Racing to Build the Fastest Steamboats
With the introduction of the steam engine, the Hudson River corridor became a hotbed of steamboat innovation -- and gave birth to the world's fastest vessels
Two immense side-wheel steamboats lined up a few minutes before 11:00 am on June 1, 1845 at the foot of Vesey Street on the tip of Manhattan. Inside each pilot house, some 30 feet above the water line, were the boats’ owners—industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Law—two immense egos who had decided to race 66 miles race upriver to Sing Sing. The gleaming tk-foot-long Cornelius Vanderbilt. She looked like a Hudson River racer but was a little heavier and very symmetrical with the paddle wheels in the very center of the hull and the stacks toward the bow. Like its competitor Oregon she was long and low. See Band Brothers book for a painting. The Oregon was 330 feet long by 35 inches wide and was powered by a huge steam engine that had a cylinder 6 feet in diameter and an 11 foot stroke. She was long and sleek with two smoke stacks placed well behind her paddle wheel boxes. The paddle wheel was 34 feet in diameter. Both boats were about the same tonnage 1051 or 1050 hence nominally the same size. Each boat was stripped to its bare essentials, even the exact amount of coal needed had been carefully calculated to minimize weight.
The starting signal sounded and the boats surged forward, black smoke pouring from the stacks as the great boats incrementally gained speed with each turn of side wheels. Inside the tk, tkmen shoveled coal into the furnaces at a furious pace. As the boats raced bow to bow, their boilers ready to burst, flags and pennants whipped in the air and water sprayed over the focsle. Crowds onshore cheered wildly.
The Cornelius Vanderbilt pulled ahead slightly after the race was near the halfway mark but the Oregon soon caught up and overtook her rival. The New York Times reported that the crews of each boat stuffed the furnaces with lard, ham, and butter to increase the steam. Long streaks of flame now shot out of the stacks along with the black smoke
As she surged ahead, the Vanderbilt struck the Oregon as it passed her rival. Although damaged, the Oregon’s starboard paddle wheel box could still operate. The accident was later blamed on Vanderbilt’s attempts to signal the engine room for more speed. The Commodore’s instructions had so confused the chief engineer that he stopped the engine.
The Oregon never lost her lead on the return trip, even after she ran out of coal and had to burn chairs and settees in the furnace. She beat the Vanderbilt home by a quarter mile. Law delighted in his victory over the famous industrialist and became the toast of New York for many weeks afterwards. Some years later the New York Times reported: “The Commodore could swear fluently on all occasions, but the volubility of his profanity on that occasion beat his record.”
Steamboat racing was an everyday event on the Hudson in the 19th century, rival lines trying to outrun each other, much to the amusement and profit of their passengers who enjoyed the prospect of arriving at their destination more rapidly. The Hudson became a corridor of innovation, liners experimenting with new boat designs and engine modifications to tweak more speed out of their boats.
Hudson River and inland Rivers (Ohio & Mississippi) boats evolved in different ways to suit the requirements of each river. The Hudson was broad and deep most of the way to Albany—only at the very upper end did it get shallow and narrow—speeds were reduced and racing was less likely in this section of the Hudson. But boats were generally longer and deeper and much faster than those on the western rivers. The Ohio was especially ill suited to deep hulls or fast running. During much of the summer and fall its level dropped due to a lack of rain. At times it was so low that no boats could operate for almost half of the year. At its upper end—Pittsburgh to Wheeling—it tended to be very narrow, as little as 600 ’ and shallow for fast running or much racing. Even as it got broader going south (1200 ‘ at Cincinnati) it was full of sharp curves, sand and gravel bars, shoals, rocks, and swags. This did not stop racing but made it more dangerous. Speeds were much less than on the Hudson’s, rarely much over than 15 mph and that only downstream. Western boats by the 1830s looked different than the Hudson vessels. They were more boxy, large, squareish upper works on a very shallow hull that gave them the wedding cake look. While the Hudson river boats were long and low and elegant and fast in appearance. They were in fact the fastest vessels in the world up until the 1880s. Then western boats had their main cabin and the first class passengers on the second deck. The cargo engines, boilers, and 2nd class passengers were on the main deck (or the first deck). Negro passengers and the crew were on the very top or Texas deck. High pressure engines and boilers had pressures between 100 and 200 psi. [JR: I can do an article on western steamboats]
An early steamer cut the four days it took a sail boat in 1807 to travel the 146 miles from New York to Albany to 30 hours. By 1847, that time had dropped to nine hours. Less than three decades later, a steamer made the run in six. The standard Hudson River steamer, a particularly American invention, became admired and copied[A1] the world around for its simplicity, effectiveness, and low cost, but most of all for its speed and comfort.
