Sunday, April 28, 2013

58. Steamboat Wars on the Hudson

      Capitalism loves competition.  America loves competition.  Think of Apple vs. Samsung today, or AT&T vs. Verizon,  or Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi-Cola, or years ago, Macy's vs. Gimbels (as seen in the old holiday-season movie Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street), or any number of other corporations.  Competition is in our blood and bone.  And for sure, it's in the blood and bone of New York.  But competition today is tame and genteel, compared to the nineteenth-century steamboat competition on the Hudson.

      June 13, 1840:  As the steamboat Napoleon, 179 tons, a small, ill-furnished vessel skippered by Joseph D. Hancox, a feisty captain who had challenged the prevailing Hudson River Steamboat Association, pulled away from its North River dock with a load of passengers and headed up the river toward Albany, the much larger De Witt Clinton, 500 tons, broke away from its berth and, with full steam up, headed straight for the other boat.  As a crowd, dawn there by rumors of a confrontation, watched from the waterfront, Hancox signaled the De Witt Clinton frantically and, when it still bore down, whipped out a revolver and fired three shots at the other boat's pilothouse, hitting no one but forcing the pilot to duck.  Moments later the larger boat rammed the Napoleon just aft of the pilothouse, causing it to careen violently amid the screams of its terrified passengers.  Miraculously, the boat then righted itself and continued on its way.  Had the De Witt Clinton struck its rival square amidships, as it had evidently intended, the Napoleon would surely have sunk.  Yet when the Napoleon reached Albany and word of the incident spread, it was not the attacking vessel's captain who was arrested, but Hancox, charged with felonious assault with his revolver.  Pleading self-defense in the shooting, and backed up by dozens of his passengers as witnesses, Hancox was readily acquitted, after which he slashed his fare to fifty cents and continued to challenge the Association.

     Standing on the forward deck of the De Witt Clinton during this incident was veteran steamboat operator Isaac Newton, a member of the Association, who was presumably on hand to oversee the operation.  This was a time of cutthroat competition on the river, when the approved methods of eliminating a rival were to buy it off or, failing that, to steal its berth and passengers, to race it, to crowd it, or to smash it.  Since Hancox was that rare phenomenon, a rival captain who couldn't be bought off, Newton had decided to ram his boat and disable it.  Fortunately for his legacy, he was also a gifted ship designer who soon teamed up with Daniel Drew, the cattle drover turned tavernkeep turned steamboat operator (see post #54), to found the People's Line and operate boats on the lucrative New York-Albany run, Newton designing their ships while Drew handled the finances.

     If Newton's reputation didn't suffer much from this incident, it's because keen rivalry and all that resulted from it were the rule on the Hudson.  All up and down the river runners selling tickets solicited travelers boisterously on the piers, praising their line's boats while decrying those of any rival line, whose boilers, they liked to tell nervous ladies, were anything but safe.  Yet when a steamboat approached any intermediate landing, no passenger dared assume there would be even momentary contact between the vessel and the landing, or even between the boat and himself.  If the boat was racing it would probably shoot right past the landing, or failing that, it would execute a "landing on the fly," lowering a small boat that, joined to it by a rope, was propelled by the vessel's momentum to the dock, where it hastily discharged passengers and their baggage and took on more of the same, and then was drawn back to the vessel by a windlass on the vessel's deck, the vessel having lost little time in the process.  Such landings were even performed at night, with considerable risk to the passengers.

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Vanderbilt again, but not yet

     Steamboat skippers and owners relished the prevailing competition, each being determined to prove that his boat was the best and fastest on the river.  Memorable was the contest of June 1, 1847, when Cornelius Vanderbilt pitted his luxurious new C. Vanderbilt, named modestly for himself, against the speedy Oregon of his pugnacious rival George Law, a coarse-featured canal construction contractor turned banker and railroad man who was branching out into steamboats as well.  During the race on the Hudson, Vanderbilt in his excitement seized the wheel from the pilot and mismaneuvered his vessel, while Law, out of fuel, hurled furniture and costly fittings into the furnaces and so sailed on to win.

Daniel Drew in his steamboating days.
No whiskers yet, and not yet "Uncle Daniel."
      Such passion was beyond Daniel Drew, an astute money manager who lacked the gut feeling of a river man, the skipper's fervent identification with his boat, his confidence that it was the best damn boat on the river and he'd race anyone fool enough to doubt it.  One can't imagine Drew planting himself on the forward deck of a boat just prior to a planned collision.  As for hurling sofas into a furnace during a race, why good heavens, those things cost money!

     Drew and Newton knew there were defter ways to compete.  Country boys who had evolved by way of the freight barge and the cattle yards, they grasped early that the key to success on the Hudson was luxury.  Rivaling their countrymen's lust for speed was their longing for regal elegance: the craving of egalitarian, homespun America for palatial opulence such as few citizens could afford in their private lives, but they could enjoy briefly for the price of a steamboat ticket.  The result was a trio of floating palaces such as the world had never seen, to construct which they marshaled the skills and resources of the East River and Brooklyn shipyards for the hulls, the great ironworks of the city for the engines, and the massed talents of the carpenters, plumbers, painters, gas fitters, upholsterers, furniture and glass makers, and privisioners -- not to mention the journalists -- of New York.

