Sunday, March 31, 2013

54. New York and Water: Steam

         The days of sail have been romanticized by later generations (think of all those movies with white sails puffed by the wind), and in many ways those distant days were glorious (see post #48), but they were full of perils too.  If a vessel making for the port of New York was driven off its course by wind or waves, it was destined to run aground on the sandbars of either Long Island or New Jersey, since there was no other harbor in the area.  Often as not the captain informed passengers that, barring a miraculous change in the weather, the ship was doomed, and those aboard could only watch helplessly as they were slowly driven shoreward, until the elements’ relentless pounding of the stranded ship broke it up within sight of land.  Some survived, some didn’t.  Such wrecks were a windfall for the local farmers, who quite legally could harvest flotsam and jetsam, or even board the abandoned ship to salvage some of its cargo.  (Flotsam: parts of a wrecked ship, or goods from it, found floating in the sea.  Jetsam: goods thrown into the sea to lighten an imperiled vessel, or such goods when washed ashore.)  One only hopes that the eager salvagers paid due respect to any bodies likewise washed ashore.

         Then too there were the frequent losses of sailing vessels in the distant open seas, often with no trace of them ever found.  When news of such a loss reached this maritime city, it spread quickly, sowing a somber stillness laced with anguish, fear, and grief.  Sometimes the loss of life was known at once, but often, in that age before the telegraph, those concerned had to wait for days or weeks to know if friends or family had survived. 

         Given such disasters, not to mention the slowness of sail, is it any wonder that New York City, the Hudson Valley, and in time the whole nation and the world hailed the advent of steam in navigation?  We’ve all been told how in 1807 Robert Fulton’s vessel, the North River Steamboat (later known as the Clermont), carried passengers the 150 miles from New York to Albany in only 32 hours. A mere 32 hours!  

The Clermont, primitive when compared to the palace steamboats of a later day (see 
the Commodore below), but the first successful commercial steamboat and therefore 
the forerunner of them all.

Yes, today one can do it by bus in less than two hours, but since the sloops then operating on the river (again, see post #48) could take as long as three days, this event immediately revolutionized navigation on the Hudson and fired up this country’s passionate belief in Progress, our obsession with Bigger, Better, and Faster, a mania that gripped us throughout the whole nineteenth century and beyond.  (Obsession?  Mania?  If you think I'm exaggerating, just consider our eager embrace of high-speed Internet, and our frantic gobbling at fast food restaurants.)  Thanks to steam, now at last we empowered mortals could, within limits, master wind and waves, and reduce travel time by hours, days, and weeks. 

         That steamboats would ply the North River, as the Hudson was then called, was almost inevitable.  When federal and state courts in 1824 and 1825 annulled the monopoly on state waters that the state legislature had granted Fulton, his financial backer Robert Livingston, and their heirs, all New York City’s waterways were opened up to independent operators eager to grab their share – and more – of the freight and passenger business on those waterways.  Improvements in steamboats followed quickly.  (All advocates of free enterprise may at this point utter a cheer.) 

         Historical footnote:  The Dutch of New Netherlands referred to the North River (the Hudson), the East River (the same as today), and, at the southern limit of their colony, the South River (the Delaware).  The use of “North River” persisted well into the second half of the nineteenth century.

         To enter steamboating did not require vast sums of money or even knowledge of the trade.  A few enterprising gentlemen could pool their resources and hire a seasoned skipper who would obtain a boat for them and then acquire a crew.  If the enterprising gentlemen operated their vessel on a neglected but well patronized route, huge profits resulted and everyone involved was happy.  Until, of course, another bunch of enterprising gentlemen, noticing those profits, likewise acquired a boat and ran it in competition with the first bunch.  Since the small capitalists of the day were amply endowed with the traditional Yankee virtues of initiative, energy, and greed, all the city’s waterways were soon aboil with cutthroat competition; wild times followed.

The Commodore, named for the owner, whose ego required that numerous river
and seagoing craft be named for him.  A typical Hudson River steamboat of the 

1840s, with engine and paddle wheels amidships, and twin funnels belching dark 
smoke by day, and dazzling patterns of sparks by night.  The flags, including one 
bearing the boat's name in outsized letters, are exaggerated in size, though 
Vanderbilt would not have objected.

         There was just one drawback to the new technology of steam: the boilers had a way of exploding, sometimes hurling victims from one township or even one state to another.  One such mishap occurred on June 7, 1831, when the General Jackson, plying between New York and Peekskill, blew up in Haverstraw Bay, killing seven or eight and scalding many more.  The captain, Jake Vanderbilt, was on shore at the time and so survived unscathed, reportedly exclaiming, “Ain’t I a lucky dog!”  Then, leaving the scene of the disaster and the bodies of the dead and injured, he hopped aboard another boat bound for New York so as to find a replacement for his vessel and not lose the route to a competitor.  Word of this spread quickly; at the thought of his callousness and greed, all throughout the Lower Hudson indignation boiled.  When Jake showed up at Peekskill in another boat the following day, the citizens refused to let him dock and even graced him with a rich harvest of pelted eggs. 