Steamboats Come of Age
When the steam-powered engine was invented in 1712, its application to the marine world became immediately obvious: for the first time in human history, a form of propulsion could drive a boat through a dead calm, replacing the sail forever. But the first engines proved extremely heavy and slow. Nearly a century passed before design refinements produced an engine suitable for marine propulsion. Dozens of mechanics in this country and Europe built and tested steamboats. Some were operationally practical, yet their creators lacked the skills to attract the capital, nor were they able to sell their inventions to the public.
Robert Fulton, in popular mythology the actual inventor of the steamboat, was actually a latecomer to powered-vessel sweepstakes. More of an artist than a mechanic, he depended on contractors for the engine, boilers, and hull of his first two vessels. But no matter: he had other, more important, assets. Handsome, courtly, and well-spoken, this born promoter was at ease with the great figures of his time, from General Bonaparte onward. He dressed and acted like a gentleman, which masked his lack of education, family background, and money. In 1802 he gained the patronage of Robert Livingston, a wealthy New Yorker with a passion for steamboats, which had been puffing on the margin of national consciousness for a generation. (Most of the Constitutional Convention had drifted down to see John Fitch’s 45-foot steamboat on the Delaware in 1787.)
Fulton’s and Livingston’s first boat ran less than successfully on the Seine in 1803. Their second, assembled in New York City, was ready for a trial run late in the summer of 1807. The engine had been built by Boulton and Watt in Birmingham, England; the copper boiler in London; the hull in a New York boatyard. The North River Steamboat, later know as the Clermont, set off up the Hudson with the intention of going the entire 146 miles to Albany, performed remarkably well, much to the delight of its designer and the limited number of guests on board, making a steady four and a half miles per hour against the current. [JW: can we convert speed to knots?] [A2]
Regular river commuters knew sailboats took four days to reach Albany, and that only before a steady breeze and favorable tides and currents. The Clermont made the journey in just 32 hours and could do so on a windless day. The boat was fitted with berths, furniture and paneling to be ready for regular service by early September. Aiming at the river-going equivalent of the carriage-trade, Fulton created an interior as elegant as a rich man’s parlor. He charged seven dollars for the trip to Albany, something like an average family’s income over three week. Once the vessel proved to be safe and reliable, she was generally fully booked. This same principle was to be followed by George Pullman some 60 years later and by the Concorde in our own time. Well-to-do travelers will always pay for speed and luxury.
Between 1807 and 1824, the Fulton-Livingston monopoly controlled steamboat operations on the Hudson, the fruit of Livingston’s great political influence. Other operators were required to pay a royalty or see their vessel confiscated. The monopoly set out to expand its control over other states’ waterways and so gain national control of steamboat operations. More boats were built to run on coastal routes. Believing that the richest prize would be the inland rivers, Fulton had a boat built at Pittsburgh in 1811, and had it run all the way to New Orleans. Fortunately, other states and territories resisted the scheme, but the law was firmly established in the Empire State. Thomas Gibbons, owner of a ferryboat line connecting Elizabeth, New Jersey, with New York City, ran afoul of the monopoly because his boat made part of its trip in New York waters.