     The first of these marvels was the mammoth Hendrik Hudson, which went into service in October 1845: a night boat with berths for 620 people and other accommodations for, it was claimed, two thousand -- admittedly a rather fanciful number.  A reporter, surveying its illuminated interior with spacious saloons flanked by cabins, likened it to Cleopatra's royal yacht at night.  But exactly one year later the second marvel appeared: the Isaac Newton, with the biggest engine ever built in America, a  main saloon with a stained-glass dome overhead, and luxurious staterooms, the fanciest being the Bridal Room, with carpeting said to be from the drawing room of King Louis-Philippe of France, and over the bed a painted altarpiece featuring a cupid holding two doves over an altar, which a spellbound journalist hailed as "one of the most splendid achievements of taste."

The stateroom saloon of the Isaac Newton.
Unsurpassed luxury, until the next boat
surpassed it.
     Could such marvels be surpassed?  In the age of Go Ahead, if one had eclipsed all others, what remained but to eclipse oneself?  In June 1849 the day boat New World appeared, the longest and largest river steamboat ever built, with furnishings that included satin damask chairs, marble tables from Italy, Corinthian pillars, and real oil paintings on the walls.  On its first trip up the river it was saluted on land and water the full length of its run, and greeted in Albany by twenty thousand people thronging boats and wharves, who waved handkerchiefs and cheered while bells tolled and cannon boomed.  Thereafter the paying public flocked aboard the New World and the other People's Line vessels hundreds at a time, until on September 4, 1850, when a state fair was luring unprecedented multitudes to Albany, the New World on a single trip broke all records by carrying an astonishing twelve hundred passengers.  Thanks to the managers' grandiose vision, the profits of the People's Line soared.

     It would be comforting to report that rivalry through luxury put an end to cutthroat competition on the river, with its attendant risks, but such was not the case.  On July 28, 1852, the steamboat Henry Clay, with many prominent citizens aboard, left Albany for New York.  Also bound for New York was the rival boat Armenia, and a race ensued between the two, with many gentlemen in the Henry Clay's bar betting on the outcome.  When the Armenia pulled ahead, the Henry Clay cut in front of it so as to beat it to the next port, causing a collision that alarmed the passengers but did no damage.  At Poughkeepsie several nervous passengers left the vessel, despite assurances by the crew that there was absolutely no danger.  The race continued, with boiler heated to the limit and then some, until embers from the Henry Clay's smokestacks showered down on the wooden deck, which immediately caught fire.  Crewmen pushed the passengers back toward the stern, and the boat was run aground at Riverdale in the Bronx, with its stern over deep water; it burned to the water's edge.  Panicky passengers trapped on the stern jumped overboard and many drowned.  The final toll was 81 dead -- the worst steamboat disaster ever on the river.  Passengers who had left the boat at Poughkeepsie and took a train from there to New York witnessed the disaster en route and realized that this would have been their fate, had they remained on the Henry Clay.  A great public outcry followed, causing Congress to pass the Steamboat Inspection Act of 1852, providing for more rigorous inspection of boilers and the licensing of all passenger-steamboat engineers and pilots.  (All advocates of government regulations can give forth a hearty cheer.)

A Currier & Ives print of the burning of the steamboat Lexington on Long Island Sound in 1840.

      Currier & Ives, when not presenting the heart-warming family scenes and idyllic pastoral landscapes that would adorn the walls of countless American homesteads, also took delight in presenting rail and steamboat disasters.  The loss of the Henry Clay was so commemorated, as was the burning of the Lexington with even greater loss of life.  But that didn't stop people from traveling by rail or boat, any more than news of airplane disasters stops us from doing the same.

The  Daniel Drew, a day boat mentioned
 here, should not be confused with the
Drew, the night boat shown below.
Uncle Daniel had only two boats named
for him; Vanderbilt had too many to count.

     By the 1860s cutthroat competition had all but vanished from the Hudson, where Drew's People's Line dominated the night boat traffic to Albany, while leaving the day business to the Hudson River Day Line.  So all was sweetness and light on the Hudson ... almost.  The "almost" refers to Captain J.D. Hancox, the feisty skipper of the Napoleon, who popped up again in 1874 as owner of the eleven-year-old J.B. Schuyler, with his son Clement as skipper.  The Hancoxes couldn't compete with the big boats of the day in speed, but they had a host of other tricks up their collective sleeve.  One rainy night the Schuyler docked at Albany above Daniel Drew's sumptuous Dean Richmond, which was awaiting the arrival of a train with passengers hoping to continue their trip by boat.  Clem Hancox went ashore and, when the train came chugging along, waved a red lantern signaling danger.  The train stopped, and while its crew were investigating, the passengers got off, thinking they had arrived at the station, and flocked aboard the Schuyler, which quickly departed before they could realize their error.  When the train finally reached Albany, there were no passengers aboard for the Dean Richmond.

