Here to return to
BEFORE the advent of the railroads, and for a number of years afterward, there was hardly a village on the Hudson that did not have a fleet of five or six sailing vessels, and some towns had ten times that many. A considerable proportion of the able-bodied men “followed the river.” Not only were they proud of their calling, but the skipper who made the best runs and carried the biggest freights was a man of distinction. With so numerous a white-winged fleet on its waters, the Hudson must have had a beauty which it does not attain at present. For no steam vessel fits into a scene with such grace and charm as does one equipped with sails.
A voyage from the metropolis to Albany was then a serious undertaking. The sloops were often many days on the way; for the cautious navigators took in sail when it blew fresh, and came to anchor at night, and they stopped and sent the boat ashore to get milk for tea, without which it was impossible for the worthy old lady passengers to subsist. Besides there were the much-discussed perils of the Tappan Sea and the Highlands. In short, “a prudent Dutch burgher would talk of such a voyage for months beforehand, and never undertook it without putting his affairs in order, making his will, and having prayers said for him in the churches.”
In those simpler days, Washington Irving, while still a youth, made this river trip, and in a letter describing it says: “A sloop was chosen, but she had yet to complete her freight and secure a sufficient number of passengers. Days were consumed in drumming up a cargo. This was a tormenting delay to me, who, boy-like, had packed up my trunk at the first mention of the expedition.
“At length the sloop actually got under way. As she worked slowly out of the dock into the stream, there was a great exchange of last words between friends on board and friends on shore, and much waving of handkerchiefs when the sloop was out of hearing.
“Our captain was a native of Albany, of one of the old Dutch stocks. His crew was composed of blacks, reared in the family and belonging to him.
“What a time of intense delight was that first sail through the Highlands. I sat on the deck as we slowly tided along at the foot of those stern mountains, and gazed with wonder and admiration at cliffs impending far above me, crowned with forests, with eagles sailing and screaming around them; or beheld rock and tree and sky reflected in the glassy stream. And then how solemn and thrilling the scene as we anchored at night at the foot of these mountains, and everything grew dark and mysterious; and I heard the plaintive note of the whip-poor-will, or was startled now and then by the sudden leap and heavy splash of the sturgeon.”
The best known name connected with navigation on the Hudson is that of Robert Fulton. He was American born, with a natural taste for art and invention. Among the various mechanical devices he originated were a mill for sawing marble, a machine for flax-spinning, several types of canal boats and a submarine torpedo. He was very far from being the first to propose steam navigation, but his preeminence in this connection is deserved, because he was the first to win a practical success. Experiments in this direction seem to have been made as early as 1690, and as time went on the attempts became increasingly numerous. In 1784 James Rumsey tried to propel a boat on the Potomac by forcing a jet of water from the stern with a steam pump. A few years later he experimented with a boat on the Delaware which was equipped with long oars moved by steam power, and he actually ran this curious craft as a public carrier on the river all through one summer.
When Fulton took up the problem of steam navigation he was living in France where our American minister at the time was Robert R. Livingston. The two men met and became mutually interested in planning a steamboat. A vessel was built and launched on the Seine; but it was too frail for the weight of the engine, which broke through the bottom one stormy night and sank in the river. However, Fulton and his partner were not discouraged, and the latter agreed to provide funds for a larger boat to be tried on the Hudson. This was constructed, after plans furnished by Fulton, at a shipyard on the East River and was about 130 feet long with uncovered paddle-wheels at the side. She was named the Clermont after Livingston’s country seat on the banks of the Hudson at Tivoli.
The boat left New York for Albany on August 17, 1807; and a writer of that time in speaking of its departure says: “Nothing could exceed the surprise and admiration of all who witnessed the experiment. Before the Clermont had made the progress of a quarter of a mile, the greatest unbeliever must have been converted. The man, who, while he looked on the expensive machine, thanked his stars that he had more wisdom than to waste his money on such idle schemes, changed the expression of his features as the boat moved from the wharf and gained her speed. The jeers of the ignorant who had neither sense nor feeling enough to suppress their contemptuous ridicule and rude jokes, were silenced by a vulgar astonishment which deprived them of the power of utterance, till the triumph of genius extorted from the incredulous multitude which crowded the shores, shouts of congratulation and applause.”