         Convinced as well that Captain Jake had long overcharged them, the citizens of three counties now formed a joint stock company and acquired a sleek new vessel, the Water Witch, and put it on the run.  But who could oversee its daily operation?  Wanting someone residing in the city, known to them, and money-wise, they turned to Dan Drew, a onetime cattle drover who now ran the Bull’s Head Tavern, the city’s cattle market, where drovers and butchers met to do business.  Drew by aroma alone could tell sheep dung from cattle droppings, but knew little of steamboats, their walking beams and engines.  Still, being an enterprising fellow with a keen nose for profits and excitement, he agreed.

         The Water Witch was a typical Eastern river boat, a long, narrow sidewheeler adapted to sheltered waterways and built for speed, with a wood-consuming boiler and two towering funnels amidships, a sleek aristocrat beside which the freight-laden, clumsy sternwheelers of the Mississippi Valley looked like wedding cakes mounted on a scow.  The first sight of it on the New York-Peekskill run, its funnels belching smoke and its paddle wheels churning, gladdened the citizens of three counties, as did its modest fare.  Good riddance to Jake Vanderbilt, that callous gouger!

         Ah, but the Vanderbilt clan had no intention of abandoning so lucrative a route.  Though Jake Vanderbilt passionately denied the lucky-dog story, his older brother Cornelius, also a steamboat operator, advised him to avoid further harvests of eggs by switching his talents to Long Island Sound, while he, Cornelius, ran his Cinderella to Peekskill.  This was the first meeting of Vanderbilt and Drew, who would be friends and enemies, allies and rivals over the next forty-six years.

File:Cornelius Vanderbilt Daguerrotype2.jpg
 Vanderbilt the shipowner, before he went into railroads.
Would you want to mess with this man?
       The son of a Staten Island farmer, Cornelius (not yet Commodore) Vanderbilt had started out ferrying passengers from Staten Island to Manhattan, soon acquired several sailing vessels that he operated profitably until, becoming convinced that “b’ilers” had it over sails, he sold those vessels and learned the steamboat business.  Now, as his Cinderella competed with the Water Witch, he often met Drew on the docks.  Tall, handsome, erect, striking in speech and manner and richly profane, Vanderbilt was a big-boned, rangy fellow with great physical presence and an air of potency.  Drew, on the other hand, though tall as well, was a quiet, thin-voiced man with a dark complexion, plain, low-keyed, reserved, and as devious and unobtrusive as his opponent was direct, forthright, and bold.  Unlike Vanderbilt, he had never “wrastled” in his youth, and to Vanderbilt’s four sons and nine daughters (who kept his wife busy while their pa dallied with other women on the side) could at this point muster only a single daughter.  Quickly they sized each other up.  A veteran of twenty years on the water, Vanderbilt could not believe that this cattle-driving, tavern-keeping landlubber knew what he was about.

         “Drew,” he said more than once, “you have no business in this trade.  You don’t understand it and you can’t succeed!”

This was Dan Drew's background.  But did it prepare
him for operating a steamboat?

          Source note:  In spite of the words "All rights reserved," this illustration is in the public domain.

        Daniel Drew was not used to being told he couldn’t succeed.  If this big-limbed wharf rat wanted a fight, he would give it to him.  Relentlessly he slashed his rates, forcing Vanderbilt to do the same, until by October both boats were carrying passengers at only twelve-and-a-half cents a head.  Meanwhile in newspaper ads he and his allies described the Vanderbilts as outsiders, monopolists, and rate gougers.  The result: while the Water Witch carried three hundred to six hundred passengers daily and was greeted by cheering crowds at every landing, the Cinderella carried only twenty or thirty, and at times a mere solitary patron, a friend of the Vanderbilts, who hid from the hostile gaze and jeers of the locals.  Now, when he met Drew on the docks, Vanderbilt had to admit that the ex-drover had a head for business and evinced an obstinacy that matched his own.  With the rates now so low that neither boat could cover its costs, he told Drew that, in the name of good sense alone, Drew ought to abandon the route.  But Drew refused.

         Both boats ran to the very end of the season, until ice blocked the river in December.  All the Lower Hudson rejoiced: the monopoly had been beaten, and Daniel Drew, who promised to resume service at the opening of navigation, was a hero.  The Water Witch’s patrons anticipated another season of cheap, safe, speedy transportation.

