A Short History Of The Hudson River Day Line

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the-hudson-river-paddlewheel-towboat-oswegoAbraham Van Santvoord, a descendent of one of the earliest Dutch settlers in Albany, was born in Schenectady on December 18, 1784. At the age of 14, he worked with his granduncle John Post who owned a shipping business in Utica. Since, at the time, there were few roadways, and the ones they had were snow covered in the winter and mud bogs in the spring, most shipping was done by water.

Van Santvoord successfully ran a shipping business on the Mohawk River. During the War of 1812, he contracted with agents of General Stephen Van Rensselaer of Albany to store and ship provisions westward on the Mohawk to support Van Rensselaer’s troops planning to invade Canada.

In 1815 and 1816, he served as a municipal official in Utica and started a glass business there but was not successful. He returned to Schenectady in about 1818 and resumed his shipping business. He supported the construction of the Erie Canal and became a successful operator of canal boats after the Erie Canal was completed in 1825. In 1826, he became the New York agent for the Steam Navigation Company. The Steam Navigation Company was one of the first to operate what later came to be known as towboats towing non-powered canal boats.

With the opening of the Erie Canal, hundreds of oxen or mule-towed canal boats were coming into Albany daily with freight headed to New York City. Towing canal boats loaded with animals, grain and freight eliminated the necessity of unloading and reloading the freight. A steamboat towing a hundred or more canal boats became commonplace.

In 1845, Van Santvoord became one of the organizers and first president of the Hudson River Steamboat Company that operated a steamboat towing company under the name of “Old Line Steam Tow Boats.” Until 1848, all of the steamboats used for towing were older passenger boats. In that year, Van Santvoord built the first of the large side-wheel towing steamers designed solely for towing. This first Hudson River towboat was named the Oswego.

Abraham Van Santvoord’s youngest son, Alfred, joined his father as the Albany agent for the Hudson River Steamboat Company. In 1855, Alfred bought the day liner Alida. Joining the Alida with the independently owned Armenia, he started regular Day Line service between Albany and New York City with one boat leaving Albany every morning and the other leaving New York City and then reversing the next day. They ran every day except Sunday.

daniel-drew-steamboatAfter three years, the Alida was having trouble competing with some of the new, faster and more grandly furnished passenger boats such as the 244-foot Daniel Drew, which was now running the same days as the Alida. The Daniel Drew was considered the “Jewel of the Hudson” and set a speed record in 1855 of 7 hours 20 minutes from New York City to Albany (22 miles per hour). In 1860, the Daniel Drew brought the Prince of Wales – later England’s King Edward VII – to Albany where he was entertained at Congress Hall.

At the end of the season the Daniel Drew issued a $1,000 challenge to any steamboat proprietor for a race to Albany from New York City. The challenge concluded: “Any person or persons that have a steamer which they think can beat her can have an opportunity to make a profitable trip by calling on the subscriber, 283 Broadway, Albany. J. W. Harcourt, October 17th 1860.” The challenge appeared in the Albany and New York City newspapers.

In 1863, Alfred Van Santvoord and several others joined forces to construct the 200-foot steamboat, City of Albany. The City of Albany commenced Day Line service on May 4th but her service as a day liner was short lived as she was purchased by the federal government for $82,000 for service in the Civil War. During her one month of Day Line service she had taken in $4,900, $8 of which was found to be counterfeit. Van Santvoord was now without a boat.

That same year, Thomas Collyer, owner of the Daniel Drew died and by the end of the summer, Alfred Van Santvoord and two partners, John McBride Davidson and Chauncey Vibbard purchased the Daniel Drew. Shortly thereafter, they also purchased the Armenia and ran a complete Day Line with ships alternating every other day. Although the Armenia was not as grand as the Daniel Drew, she had been fitted out with a steam calliope that attracted its own following on the river.

Vibbard had been the chief clerk of the Utica & Schenectady Railroad and was the first superintendent of the newly formed New York Central Railroad. The New York Central ran from Chicago to Albany, but then unloaded passengers and moved them to New York City by steamboat, so the Day Line was critical to the railroad. This partnership was also critical to the steamboat line as the New York Central would steer passengers to them rather than the Hudson River Railroad on the east side of the Hudson River.

John Davidson was the son of Alexander Davidson, partner in Root and Davidson, an Albany mercantile house. Davidson had worked at the hardware store of Erastus Corning & Co. Davidson purchased a small iron foundry and began a very successful business manufacturing iron tools, cooking implements and fireproof safes. He also manufactured the first iron railroad freight car. Erastus Corning inspected the iron freight car and liked it so much that he ordered hundreds of them.

