Muffled Drums for Albany-Potomac by Thomas A. Larremore
"Washington, May 16  – (AP) – The Potomac River Line announced today its 69-year-old excursion steamer, The POTOMAC, is headed for the scrap heap. The ship, built in Wilmington, Del., and originally known as the S.S. ALBANY, served until 1933 on the New York-to-Albany Hudson River Day run. The POTOMAC, with a passenger capacity of 2,400, will be scrapped at Baltimore. It will be towed there sometime next week, officials of the line said."
Another oldster is gone, suddenly and unexpectedly. This time is it MARY POWELL's side-kicking ex-side-kick of happy years ago on the Hudson River, the ex-Day Liner ALBANY, since 1934 running excursions out of Washington, D.C., for the Potomac River Line, as POTOMAC.
Almost 69 years ago, on July 3, 1880 ALBANY made her first regular trip from New York up-stream to her namesake city. Save for a few years "on reserve" for the Day Line, she performed regularly, earning her living quietly, dependably, surely, safely – recalling, in this respect, PRISCILLA, COMMONWEALTH and the rest of the Fall River liners. Only last summer, at 68 plus, the POTOMAC completed another annual tour of duty and was ready to resume this coming season. Just when the decision to end her career was made is unknown. Only as recently as Feb. 3  Her Captain, SSHSA member Harry E. Slye, told the writer that had been no suggestion that she was about to be replaced by BEAR MOUNTAIN a WILLIAM G. PAYNE b BRIDGEPORT c HIGHLANDER, despite the transfer last fall of the latter to Washington.
Fearing something of the sort was in the air the writer devoted several hours of a business trip to the capital to photographing POTOMAC tied up alongside BEAR MOUNTAIN. Now he is happy indeed to have done so, although the need for rewriting this essay, begun in a different vein, makes his present task sorrowful. Perhaps his feelings can best be gauged by the fact that he had been trying to organizing an excursion anniversary trip on POTOMAC this coming July 3, .
Instead she is off to the wreckers, to join METEOR a CHESTER W. CHAPIN (SB 29;18) and to go the way of those other Hudson River titans: NORWICH (87 when taken off her run) and MARY POWELL, who lived to be 63. Note that ALBANY-POTOMAC’s near-69 years rank her ahead of the famous MARY in the longevity tables. Let there be hats off and muffled drums. A great steamer has passed, and the writer feels as if he has lost a close relative, overnight, for reasons that will presently appear.
According to A.V.S. Olcott, president of the Old Day Line, ALBANY’s hull was built in 1879-1880 by Harlan and Hollingsworth, Wilmington, Del., and her machinery and joiner work were put into her iron hull (first of its kind for the line) in 1880. At that time her length was over 295’, her beam (moulded) 40’, and depth 11’6”. Launched in Jan. 1880, she was christened buy Mr. Olcott’s uncle, Charles. T. Van Santvoord. Her paddle boxes, then, were ungainly and semi-circular. In 1892-1893 she was rebuilt and lengthened to 325’6”, with the same beam (accounting for her lanky look), and her gross tonnage became 1,415.42, with net of 815.03. Feathering paddle wheels were added at the time, and her paddle boxes assumed the oblong, streamlined shape that set the fashion.
In 1916 she had new boilers, replacing the “3 lobster back boilers” of the early days. Her passenger capacity became 2000. Her original cost, according to Book 23 of the Day Line Journals now at the N.Y. Historical Society, was $187,318.58, including fittings, dry dock fees, cost of towing and customs charges.
When HENDRICK HUDSON appeared in 1906, ALBANY was transferred to the Poughkeepsie run as a special boat and when WASHINGTON IRVING came out in 1913, ALBANY replaced MARY POWELL on the run to Rondout. ALBANY was laid up at Athens in 1931 and was sold at public auction on March 6, 1934 at the new County Court House, N.Y. City, to B.B. Wills. On April 19 she left West 42nd Street Pier at 2:50 p.m. for Washington, D.C.
After taking ALBANY to Washington Mr. Wills changed her name to POTOMAC, registered her there, put a dance floor on main deck from the forward gangway to the lower deck housing, and installed a band stand. Later a second dance floor was added, on the saloon deck, and the band stand was raised to enable the music to suffice for both floors at once. POTOMAC was converted to oil burning and so remained save for one year during World War II when the oil shortage compelled temporary reconversion to coal. Captain Slye said her registry had recently been transferred to Baltimore, as is evidenced by the current leg ending on the stern. So much for the strictly statistical indispensables.
Let us turn to more personal traits. In physical appearance ALBANY, the older and rebuilt CHAUNCEY VIBBARD and the later NEW YORK set a contemporary “new look” for Hudson River boats. The most conspicuous features of this were the three tall funnels set transversely; the ungainly, high, top-heavy-looking, semi-circular paddle boxes; and the general color scheme, perhaps borrowed from the famous “White Squadron” of pre-Spanish War days, i.e., overall whiteness, relieved principally by yellow or buff, most notable on the later-period smoke pipes. ALBANY and VIBBARD looked very much alike, with smokestacks abaft both walking beam and paddle boxes, while in NEW YORK these relative positions were reversed.