Early in 1824, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Gibbons, noting that the U.S. Congress had a right to regulate commerce that individual states might not override. Livingston died in 1813 and Fulton followed his partner early in 1815. Yet the monopoly lived on as a cartel of steamboat operators, managed by Fulton’s former secretary, Anthony N. Hoffman, which fixed fares and divided traffic among itself. Competitors were driven out of business by rate wars. Hoffman and his partners remembered the good old days when their profits were upwards of 70 percent. Those times were gone forever but the association did its best to keep the fare to Albany at $3. Sharp traders such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, and George Law were attracted only by the prospect of a killing. Steamboating made Daniel Drew rich enough to speculate on Wall Street, where he acquired greater wealth as Ursa Major, the Great Bear.
One way to expand revenues, as travelers bitterly complained, was to crowd more people on board. The summer exodus from steamy-hot, unhealthy Manhattan booked late day and weekend sailings to bursting point. There were not enough berths; Some slept on chairs or sofas while others looked for a soft place on the floor. The dining room was overwhelmed. But everyone wanted to go at one time. The Fourth of July holiday was especially congested, boats packed well beyond their legal limits. On July 4, 1873, the Daniel Drew was so overloaded she was listing from side to side and to such an extent that her guards were underwater on one side while her paddlewheel came out of the river on the other side. Water was flooding her main deck, but no one would leave the boat and more would get on at each stop. The chief engineer left the boat at West Point claiming she was unsafe to run in such a condition. The trip required fourteen and a half hours, making her almost six hours late. The Daniel Drew had a reputation for being “cranky.” She listed easily even with normal passenger loads. During the winter of 1873-74, her hull was altered but these modifications did not solve her stability problems.
The Hudson steamer business would develop ever faster and more luxurious craft, which would eclipse the Clermont in speed and size, the best being true floating palaces, while competition actually cut fares. Fulton himself began the trend to bigness. The last vessel he designed before he died in February, 1815—the 156-foot Chancellor Livingston—was the largest on the river when completed, boasting separate ladies’ cabin with 24 berths besides 111 berths for male passengers. The engine delivered 75 horsepower, resulting in an average speed of about seven knots. The Livingston made the journey upriver to Albany in 18 hours, almost halving the time of Fulton’s first craft. It was later rebuilt for coastal service and continued in operation until 1834.
A decade later, Robert L. Stevens began running the Albany on the Hudson. As built she was 10 feet shorter than the Livingston, but two years after entering service was lengthened to 212 feet. In 1839 a second rebuilding added 75 feet more, and an engine remodeling greatly improved her speed. In the spring of 1840 she reached Albany in 8 hours and 35 minutes. Three years later the Troy Line introduced the Empire, a true record breaker at 307 feet, the world’s longest and fastest steamboat. Other Hudson River craft outclassed many of their seagoing cousins in terms of speed until about 1880.
By the late 1830’s these steamers had evolved into elegant conveyances that carried passengers for a 100 miles without a jolt or bump for just a few dollars, swiftly by any contemporary measure, but still offering plenty of time to enjoy the Valley’s matchless scenery. A British visitor, Captain Frederic Marryat, recorded this impression in the summer of 1837: “when I first saw one of the largest sweep round the battery, with her two decks, the upper one screened with snow-white awnings—the gay dresses of the ladies—the variety of colours—it reminded me of a floating garden.” By 1850 about 150 of these colorful vessels were plying the Hudson, carrying upwards of a million passengers per year.
Hudson Steamboat Design
To bring speed as well as capacity, the Hudson River steamboat evolved an unusual shape: the main deck bore an enormous overhang, which made it almost twice as wide as the narrow, shallow hull: if only 34 feet wide, the hull could yet support a deck 66 feet across at its broadest point. On this overhang, introduced in about 1811 and called the guards, the boilers were placed a few years later outside the hull. No right-thinking European engineer would consider such an unorthodox plan, yet American shipbuilders readily adopted it. The design had an added benefit: should the boilers blow up, which occurred not infrequently, they would do less damage to the hull, the crew, and the passengers.