In 1863, Van Santvoord advertised “Day Line for Albany” at $1.50 from New York City, with the Daniel Drew running Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the Armenia running on the alternate days. That year, they transported 21,784 passengers taking in about $27,000 in fares and showing a $7,500 profit. While it would not officially become the “Day Line” until decades later, it started using the term “Day Line” in its advertising to differentiate it from “Night Line” boats that were outfitted with staterooms for sleeping.

The Night Line boats were operated by the Peoples Line, owned by the New Jersey Steamboat Company. The boats included the 393-foot St. John – the largest steamboat in the U.S., 14 feet longer than the new Cunard liner Scotia plying the North Atlantic; the 348-foot Dean Richmond, named after Erastus Corning’s successor as the president of the New York Central Railroad; and the 366-foot Drew, named after the president of the New Jersey Steamboat Company. The night boats were larger due to the need to accommodate staterooms. The largest day liner at this time was the 288-foot Mary Powell, which only traveled from New York City as far north as Kingston.

1197px-The_Peacemakers_1868During the Civil War, the Day Line and Night Line transported hundreds of thousands of soldiers as regiments from all over the northeast reported to Albany and then went by paddle-wheeled steamboat to New York and then to battlefields in the south. Individual soldiers in uniform traveling to or from the war traveled free.

By summer of 1864, Van Santvoord had a new boat; the 267-foot Chauncey Vibbard join his fleet. The Chauncey Vibbard was opulently appointed with a marble medallion of Erastus Corning prominently displayed. (The importance of the New York Central to both the Day Line and Night Line seems obvious with the naming of the Chauncey Vibbard, the Dean Richmond, and the prominent medallion of Corning.)

The entry of the Chauncey Vibbard onto the scene only served to raise the hackles of the Daniel Drew, which was not yet ready to relinquish her title as the best and fastest to the newcomer. Even though the same company owned both, there was still serious competition.

On September 15, 1864, Andrew Fletcher designer of the power plant on the Vibbard came aboard early in the morning and everyone knew that something was up. The Daniel Drew owned the time record from New York to Albany at 7 hours 22 minutes set in 1860. Under Fletcher’s direction the coals were stoked in the Vibbard’s boilers and she took off from New York at 8:09 a.m. and arrived in Albany two minutes slower than the Daniel Drew. Although there were disagreements about the exact landing and starting places, it seemed that the Daniel Drew was still king. The best average speed was still 22 miles per hour.

This did not settle the contest however, and the captains of the Daniel Drew, Chauncey Vibbard and Mary Powell argued for years over which was the fastest boat. On April 18, 1876, the Day Line sent the empty Chauncey Vibbard north to Albany to be painted. The captain saw his opportunity and steamed up the river under full steam all the way with no stops. He left New York at 5:20 a.m. and arrived in Albany at 11:40 a.m., 6 hours and 20 minutes, a new record.

Through the 1840s, steamboat travel was the easiest and fastest method of transportation in the Hudson Valley. In the 1850s, the number of passengers had dwindled because of strong competition from the novelty and speed of the railroads. However in the 1860s and 1870s paddlewheel passengers drifted back. A summer trip on the railroad before air-conditioning was a dirty, dusty, stifling trip. A ride on a paddlewheel steamer, especially one as grand as a Day Line boat, was an event in itself.

Wide, open decks with lounge chairs on a boat out on the water provided a cool pleasant afternoon even on the hottest days. Refreshments were constantly served as passengers watched the Hudson Valley scenery go by. The scenic views of Albany, Hudson, Kingston, Rhinecliff, Hyde Park, Poughkeepsie, Fishkill, Peekskill, Yonkers and the New York Harbor were enhanced by the special attractions of West Point, Storm King Mountain, the Palisades, and Washington Irving’s Tarrytown. A major event of each trip was the passing of the “up boat’ and the “down boat” with the Daniel Drew or Chauncey Vibbard pulling long on their deep toned steam horns and the Armenia sounding her steam calliope.

On rainy days, passengers could move inside or go to one of the lavishly appointed dining rooms for a nice lunch or early dinner. There were lounges and parlors with carpets, sofas and upholstered chairs and tables for card players or passengers who wanted to meet and talk. There was a main salon and a ladies’ salon. There was also a bar on the boat. The Day Line advertised itself as “the most charming inland water trip on the American continent.”