The Clermont made the trip to Albany in thirty-two hours, a speed of about five miles an hour, and Fulton wrote to a friend: “The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved. The morning I left New York there were not perhaps thirty persons in the city who believed the boat would ever move one mile an hour, or be of the least utility.”
Its success as a passenger boat was assured. People would not be satisfied with the slow sloops and stage-coaches when they could travel by steamboat at five miles an hour. The Clermont was equipped with two masts and sails to take advantage of favoring winds. She burned fat pine wood under her boilers, and volumes of black smoke poured out of her large funnel. At night when the smoke was brilliant with sparks a contemporary writer declares that “The crews of many sailing vessels shrank beneath their decks at the terrific sight, while others prostrated themselves and besought Providence to protect them from the horrible monster which was lighting its path by the fire it vomited.”
One of the Hudson Valley farmers, after observing the strange apparition, hurried home and assured his wife that he “had seen the devil going up the river in a sawmill.”
The year following the Clermont’s success two more steamers were finished for the Hudson, and the same number were constructed in 1809, and three in 1811. For a long time nearly all the travelling on the boats was for business rather than pleasure.
Fulton soon turned his attention to inventing a steam ferry-boat, and by 1813 had two in operation, one on the North and one on the East River. These took the place of boats that were propelled by driving two or four horses round and round in the hold. The horses were attached to a pole connected with a gearing that made the paddle wheels rotate, and the boats were primitive and slow.
Not till 1819, four years after Fulton’s death, did a vessel propelled by steam cross the Atlantic. She sailed from Savannah for Liverpool and made the trip in twenty-eight days, using both sails and steam. She was so constructed that her paddle-wheels could be taken on to the deck in stormy weather.
All the earlier river boats which followed the Clermont were small, and most of the space in them was devoted to the machinery. Accommodations for passengers were limited, and freight was seldom or never carried. The fare from New York to Albany was seven dollars, and for even the shortest distance between stops the fare was one dollar. In a steamboat advertisement published in 1808 the following caution supplemented the time-table: “As the times when the boat may arrive at the different places may vary an hour, more or less, according to the advantage or disadvantage of wind and tide, those who wish to come on board will see the necessity of being on the spot an hour before the time.”
The New York legislature at first gave Fulton and Livingston a monopoly in the steamboat business of the Hudson; but rivals presently began to appear, rates were cut and “runners” for the different steamboat lines made the New York water front a lively place. Competition was keenest about 1860. The steamboat business had already become a good deal demoralized by the Hudson River Railroad which was completed to Albany in 1851, and the river trip from New York to Albany could be made for a dime. The only recourse of the steamboats was to charge well for meals and sleeping accommodations.
Steamboating reached the height of its glory in 1840 when there were not far from one hundred steamboats on the Hudson. They were the pride of the towns from which they hailed, but were as a matter of fact gorgeously overloaded with ornament, though it must be acknowledged that this vulgar mangificence accorded with the taste of the period. Each craft had its partisans and they were ever ready to engage in a wordy warfare over its speed and beauty as compared with rival boats.
Vessels that were at all evenly matched were always trying to beat each other. Sometimes the racing spirit was so intense that they would rush past an announced landing, even if a score or more of persons were waiting to embark, leaving the hapless people on the dock. During a race between the Vanderbilt and the Oregon from Albany to New York the latter’s coal gave out; but instead of allowing this to mean defeat, the captain had the woodwork of the berths, the chairs, benches, furniture of staterooms and everything else that would burn put under the boilers to keep up steam. He was rewarded for the sacrifice by having the satisfaction of winning the race.
In 1852 racing was practically stopped by law, because it had developed so reckless a disregard for the safety and convenience of the passengers, and bursting boilers were of such frequent occurrence as to make travellers very nervous.
The Hudson is a treacherous river to navigate in a fog, and the pilots have to be watchful at all times owing to the numerous shoals and rocks. Only an expert can take a boat through the sharp turns of the Highlands. The disasters make a formidable list, though considering the number of persons carried the loss of life has been creditably small. One of the most serious of the wrecks among the earlier boats was that of the Swallow, April 7, 1845. She left Albany in the evening. When near the city of Hudson she struck a little rocky island, broke in two, and in a few minutes sank. Two steamboats with which she was racing soon came to her assistance and other help was rendered by dwellers on the land; but the night was exceedingly dark, with snow and rain and a heavy gale, and fifteen lives were lost. The rocks on which the vessel was wrecked were formerly known as “Noah’s Brig,” a title that originated in the following incident: One night a raft in command of a man whose first name was Noah neared this point, and the skipper espied in the gloom a dark object looming before him which he concluded was a brig under full sail. “Brig ahoy!” he shouted.
There was no response. Again in stentorian voice he hailed the craft, and still received no attention. The mysterious vessel kept unswervingly to its course. Noah was exasperated and he yelled, “Brig ahoy, there! Answer, or I’ll run you down.”
No reply was vouchsafed, and true to his word, he ran down the island, but without doing great damage either to that or his raft. What he thought were two masts and sails proved to be two trees.
Boiler explosions were a cause of a number of wrecks, and collisions were responsible for others; but the most serious loss of life was the result of the burning of the Henry Clay in 1852. She was nearing New York from up the river when the fire was discovered. The captain headed her for the shore at Riverdale and ran her hard aground. But while it was only a step to the shore from the bow, the stern was in deep water, and unfortunately most of the passengers were cut off from the forward end of the boat by the flames. A wild panic ensued, terror-stricken men and women fought for possession of the life preservers and struggled with one another after leaping into the water. Sixty persons perished and among these was a sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The passenger steamers on the river now are very different from those of the old days. They are great floating hotels, faithful to their schedule time, swift and comfortable. Their appointments are tasteful and they are run with a due regard for safety. But whether they sweep along in full view during the day, or pass at night scanning the country with the inquisitive brilliance of their searchlights, no one is amazed by them. They are far more imposing spectacles than Fulton’s little Clermont, but that was the first of its kind and aroused the wonder of every villager and boatman from the metropolis to Albany.
Of perhaps more commercial importance than the steamers, are the canal boats. The tows for down the river are made up at the basin just above Albany where the Erie Canal enters the Hudson. They are lashed four or five abreast and there are often from sixty to eighty boats in a tow, so that they string out for nearly half a mile. The steamers that pull these tows up and down the river are for the most part old passenger boats rebuilt and adapted for the purpose by the removal of their upper works.
The Erie Canal connecting the Great Lakes with the tide water of the Hudson is 361 miles in length. It was begun in 1817, and eight years were required for its completion, in celebration of which a grand pageant was prepared.
October 26, 1825, a flotilla of new and gaily decorated canal boats started from the Lake Erie end of the canal for New York City. The news of the departure was communicated to the metropolis by the firing of cannon located along the line of the canal and the Hudson so that the signal travelled the entire distance in an hour and twenty minutes.
When the canal boat packets reached New York on November fifth at five o’clock in the morning every vessel in the harbor was adorned with flags and bunting, the church bells rang, and a salute of cannon was fired. The canal boats were accompanied by a procession of vessels to Sandy Hook where the schooner Dolphin was anchored; and around this the flotilla circled. On the leading canal boat was a golden hooped keg, filled to the bung with the fresh water of Lake Erie. Governor Clinton, who was present with his retinue, poured the contents of the keg into the salt water of the Atlantic, and it was announced that the marriage of the Great Lakes and the ocean had been duly solemnized.