With dismantling now almost complete, little that is recognizable remains of the once noted Hudson River steamboat "Berkshire", latterly "USA 1000". Wrecking operations on her superstructure have been in progress at Philadelphia since last fall when the vessel was towed from Norfolk by her present owners who purchased her from the Navy. Soon nothing will remain of what was once the world's largest river steamer, and one of the largest sidewheelers ever built.
In 1906, with plans by J.W. Millard & Bro. completed, the contract for "Berkshire's" construction was given by the People's Line to W. & A. Fletcher Company, of Hoboken. They sublet the hull work to the New York Shipbuilding Corp. and made plans themselves to build the engine. Joiner work was placed with C.M. Englis.
The People's Line at that time was part of the Consolidated Steamship Company controlled by C.W. Morse, and several other vessels, notably "Yale" and "Harvard", were being built for the same interests. It is said that Mrs. Morse suggested naming the new vessels after colleges. In any case, the steel hull of the new People's Line vessel was launched at Camden, N.J. 21 September 1907 as the "Princeton", a name she never carried in active service.
Shortly after launching, the hull was towed to Hoboken where the engine was installed. Work stopped when the panic of 1907-8 brought about the downfall of the Consolidated Steamship Company, and "Princeton" lay at the Fletcher Docks for at least two years. She was then towed to a point on the Hudson River near Saugerties where she remained until 1912 when work was resumed. Early in 1913 construction was completed and the magnificent new steamer commissioned "Berkshire". She made her trial trip 20 May 1913, and two days later went into regular service on the Hudson River Night Line between New York and Albany. The Company advertised that she had cost $1,500,000.
"Berkshire's" dimensions and accommodations caused much comment in the newspapers and the marine press. She definitely was impressive, measuring 4500 tons, with an over-all length of 440 feet. Her breadth was 88 feet over guards, and her depth of hold 14 feet 6 inches. She had five passenger decks above the hull, designated main, saloon, gallery, upper gallery and observation. Her dining room on the main deck aft was nearly 100 feet long and had French windows opening out onto the deck where tables were sometimes placed in good weather. Her 450 staterooms and additional berths provided accommodations for nearly 2000 passengers, and the capacity of her freight "hold" on the main deck forward was enormous.
The vessel's engine, one of the largest of its type ever built was a single cylinder surface condensing beam engine of 5000 horsepower. The cylinder was 84 inches in diameter and the stroke 12 feet. Paddle wheels were 30 feet in diameter each having 12 curved steel buckets. "Berkshire" was capable of a speed of 18 – 20 miles per hour..
The year 1914 saw "Berkshire's" only serious accident. On 9 August she was forced to anchor off Dobbs Ferry on the down trip because of fog. Near her, also at anchor lay "Rensselaer" and "Frank Jones". Suddenly out of the fog loomed the southbound "Iroquois (a) Kennebec of the Manhattan Line. Too late, her pilot saw "Berkshire's" stern dead ahead, and a moment afterward she crashed into the latter's dining room and two decks above. Fortunately, "Berkshire's" hull was undamaged, although her steering gear was put out of commission. "Iroquois," in sinking condition, was pulled loose by "Rensselear" and "Frank Jones" after about two hours work and convoyed down river. "Berkshire" remained at Dobbs Ferry until her rudder could be repaired, after which she proceeded to New York. Despite her damaged condition, she went back into service the next day.
"Berkshire" ran regularly for the Hudson River Night Line through good years and lean. She usually alternated with "C.W. Morse" (b) "Fort Orange" until that steamer was retired in 1930. Later she ran opposite the smaller "Rensselaer" and "Trojan", and in the last few years of her career had "Trojan" alone as consort.
With the Night Line stumbling from one financial difficulty to another in the 1930's, "Berkshire's" trips became more and more irregular. Finally, after 1937, she was tied up at Athens and "Trojan" carried on alone for a couple more years. "Berkshire was finished. Residents along the river had heard her deep whistle for the last time. No more would they signal for an answering flash from her big searchlight, nor watch her pass through the narrow reaches of the upper river, her tiers of decks and giant smokestacks towering above everything along shore.
Early in 1941, "Berkshire" was sold by Sam Rosoff, final owner of the Night Line, to the U.S. Government as a floating barracks. In February she was towed through the ice to Hoboken by the Coast Guard cutter "Comanche". Nothing further was done with her until June when two Moran tugs took her in tow for Bermuda. Arriving there, she was anchored in St. George's Harbor, painted a dull green, and put to use as a powerhouse and barracks for workers at Kindley Field Army Air Base.
The war over, "Berkshire" returned to the United States at the end of a towline late in 1944. There were rumors that she was to be placed in service again, but these were soon disproved when an inspection at Norfolk revealed that her superstructure had been badly damaged by heavy seas on the return trip. She was sold to Bernard Maier and towed to Philadelphia for scrapping.
The world will probably never see another vessel like "Berkshire", but she will be long remembered for having been the largest river steamboat in the world.
This article was written by William H. Ewen and originally published in "Steamboat Bill of Facts" Journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America issue April 1946.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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