In 1869, the New York Central merged with the Hudson River Railroad providing railroad passengers with a continuous trip from Chicago to New York City without having to change trains at Albany. However passenger travel for the Day Line was increasing and in 1876, it would carry 173,000 passengers, the most ever.

In 1879, the New York and Albany Day Line was incorporated for the first time and Alfred Van Santvoord and John Davidson were the principal stockholders. It was renamed the “Hudson River Line” but its letterhead would still read “New York and Albany Day Boats.”

Also in 1879, the Day Line decided to build its first iron-hulled boat. Harlan & Hollingsworth of Wilmington, Delaware constructed the hull that would become the 284-foot three-decked Albany in 1880. With the Armenia now only used as a spare boat, it was sold to a Washington, D.C. excursion company. On January 5, 1886, she would catch fire and have to be scuttled to extinguish the flames, ending the calliope days of the Armenia.

On August 26, 1886, the Daniel Drew was docked at Kingston Wharf when shortly after 3 pm the Delaware & Hudson engine house caught fire. An easterly wind took the flames into the Daniel Drew’s storeroom and soon the ship was engulfed in flames. A heroic effort from her crew fighting the fire with buckets of water and wet blankets could not stop the fire. Her captain, Captain Foster, was forced to jump for his life with badly burned face and hands. A small passenger boat on the river, the Charles A. Shultz pulled up next to the Daniel Drew and tried to attach lines to pull her out into the water but there was so much heat from the now huge fire that she had to pull away.

The vessel Tallapoosa, lying nearby, stretched two lengths of fire hose to the Daniel Drew and started her pumps to bring water to fight the fire, but the fire still spread on the huge Daniel Drew, threatening the Tallapoosa. Her crew had to withdraw and move the ship away from the danger of the Drew. Kingston fire companies responded but there was little they could do to the huge fire. Eventually a large crowd formed both on the dock and in small boats on the water to watch the fire. The Daniel Drew went down before an audience reminiscent of the crowds she once drew to watch her go down the river. It was the end of the magnificent Daniel Drew.

The Day Line, now back to only two boats, immediately began plans for a new steel-hulled steamship. On July 13, 1887, the steel hulled 301-foot New York was launched for a trial run with considerable fanfare and about 600 guests. As she started up the Hudson, she sounded her steam horn and the hundreds of boats that stood by to watch the launch responded, filling New York Harbor with the sound of steamboat horns. She circled the Statue of Liberty before returning to dock. Her first trip to Albany was scheduled for July 18th.

The festivity of the launching of the new boat was dampened however, as first John Davidson and then general ticket agent and stockholder Clarence van Benthuysen died suddenly. Also, the old Chauncey Vibbard was sold and became an excursion boat running between Philadelphia and Lincoln Park, an amusement resort on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River.

Late in October 1898, Chauncey sprung a leak en route to a naval parade to celebrate the end to the Spanish American War and had to be beached to keep her from going down. The once proud Chauncey was scrapped at Peter Hagan’s scrap yard at East Camden Yard near Cooper’s Point where it laid a ruin for years.

With the new Albany and New York on the route, passenger travel increased every year reaching a record 192,000 in 1892. The Day Line described their boats as “strictly first class – no freight. … The peanut and sausage eaters, the beer drinkers, the pipe smokers, the expectorators, the loud talkers, the life long enemies of soap and water, are never seen there.”

Passengers donned their Sunday best to watch the large paddlewheel go round and the banks of the Hudson drift by, enjoying a conversation on the deck or lounging at a dining room table. During the heat of the summer, the river was the coolest place with its gentle breezes; almost everyone wore a straw hat. It was once joked that ten percent of the straw hats were blown overboard and a trip on the Hudson was always sprinkled with lost hats.

One Day Line captain jokingly remarked to a passenger “We fish up as many straw hats in the tourist season as supplies us with fuel in the winter. They burn well and they come cheap.” An orchestra was added to the trip, and “views, papers and periodicals can be purchased at the news stands in the after salon on the Promenade deck.” In the glamour of the 1890s, business was good.

The Day Line steamers ran on time, a very uncommon practice in the 1800s. It was not unusual for a late arriving passenger to see the boat departing. Once the boat was even a few feet off the dock, it could not stop or turn around. Unfortunately, several times passengers were drowned when they tried to jump from the dock to the deck. If they fell short of the deck, they became trapped in the water between the ship and the dock, water that was greatly agitated by the turning of the paddle wheel.

