immense astonishment.) Well, well!"
"How much pressure do you use?"
Here the engineer, who had heard part of the conversation, broke in, saying, "Don't tell him how little we use, or we'll have to bet even, and they won't give us any odds!" At which hilarious sally both captain and engineer gave a gleeful chuckle."
"Captain Anderson says he would not like to let the Mary Powell race because she is a 'family boat?'"
"Well, and ain't we a family boat?" the Captain spoke up, warmly. "Ain't we as much of a family boat as they are? Why, just go down to the cabin and you won't be able to step over all the babies that are about. Haven't we as many women and babies on board as they have? Just look and see for yourself."
"Conceding that point, Captain, he also seems to be afraid that it might give the Mary Powell the reputation of a 'racing boat?'"
"That's all poppycock! Isn't she racing now every day as it is? She's got the reputation of a racing boat now, for they want to beat everybody else, and they say she can whip creation. I'll tell you what I'll do. If they don't want to bet I'll go for fun. Why, if she wins, it'll be the greatest feather in her cap, and I'll acknowledge the corn. (With a mock rueful air.) I'll tell you up and down than that I was a sadly, sadly deceived man."
"And in that case, Captain, would you model her after the Mary Powell?"
"Model the Albany after the Mary Powell? Do you think that's what I have been forty-nine years steamboating for? Not much!"
"But supposing you two were to come in bow and bow?"
"I'll guarantee against that. I'm not much of a betting man, but I'll bet $5,000 on that — myself!"
End of article, published August 5, 1881 in the New York Herald.
The Albany and the Mary Powell did eventually get their race. It was a short one, but considered a race nonetheless! On Wednesday, July 19, 1916, the Powell and the Albany were both headed south on the Hudson at approximately the same time. As the Mary Powell left the dock at Milton, the Albany was just a few minutes behind, and put on a burst of speed in an effort to past. The two boats went full steam ahead for Poughkeepsie, but the Mary Powell was the victor.
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Two small passenger boats miscalculated and got stuck on the jetty on the southside of the Rondout Creek, c. 1910. The Chapman floating derrick was called in to put them both back in the water. Saulpaugh Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum
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