ALBANY, always a quiet, efficient, dependable, unsensational performer, got away to an appropriately inconspicuous start. After a trial trip to Yonkers on July 2, 1880, to test her machinery, she opened her regular career the next day replacing DANIEL DREW and paddled upstream to her namesake city. New York newspapers paid little attention, being preoccupied with five ocean liners starting trans-Atlantic voyages the same day and commenting on the possibility that they might encounter summer icebergs. Some journals didn’t mention the new river steamer, and only one, the New York World, paid reasonable attention. Perhaps the big city had already become sophisticated enough to take such trivia as the inauguration of another Day Liner too completely in stride to bother about.
But there well may have been another reason. In June and July 1880, passenger steamers around New York had suddenly become non grata, recalling very pointedly the earlier days around 1825 when frequent boiler explosions had forced definite recourse to trailer passenger barges. An incredible series of mishaps had taken place. On June 11, 1880, NARRAGANSETT, bound east up L.I. Sound, had collided off Cornfield Point with STONINGTON and burned with the loss of 30 lives. On June 17, two girls had drowned when their rowboat was struck by ELIZA HOWARD, and ugly rumors persisted that adequate efforts to rescue them had not been made. On June 19 GRAND REPUBLIC had engaged in a spectacular collision with ADELAIDE, and an acrimonious investigation of the crash was starting. On June 28 had come the most frightful catastrophe of all. SEAWANHAKA, steamboat for Glen Cove’s commuters, had caught fire passing through Hell Gate and, although skillfully beached broadside to, not five minutes later on Sunken Meadows at Randall’s Island, had notched a toll of 44 or 45 fatalities. On June 29 the stage had been set for a ghastly foreshadowing of the holocaust of the GENERAL SLOCUM (1904) when LONG BRANCH with some 700 passengers, mostly Sunday school children on a picnic, had her bows (openly alleged in the newspapers to be quite rotten) crushed by the oil barge HOP - fortunately, however, without the loss of life. On July 2, 1880, the very day ALBANY made her trial run, the New York Daily Tribune, reporting another accident the day before, had struck the current keynote by writing: “The daily steamboat accident shifted its longitude, yesterday. The boiler of a pleasure boat on one of the Minnesota lakes exploded, killing three persons outright, wounding one fatally and several others seriously.”
On the same day the New York Herald announced, as the tragicomic climax to all this: “A barrel of beer exploded on the steamboat STONINGTON, fracturing the leg, arm and collar bone of a sailor named John McCarthy.” Perhaps because of such episodes the Day Line owners preferred to soft-pedal advance publicity about their new boat until they could see how she behaved on the job.
At any rate, off she steamed out on the mild blue yonder, as planned, July 3, and that afternoon made a happy landing at Albany, sans fire, sans collision, sans explosion, without even a beer barrel bursting in the air. The New York World gave her this passing mention, July 4. “The new steamer ALBANY, of the Albany day line, made her first regular trip up the Hudson yesterday. She took about one thousand five hundred passengers….She was due at Albany at 6:10 p.m. and was received with fifty guns and a display of bunting. There was a crowd at the wharf to greet her…”
Apparently they ordered such things better upstate, for, according to John H. Flandreau, Assistant Archivist, New York State, a clipping from an unidentified newspaper in the Hallenbeck material at Albany reads in part as follows:
"On Saturday the ALBANY left her landing in New York nine minutes late, with over 2,000 passengers aboard and against a strong head wind and ebb tide, made West Point and Newburgh on time. Ny the time the boat reached Rhinebeck (then the port of call of Rondout, reached by ferry, and the Southern Catskills), she was about an half hour late, caused by some slight difficulty with her new machinery. By this time the crowd of people had swelled to immense proportions and at this landing fully 500 disembarked, and when Catskill was reached. Fully as many more got off there. From Catskill to this city tows and other hindrances caused the vessel to lose time, and she did not reach here until half-past seven o’clock. All along the river, residents had their houses decorated, and with cannon and other explosives welcomed the advent of the ALBANY.
“At Hudson, the dock and hills were crowded with people despite the fact that quite a rain prevailed at the time. When she hove in sight of the city, the greatest excitement prevailed, and, amid the booming of cannon, the screeching of steamboat whistles, the ringing of bells, the playing of Austin’s band, and the shouts of a thousand people assembled on the docks and piers, the ALBANY steamed into port and touched her dock.
This article was written by Thomas A. Larremore and originally published in "Steamboat Bill of Facts" Journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America issue of June 1949.. The language, spelling, grammar and references in the article reflects the time period when it was written. Thank you to HRMM volunteer Adam Kaplan for transcribing the article.