The wooden, lightly-build hulls, which were often only 10 feet deep, could not support a cabin or the ship’s machinery. Designers solved this problem by building a massive wooden structure—very much like a bridge truss—on either side of the hull. These “hog frames” rose very conspicuously outside the cabin. In addition, poles like a ship’s mast were erected along the boat’s center line, anchored into a deep keelson to tower high above the cabin roof supporting iron tie rods that reached down to strengthen the guards and the ends of the hull. All this trussing gave the boats a rather jerry-rigged appearance, as if a boatyard and a bridge builder had combined their talents. Yet, appearances aside, the scheme worked well and produced a cheap but serviceable craft. Very similar hulls, although on a heavier plan, were used on coastal vessels. Some Hudson River boats were also used for coastal service.
Cabin structures were kept fairly low, three decks being typical, their overall height kept to about 30 feet above the main deck. The engine was in the center of the hull, its walking beam rising above the roof. The cabin was cut up into large and small compartments according to various contrasting types of services offered. Day boats needed space to seat and feed passengers. Night boats required small cabins and berths for sleeping. The popular day boat Mary Powell of 1861, for instance, which ran between New York and Kingston, had its dining room in the forward hold. The ladies’ saloon was aft of the main deck. The bar and toilets shared space with the boilers on the guards. The second deck contained the main saloon, which began near midship and extended aft of the gangway. The forward part of the second deck was open, providing a pleasant place for passengers to view the scenery. The third or hurricane deck was closed to passengers because they might fall into the river or get in the way of crew and pilot. This was the crew’s deck.
The New World of 1847 was built on a somewhat different plan. When enlarged and remodeled as a night boat in 1855, a fourth deck was added and the hull widened by seven feet. The hold or lower deck had sleeping berths at the forward end. The after cabin was the dining room, and the ladies’ saloon in the after part of the main deck. It was 90 feet long and was fitted with berths and staterooms. The forward part of the main deck was set aside for freight, baggage, and deck passengers. The third deck was divided into three saloons. The after section, with its huge high ceiling space, served as the main cabin and was elaborately decorated in the Corinthian style, the main cabin boasting costly carpets and furniture. Staterooms, some large enough for a family of 8 to 10 people, ran along both sides of the main cabin. There was also a bridal chamber for newlyweds. The New World, carrying 347 staterooms and 600 sleeping berths, was judged by the British maritime expert William S. Lindsay to be admirable in every detail from her colossal beam engine down to the minutest fittings in her restaurant and barber shop. Steamers such as the New World and her sister ships carried more passengers given the draught of water than boats built anywhere else. After a ride on the Hudson River steamer, the Daniel Drew Lindsay observed that these American riverboats had more power and stability than vessels built in other nations using twice the weight of materials.
Evolution of the Steamboat Engine
The real reason for the large increase in speed lay in the boats’ powerplant and propulsion system. Fulton copied Watts’s low pressure condensing engine for all of his boats and created a style of vertical marine engine that remained popular until the 1830s. It was reliable but rather too heavy for the horse power produced. Placing the paddle wheel shaft on the center line of the cylinder crowded the machinery into two small of a space. In 1816 Daniel Dod (1778–1829) reintroduced the old fashioned beam engine, first used by Newcomer and Watt a century earlier, into marine services. By placing the paddle wheel shaft ahead and away from the cylinder it was possible to build a stronger more powerful engine with a very large cylinder. The big walking beam and its wooden gallows frame made it look like a contraption from the middle ages but because of its high piston speed it ran like a creation from the Twentieth century. Dod retained the use of low pressure steam often 30 pounds or less and the separate condenser and the air pump just as Watt had planned it in the 1860s. Other engine builders began to copy and improve the beam engine, Robert L. Stevens for example invented a new economical cut-off valve gear in 1840 that opened and closed the valves quickly to both save fuel and water. By the late 1840s some beam engines boasted cylinders of 76 inches bore diameter and a 15-foot stroke producing 1400 horsepower with low pressure saturated steam. They ran smooth and silent with so little vibration it was hardly perceptible and they would run on for 50 years or more. The passenger vessels on the Hudson River were all side-wheelers up until about 1900 when screw propellers were adopted.