Life magazine ran a spoof article suggesting that the Day Line Company install a “steamboat battery” of the kind used by circus acrobats, to fire late arriving passengers onto the boat. “Time, tide, steamboats and soda water wait for no man,” quoted Life. The terms: “Don’t miss the boat” and “I think he missed the boat” are said to have first came into common usage referring to the Hudson River Day Line.

On October 1, 1899, the “Hudson River Line” officially changed its name to the “Hudson River Day Line,” acknowledging that it had been using various names over the years including the Albany Day Line, Albany and New York Day Line and simply Day Line.

On July 20, 1901, Commodore Alfred Van Santvoord suffered a stroke aboard his yacht Clermont that was laying at anchor at Sea Gate on the Hudson. He died at the age of 82. On July 23rd, the commodore’s body was placed on the Clermont for his last trip up the Hudson to the Albany Rural Cemetery.

All of the boats on the Hudson were alerted and watched for the Clermont. As the Clermont came into view, each boat halted while passengers and crew removed their hats and bowed their heads as the Clermont passed. As the Clermont passed the Albany, the Albany sounded a salute and then stopped and stood silently as did the nearby Peoples Line boat Adirondack. At Albany, the New York was docked and its crew lined up. They sang a requiem as the Clermont arrived in the early darkness.

The next morning, the casket was loaded into a black funeral wagon and the funeral party followed in carriages to Albany Rural Cemetery where graveside services were conducted by Van Santvoord’s son-in-law, Reverend Wilton Merle-Smith. Van Santvoord joined his partner John McB. Davidson and Captain Dave Hitchcock at the cemetery.

Van Santvoord’s son-in-law, Eben Erskine Olcott took over as president of the Day Line. Passengers in 1902 would total 266,504 increasing to almost 2 million by 1925. The Hudson River Day Line continued for 46 years. It would see new boats: the Hendrick Hudson (1906) with its dome of Tiffany glass and 24 parlors; the Robert Fulton (1909) with Samuel Ward Stanton’s steamboat paintings; the Washington Irving (1913) with its elaborate artwork and the Alhambra writing room (Samuel Ward Stanton was to have executed the Alhambra room but his trip to Spain to make sketches included a return trip on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and he and his sketches were both lost); the De Witt Clinton (1921), the Alexander Hamilton (1924), an elegantly appointed charter boat the Chauncey Depew (1925) and the Peter Stuyvesant in 1927.

The New York caught fire and sank in 1909; the Mary Powell was finally retired after 55 years in 1919; and the Washington Irving sank with the loss of three lives in 1926. The Albany was sold and rechristened the Potomac in 1934. The Day Line that had peaked as recently as 1925 and done well up until 1928 was hit hard by the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression. It was in receivership in 1933. The Night Line had filed for bankruptcy a year earlier, however Day Line trips continued on a scaled-back basis.

The Alexander Hamilton, Peter Stuyvestant, Hendrick Hudson and Robert Fulton were still running when the company was sold in 1949 to a similarly named tour boat company that ran tours around New York City. The last regularly scheduled Day Line cruise from Albany to New York took place on September 13, 1948 by the steamboat Robert Fulton. What Robert Fulton had started, the Robert Fulton ended.

The Alexander Hamilton and Peter Stuyvesant were used alternatively to run a Labor Day cruise to Albany in 1958 – 1962, but the Day Line had fallen victim to train and auto speed, construction of highways, air conditioning and the depression. By the 1930s, a three-hour train to New York City in an air conditioned car would allow up to ten hours in New York and a three-hour return trip to Albany all in one day. Transportation had become a commodity rather than an event in itself. Paddle wheel steamboat travel on the Hudson as transportation was gone but had left an indelible fingerprint on the Hudson Valley.

Paintings: From above, the Hudson River paddlewheel towboat Oswego by James Bard; Daniel Drew Steamboat c. 1860 by Joseph B. Smith; The Peacemakers (1868) by George Peter Alexander Healy depicts William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and David Dixon Porter on-board the Nantucket River Queen, a steamboat owned by Alfred Van Santvoord.

2 thoughts on “A Short History Of The Hudson River Day Line

  1. Jonathan B. Richards II

    An excellent and comprehensive distillation of the history of passenger transportation on the Mohawk and Hudson river waterway. Thank you Peter Hess for your scholarship and dedication to N.Y. history.

    1. Joe Rucci

      In 1960, a short news-type documentary was made on the Peter Stuyvesant. My grandfather, Captain Frank Brinkman, was skipper and I was aboard that day. I would greatly appreciate hearing from anyone who might know how to obtain a copy or account of the film.


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