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Night Boat …. Night Boat …. Night Boat …. That once familiar cry of dozens of youngsters who would rush to the banks of the Hudson at the first blasts of the Night Boat's whistle as she blew to the drawbridge at Albany, and a cry so familiar to many of us who have spent most of our lives along its banks has drifted away into oblivion, but the memory lingers on. For that one proud fleet of night line steamers, some of them quite appropriately called "floating palaces" is likewise but a memory. Yet it was but a few short years ago that hundreds of folk, both old and young would stroll down to the docks, sit on the benches in Riverside Park or line the rail of the bridge waiting for the boats to leave, and would watch as the brilliantly lighted steam boats would gracefully glide through the open span, play their powerful searchlights along the shore as many a young maiden, with her beau, would pretend to shy at the strong rays, and would continue to watch as the river queen faded away in the distance "round the bend."
Yes, all of the nightline steamers have answered the last bell, and, with the passing of the last, the "Berkshire", all hope for a renewal of nightly passenger steamer travel to the metropolis has vanished. Thus a "finis" is written to a huge chapter in Memories Garden which to many of us river folk, who love the sound of the splashing paddle wheels, the purring of the engines, the escaping steam in the piston cylinder and the golden throat of the steam whistle, seems like the passing of old friends. Indeed, the only comforting thought is the Day Line's resumption each spring, something which is looked forward to by many of us quite as the robin the tree top or the crocus pushing its way upward to the sunlight.
Many of my readers will remember the double-ended ferries "W.M. Whitney", "R.C. Reynolds", W.H. Frear", and "C.V.S. Quackenbush" of the Albany-Troy Steamboat Co., which made half hourly trips to Troy, stopping at Midway Beach on their way back and forth. Thousands of area folk took advantage of the cooling breezes of the Hudson during the hot summer evenings on a trip to Troy for a dime.
Then too, they must remember the little passenger steamers "C.H. Evans" and "General" that made regular trips to Castleton for a quarter, the afternoon sailings of the "Alice May" and "Ursula", one of which left Albany every week day at three and stopped at all towns and villages on her way to Catskill. And the "Jacob Tremper" and "Milton Martin" with the spare boat, "James T. Brett", as one of them left from Albany every morning except Sunday loaded mostly with beer for landings all the way to Newburgh.
And surely those same readers cannot forget the engineless barges named "Empress", "Geraldine", "Baldwin", "Merchant", and "Harvest Queen" that used to carry thousands of excursionists down the river about fifteen miles to Bareana Park at Coeymans. There is scarcely a church within twenty miles of the Capitol Building at Albany, that has not at one time sponsored a Sunday School or Church picnic on these hay barges towed by one or more little steam tugs, such as the "Arnold", "Skinner", "Chubb", "Guide Star", or "Paul Le Roux".
And who that has ever seen can forget that grand old steamer, the "Mary Powell", affectionately called "The Queen of the Hudson," a steamer known all over the world, and who's name in steamboat lore has become quite as famous as the river itself, and rivaled only by the "Tashmoo" of the Great Lakes. Built in 1861, she ran on the Hudson for 56 years without a major accident, and without the loss of a single life. She holds the record of being the fastest sidewheeler ever to sail the Hudson.
Even though she was dismantled in 1920, she still lives, for at Indian Point, her bell rings out a welcome as the steamers of the Day Line land there. [Editor's Note: The "Mary Powell" bell is now in the Hudson River Maritime Museum yard.] The name from across her pilot house adorns the front of a cottage at Connelly, N.Y., and her deep-throated golden whistle echoes and re-echoes among the hills and mountains along the river as the "Robert Fulton" blows for a landing.
Finally, from out of the past, we can see the hundreds of tugs, old side-wheelers, steam canalers, ice and hay barges as they lay at the docks from the lumber district in North Albany to the slips at the south end of the city. We can see the "Norwich", built in 1836, as she proudly took her place in the Hudson-Fulton parade in 1907, the "Oswego," at the "Rensselaer" dock in 1918 on her last trip up river, the large tugs "Pocahontas", "Osceola", "Washburn", and "Cornell" together with many smaller tugs as they docked awaiting orders. And we can see several of them even to this day, tied up in Rondout Creek, at Sleightsburg, awaiting the call to the boneyard.
Editor's Note: A marine railway is a wide track that leads on an inclined plane from dry land to deep water. A carriage rolls on the rails. A boat can be placed on the carriage and lowered into the water until she floats. A boat needing bottom work can be positioned over the carriage and drawn out of the water by cables or chains over the rails. The one at the Baldwin ship yard was built 1883-1884 and is about 8-10 feet wide. There was a heavy timber bulkhead at the deep water end to prevent the carriage from rolling off the track into the shipping channel.
This article was written by Tracey I. Brooks and originally published in "Steamboat Bill of Facts" Journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America issue of December 1946.. The language, spelling, grammar and references in the article reflects the time period when it was written. Thank you to HRMM volunteer Adam Kaplan for transcribing the article. For more information about Tracey I. Brooks visit New York Heritage here:
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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.
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