Wood was the common fuel for many years on the Hudson River as it was for home heating and many other purposes. About 35 to 40 cords of wood was consumed per trip between New York and Albany. Wood as fuel was very bulky and boats left the city with so much wood piled up on the deck that they looked like floating wood yards. The Chancellor Livingston of 1817 was the first to regularly burn coal. Other boat operators came to adapt this more condensed form of fuel by the 1840s and wood burners gradually disappeared. Anthracite coal was easily available from the Delaware & Hudson mines at Homesdale, Pennsylvania. It was set to New York by canal boats to RONDOUT near Kingston. There the boats were assembled into groups and towed down the Hudson to Manhattan. A large side wheeler would burn about 600 pounds of coal an hour that was shoveled by a dozen firemen into the furnaces under the boilers. Anthracite burned cleanly making very little smoke. Boiler technology was kept simple and the return flu style of the boiler and the firebox remained in favor during most of the 19th century.
The Mary Powell was consistently on time, her schedule rarely varied by more than a few minutes day to day. She ran from Rondout Creek, Kingston, NY to Manhattan with stops at Cozzens, West Point, Cornwall, Newburgh, Milton, and Pier 39 in exactly four hours. She carried enough coal to make the round trip without refueling. She was popular and much loved by the public because of her dependable and fast running. She was enlarged twice and rebuilt three times. She became the white-haired grandmother of steamboats and operated for 53 years, which was something of a record for a wooden-hulled vessel. Her last trip was in September, 1917, after carrying seven million passengers and running over a million miles. Many of these travelers came to Kingston specifically to ride the Ulster and Delaware Railroad into the Catskill Mountains and visit one of its many resort hotels.
Other patrons would take a night boat, such as the Isaac Newton, to Albany where they would go by stagecoach or railroad to the popular resort, Saratoga. Some families would stay for the summer. The husband would return to the city to work and spend only short weekends with the wife and children.
The Swallow Wrecks
Anthony Huffman, Fulton’s former secretary, demonstrated his talents as a naval architect by designing the Swallow in 1836. She was intended for speed and had the sharp lines of a clipper ships. Her performance was, however, not up to her designer’s expectations. Knowing that long boats are fast boats, the vessel was lengthened by 24 feet the next year. A larger engine was installed at the same time.
There was a good reason to build a faster boat. The association’s principal rival was a former cattle dealer named Daniel Drew who got into steamboating by happenstance. He lent a friend money in 1835 to buy a boat. The friend failed in less than a year. Drew bought the boat for a good price and proved shrewd enough to survive in the competitive business. Drew bought a few more boats and cut his fare to one dollar. He did a fine business and purchased the Rochester, a speedy vessel that brought him more customers. This is likely when Hoffman decided to produce a faster boat to put Mr. Drew back into the cattle business. Winning a race was the best advertising—it got more attention than a thousand classifieds. The public would talk about the race. It was so exciting.
The Swallow was docked on the North River one block north of the Rochester’s pier. Both boats left for Albany at 5:00 pm and made their regular stops at Cornwall, West Point, Newburgh, and so on up the river. They were running side by side. Each boat burned about 25 cords during the race. At Caldwell’s Landing, forty miles above the city, the Swallow slowly took the lead. The crew on the Rochester broke open a barrel of sperm oil and began to add it to the fire box. Dense smoke poured out of her funnels but the Swallow kept increasing her lead and was two miles ahead at Newburgh. A second account contends that the official race was held in early November of 1836. No passengers were carried and no stops were made. The race ended five miles below Albany. The average speed was 15.3 mph, but the Rochester arrived five minutes ahead of her rival. Daniel Drew was not persuaded to quit the steamboat business but continued in this trade until his final years. He did, however, become a Wall Street trader, a speculator in railroad stock, and accumulated a very sizeable fortune if not a good reputation.
The entwined relationship between the Rochester and the Swallow was not over. A decade later . . .
A decade later the Swallow, April 7, 1845 to be exact was heading down river at night. She was followed closely by the Empress and her old rival the Rochester. As they headed down the Athena channel in a snow squall, the Swallow hit a rocky islet. Her bow rode up on the rocks while her hull broke open and stern which contained most of the sleeping passengers sank deep into the river. She had about 250 passengers on board. Fortunately the Rochester pulled alongside and rescued most on board but 15 were lost in this unfortunate accident.
[JR: Sorry I don’t have more details. There is a litho of the accident by N. Currier—I can send a Xerox if desired.]
Traffic remained strong on the Hudson River despite competition from railroads starting in the early 1850’s. Curiously the competition worked together with joint ticketing and baggage transfers so that travelers could ride a boat up or down river to any station and then switch to a train. Schedules were arranged to make these transfers convenient at major stops. Many passengers would go to Albany by steamer and then continue their journey by train. New boats were built periodically to maintain a first class level of service.
By about 1900 the Hudson River steamer was more of an excursion vessel than a transportation conveyance. Most passengers rode for scenery or the experience of a steamer ride. Persons intent on travel went by train or automobile. Yet the boats held on year after year. New steamers were constructed up to the time of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. But the business collapsed soon after the end of World War II. The last boat left Albany in September 1948. The Hudson River Day Line, the largest steamboat operation on the river, had been losing money for several years. The next year new owners took over but the few steamers then in service were headed downhill. By 1964, the Alexander Hamilton was the only side wheel steamer in service. On Labor Day, 1971, the Hamilton made her final trip. The steamboat era ended on the Hudson quietly 164 years after its beginning.
The Hudson River steamboat introduced a level of speed dependability and comfort unknown in the travel world. We did it well before anyone else and astonished European technicians with workable yet inexpensive designs and construction techniques. We had dozens of boats in daily service while many European nations were busy starting up their first lines. The French government was so eager to learn what these sons of liberty were up to in marine engineering they sent over a naval architect Jean Baptiste Marestier in 1818 to produce an official report complete with drawings of our pioneer steamers. British and German engineers came over as well to observe firsthand what this background pre-industrial society was up to. Even at mid-century, long after the pioneer efforts of Fulton and his contemporaries were fossilized the British lecturer on science and technology, Dr. Dionysius Lardner wrote this about the magnificent spectacle of the Hudson River boats:
“No spectacle can be more remarkable than that which the Hudson presents for several miles above New York. This skill with which these enormous vessels, measuring from 3 to 400 feet in length are made to thread their way through the crowd of shipping of every description moving over the face of this spacious river, and the rare occurrence of accidents, is truly remarkable. In dark nights these boats run at the top of their speed through fleets of sailing vessels. The bells through which these steers run speaks to the engineer, scarcely ever cease. Of these bells there are several different tones, indicating the different operations which the engineers commanded to make, such as stopping, starting, reversing, slackening, accelerating, etc. At the slightest tap of one of these bells the enormous engines are stopped, or started, or reversed, by the engineer, as though they were the playthings of a child. These vessels proceeding at 16 and 18 miles an hour, are propelled among the crowded shipping with so much skill as almost to graze the sides, sterns, or bows of the vessels among which they pass.”
The sport of racing encouraged designers and the boat builders to find ways of making their next vessel just a little faster than the last. This could be done by tinkering with the hull lines or the shape of the prow or the mechanism of the feathering paddle wheels. The engine and boilers could be enlarged for more power but sometimes it was just luck and the new boat was a natural born flyer that skimmed ahead of the pack and always seemed to arrive a few minutes ahead of time. The pilot might save time by coming up on each landing at a faster speed, sure that he could reverse the wheels and bring her to a safe stop. It was a glorious age of beautiful boats, brave officers dressed like admirals and lovely women in large skirts and wide hats that made the whole scene of steam boating so grand and memorable.
JW: about 4 knots