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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