         In March of 1832, when the river ice broke up and service between New York and Peekskill resumed, those patrons were dumbfounded: no Water Witch appeared, but instead the Cinderella, charging the much higher rate prevailing before the competition.  With no rival boat in sight, with heavy heart and keen misgivings they had to give their business to the enemy.  Further amazement was wreaked upon them when, in April, the Water Witch reappeared at last, but running on another route, and in the service of none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt.  The local citizens were beside themselves with rage and dismay.  What had happened?

This (plus Vanderbilt's aura) is what enticed Drew.  No U.S. currency yet, just 
bank notes, but the New York bank notes were highly esteemed.

         Over the winter Drew had parlayed secretly with Vanderbilt.  Both men being weary of the battle and what it was costing them financially, they had reached an understanding.  But would Daniel Drew would give up the route, betraying the trust invested in him by the citizens of three counties, for the sake of mere money?  For a lot of it, you bet!  And for the same reason he even placed his boat at Vanderbilt’s disposal.  A canny, hard-headed businessman, he had weighed the advantages of an alliance with his enemy against loyalty to the citizens of three counties, and found the latter sadly deficient.  He was dazzled by Vanderbilt’s imposing presence and overbearing ego, in comparison with which mere ordinary mortals paled to irrelevance.  To know such a man, to walk in step with him and be greeted by him as “Dan’l” was inspiring.  And if those he had betrayed confronted him, he could rightly insist that all he had done was legal; if they persisted, tracking him down at the Bull’s Head, he could dismiss them, saying that attending to several hundred head of cattle, and a noon meal for hungry butchers and drovers, gave him little time for accounting.  And when the Bull’s Head meal bell rang, God help any intruder caught between a stampeding horde of famished diners and the vittles awaiting them.

         Even in evangelized, church-going America, “smartness” – shrewdness in business pushed to the limits of legality and honesty, if not a good bit beyond – was universally admired as essential to the twin imperatives of Go Ahead and Get More.  Mrs. Trollope had complained of it, as did Charles Dickens, who on his first visit to America often asked why men known to be “dishonourable, debased, and profligate” were tolerated and abetted by the citizens, invariably eliciting the answer, “Well, sir, he is a smart man.”  Dan Drew, whether dickering over cattle at the Bull’s Head, or operating a steamboat, or later manipulating stocks on Wall Street, gave evidence of being a very smart man.  (Such “smartness” is of course a relic of the past, being universally condemned today in our fair land, is it not?  Only WBAI would claim otherwise, and they are notorious nay-sayers and carping critics.)

         So ended the Water Witch war, showing what happens to small fry when the big fish get together.  Yet this was just a rate war with no mayhem involved, no ramming of one boat by another, just a little bit of treachery and betrayal, and as such tame by the standards of the day.  A future post will afford glimpses of steamboat wars that were a bit more – to use words of the time – rambunctious, rampageous, and robustious.

         Banknote:  I shan't bore viewers with further protestations of the love I bear my bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, in its hour of trial, when it is assailed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  I will only note that, in honor of Easter, my branch now features a small table laden with four (yes, four!) kinds of candy, one of them simulating Easter eggs, as well as an Easter bunny and three big colored balloons.  All this, in addition to free pens and coffee, and a hand sanitizer.  But who would ever have associated the biggest bank in the country, headquartered in a towering Park Avenue high-rise, with an Easter Bunny surrounded by colored eggs?


        Follow-up to post #52:  One of my regular viewers has informed me of a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Museum over its allegedly voluntary admission fee, the subject of the middle section of post #52.  The story has also been covered in the Times and is well worth following.

          Follow-up to post #25:  Our doctor just told us of a case that recalls post #25, Home Care: The Human Component (Sept. 16, 2012), where I conveyed stories told us by nurses and therapists about difficult and harrowing cases.  While visiting us he got a phone call from a man of 87 who is now the legal guardian of his partner, age 81, who has been disabled by a stroke.  The older partner is very precise about how he wants the home care aides to do things, and when he had words with one of them, she stalked out in a rage.  The next thing he knew, two policemen were at the door who barged in and took the patient, his partner of fifty years, away without any explanation whatsoever.  Since then the older partner has tried in vain to locate his friend and in desperation informed the doctor.  The doctor thinks that the policemen were sent by Adult Protective Services, an agency that deals with reported instances of elder abuse.  Another aide once accused the older partner of abusing the younger one, but since the doctor found no physical evidence of such, he viewed the charge with skepticism.  As for the latest crisis, he thinks the authorities' intervention totally unwarranted.  Similarly, I've heard stories of social workers threatening to take children away from their parents, if the parents refuse to vaccinate the kids or otherwise depart from accepted procedures.  Does the nanny state have to become Big Brother?  Apparently.  We hope to get updates on the doctor's story, which is troubling in the extreme.  

          Coming soon:  Silence (with a brief glance at new religions), more monuments, farewells, steamboat wars, and who knows what else.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder