Steamboats on the Hudson River

Steamboats on the Hudson River
James F. Leiner September 2016
The mighty Hudson River winds its way from deep in the Adirondack Mountains south to the Atlantic Ocean, but its watery length is insignificant when compared to the history the river has brought our country.  The Hudson was used for commerce and travel for centuries using canoes and ships under sail, but it became a major transportation venue when steamboat traffic began in 1809. Robert Fulton’s North River steamboat, (later called the Clermont) was launched that year, and soon the mighty river became the fastest and easiest route to the middle of American along with the opening of the Erie Canal. Steamboats captured the imagination of Americans and many Rockland residents who had never traveled more than a few miles from home could ride the “boats” up and down the river to new adventures.

Within a decade after the North River was launched faster and luxurious steamboats plied their way several times a day – and night – between New York City and Albany stopping at dozens of points in between. Due to the shallow water along Rockland County steamboats visited only Nyack and Haverstraw on a regular schedule. The steamboats carried passengers like state legislator Morton Lexow and Judge Arthur Tompkins who often took them to Albany and their government chores in the mid and late 1800’s.


Arthur Tompkin, Judge and US Representative

It was a far more pleasant voyage in the steamboats than they would have to endure riding in a carriage up the unpaved roads to the state capital. The steamboats, however, were not without some danger.

There was one hot July day in 1852 when hundreds of passengers boarded the steamboat Henry Clay; more rode in the steamer Armenia. They soon came to realize the captains of the two boats were racing down river. As they approached Yonkers smoke and flames could be seen coming from the Henry Clay.  Her captain, John Tallman, ordered the vessel to run for the shore, but by the time she turned and was beached she was a mass of flames. Some 70 passengers died in this disaster. The captains of both these steamers were residents of Nyack; Captain Isaac P. Smith of the Armenia and Captain John F. Tallman. Capt. Tallman denied the boats were racing, but a coroner’s jury found they were indeed racing all the way down the river and the disaster was without a doubt the result of wood catching fire from overheated boilers.  Capt. Tallman was charged with murder, but nothing ever materialized from the charge. The Henry Clay was the last boat he ever ran on the river.  He became superintendent of the Harlem Navigation Company, a position he held almost until his death.
S. S. Berkshire Hudson River Night Line

S. S. Berkshire Hudson River Night Line


There were other disasters; in 1864 the Berkshire, a night boat burned on her downstream trip from Hudson, NY with the loss of 40 lives. The steamer Sunnyside ripped a hole in her port side trying to break through some river ice and sank off the hamlet West Park in the Town of Esopus in zero degree weather at two in the morning with more than a dozen passengers lost. Another early disaster came on September 4, 1852 after the steamer Reindeer left Albany for New York when a terrific boiler explosion shook the vessel from stem to stern. Thirty lives were lost and many other suffered serious injury from escaping steam. The occasional boiler explosion or river accident didn’t stop the lusty river men of the 1800’s nor their plentiful loads of passengers and freight. The Hudson River Steamboat was still the best way between New York and the Erie Canal terminus in Albany.

Perhaps epitomizing the grace, dignity and speed of the steamboats was the Mary Powell. Launched in 1861 this steamer became known at the “Queen of the Hudson” up and down the river. She was one of the fastest of the side-wheeler boats and made her run from New York to Albany in a little less than 7 hours.  Over her career she traveled more than a million miles and carried more than 6 million passengmarypowers.
More than 200 steamboats plied the water of the Hudson, and the wharfs, streets and piers along the river bustled with activity and tons of freight. Fresh produce and milk from the farms of Rockland Country poured into the Nyack for steamboats like the Chrystenah and the Armenia to transport down to the city. Depew’s greenhouses along the river sent fresh flowers to the shops in the city every morning, and the farm of John Towt sent fresh fruit, and yes, pigs to markets. Even with the danger of riding the steamboats they provided a quick and necessary means of transportation for decades. Succumbing to railroads and finally our love for the automobile, the boats stopped running in the 1960’s. Yes, even the large steamers of the Hudson River Dayline carrying thousands of passengers for a day on the Hudson succumbed to the pleasures of driving our own cars.   Yet to many the memory of adventure as our ancestors traveled in luxury up and down the river enjoying the shore line sights brings a desire to the minds of many. With today’s roads often crowded with traffic I wonder if there is another fellow like Robert Fulton who wants to build Hudson River steamboats.