A Currier & Ives print.  Conspicuous in the foreground is the Drew, one of the
People's Line vessels that Hancox liked to harass.

     But the Hancoxes had other tricks as well.  The Schuyler, with a band aboard, would pull up alongside a rival boat and strike up its band.  Passengers on the other boat would flock en masse to one side so as to better enjoy the music, causing the boat to list with one paddle out of the water; then, as the rival boat lost speed, the Schuyler would race ahead and get to the next landing first.  The captain of the Dean Richmond finally found a solution: when the Schuyler came alongside with its band at full blast, he ordered the safety valves of his boat to be lifted, creating a screeching noise that drowned out the band.  The People's Line boats then installed bands of their own, but in July 1875 it got rid of the gadfly at last with the time-honored solution of buying him off.  Hancox then ran his vessel for years as an excursion boat, and peace and serenity settled down on the Hudson definitively.  Things were calmer but just a bit boring.

     Daniel Drew, Isaac Newton, George Law, J.W. Hancox, and the redoubtable Vanderbilt: such were the colorful figures operating boats on the Hudson.  Only Vanderbilt is remembered today, and mostly for his railroads, but these practitioners of Go Ahead were all recognized and honored in their time.  When Isaac Newton died in 1858, on the day of his funeral flags flew at half mast in New York harbor, and in Albany ships' bells tolled, and artillery on Steamboat Square fired salutes for an hour.  And when Vanderbilt sailed off to Europe in 1853 in the steam yacht North Star, the biggest and most luxurious private yacht in the world, and one built in part according to his own design, he created a sensation on both sides of the ocean by this unprecedented tour of the Old World by a self-made man of the New.  He was feted by capitalists in Paris and given the use of one of the Czar's carriages in St. Petersburg, while in London the Daily News likened him to the Medicis and declared that the word parvenu should be looked upon as a word of honor.  He was a sterling example of the New Man, the distinctive American type, self-made, industrious, and versatile, who was beginning to fascinate Europe.  Henry James in his novels would show this type of American interacting with refined (and decadent?) Europeans, and with American expatriates more at home in Europe than America.

Vanderbilt's North Star, a luxury yacht that, like its owner, fascinated all of Europe.

     It was a propos of Vanderbilt that the term "robber baron" was first used, and by the end of the nineteenth century these artists of Go Ahead were reaping blame as well as praise.  What do we think of them today?  What is your opinion, for instance, of Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook?  Not to mention the CEOs of banks?  Do they merit praise for their innovative energy and know-how, or blame for ruthlessness and sharp business practices?  Is the New American still with us, and is he (so far, usually a "he") a hero or a villain?  Or a hero and a villain?  In my opinion, a debate worth having.

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Does he deserve to be set on a pedestal?

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And do they... ?

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     Note on income taxes:  Like me, most of you have probably just coughed up money for your federal (and maybe state) income tax.  But not everybody has to.  Did you know that thirty U.S. corporations quite legally paid no federal income tax -- yes, I said none, and I mean none whatsoever -- in 2008, 2009, and 2010?  Among them are such familiar names as General Electric, DuPont, Verizon, Boeing, Consolidated Edison, Wells Fargo, and Honeywell.  Which is worth pondering.  As for me, I'm just a mite angry.  Why is this legal?  Does Congress represent the voters, or does it represent corporations?  No wonder Occupy Wall Street -- among others -- is up in verbal arms.  But conspicuous by their absence from the Lucky Thirty are two companies for which I have a special regard:

    The company I love to love:  Apple.  Yes, I know it has its faults, but sometimes one loves anyway, and besides, I have a Mac.

    The company I love to hate:  Monsanto.  If you don't know why, I can't do a tutorial here, nor am I particularly equipped to do so.  But if you poke around, you'll find out plenty.  For a start, think GMOs, think patents, think seeds.  This involves you more than you may realize.

     Next week: Earth Goddesses: Big Mama, mentioning (among others) Eve, the Virgin, Aphrodite, the Whore of Babylon, Kali, Coatlicue, a castration clamp, and the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.  Forthcoming: Farewells and the Saga of Jim Fisk.  Also in the works: Is America Becoming a Fascist State? (WBAI again).  Hope you've all paid your income tax, unless -- like the Lucky Thirty -- you don't have to.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder




  1. This wonderful article about steamboat in New York,USA. I already have noted some line to gather my knowledge about steamboat history in USA.I had little knowledge about paddle boat in my country Bangladesh.

    We have a fleet of century old paddle steamers in Bangladesh which are still in operation. They were built in the colonial period and still serving as a passenger boat. An overnight journey on those boats is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can check it here if you are interested: Paddle steamers in Bangladesh

    1. How interesting to learn that these boats are still operating in Bangladesh! And I'm delighted to have someone in or from Bangladesh viewing my blog. New York is, I'm sure, a very different place from and of the cities in Bangladesh.