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Full Steam Ahead: An Exhibition Honoring Robert Fulton and the Era of Steamboats on the Hudson

The Hudson River Valley Review; Regional History Forum Vol 24.1

Full Steam Ahead: An Exhibition Honoring Robert Fulton and the Era of Steamboats on the Hudson
Amanda Hurlburt, Marist ’08

With today’s bustle of gas-powered transportation, one can gaze out across the Hudson River and see nary a passing boat. On occasion, a freighter or cabin cruiser will make their way up the Hudson, while the of oars from the shells of collegiate rowing teams often break the water’s early-morning stillness. Today, we are more likely to travel about in motor vehicles, trains, and airplanes. Food and other goods are transported in similar fashion. But it was not so long ago that the nation’s waterways provided the means for the fastest and most efficient form of transportation. In the northeast, there was the Hudson River, the region’s main highway since the reign of the Algonquin, Mahican, and Iroquois tribes. In 1609 Dutch explorer Henry Hudson sailed up the river looking for a passage to the Orient; it would mark the beginning of two centuries of heightened commerce. With the first Dutch settlements along the Hudson’s banks in the seventeenth century, ferry service began. Throughout the eighteenth century, the river supported a fleet of sloops and whaling ships.1 During the Revolutionary War, American forces used it to ferry troops and supplies.2 By the mid-nineteenth century, its use had reached a new height. The vessel of that era was the steamboat. In 1850, over 150 vessels traveled up and down the Hudson, ferrying as many as a million passengers.3 Freightliners transported coal, ice, lumber, stone, and cement, as well as agricultural goods such as grain, livestock, dairy products, fruit, and hay.4 Horns blared. Flags snapped in the breeze. And a symphony of steam engines was audible up and down the river’s banks.

The Albany Institute of History and Art’s new exhibit, Full Steam Ahead: Robert Fulton and the Age of Steamboats seeks to bring this colorful past back tolife with numerous objects and artifacts from the steamboat era. The Instituteis no stranger to promoting interest in the history and culture in the UpperHudson Valley. Its ties stem to the founding of the Society for the Promotionof Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures in 1791.5 The primary dedication ofthe society was the development of new agricultural techniques; for some timethe organization’s name was simply shortened to the Agricultural Society.6 Butunder Robert Livingston, the future partner of Robert Fulton in the river’s firstsuccessful steamboat enterprise, the society grew more specialized, renaming itselfthe Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts.7 Agriculture was still the focus, buta dedication to the arts gained prominence. The society bounced around the statecapitol in the early 1800s, acquiring books for a small library and a handful ofglass cases to display the mineral collections of its members. With the formationof the State Board of Agriculture in 1815, the society’s need for an agriculturalbasis dropped considerably. By 1824, the society had expanded to the nearbyAlbany Academy building, merging with the Albany Lyceum of Natural History.Thereafter, it was known as the Albany Institute.8 Over the next hundred years,the institute gathered heirlooms, paintings, and other artifacts. In 1907 theorganization moved into its current home on Washington Avenue, one blockwest of the capitol.9 The two-story building by the architectural firm Fuller andPitcher is constructed of brick and Indiana limestone. It sits 100 feet back fromthe street, nestled amongst trees and in close quarters to brownstones and similarBeaux-Arts structures.10 In 1926, the institute officially adopted the title “AlbanyInstitute of History and Art.”11

Now, the institute welcomes 20,000 children and adults annually.12 Its galleries, auditorium, and nearby brick annex (the former Rice mansion and current home of the Laurence McKinney library and the Bryn Mawr Bookshop), set the stage for family programs, lectures, teachers’ workshops, art and history education classes, films, and gallery talks.13 For those out of reach of Albany, the museum offers access to its collections via video conferencing and virtual field trips.14 And from the humble glass cases of mineral collections and a few sparse shelves of donated books that marked the institute’s first steps toward becoming a museum, the AIHA’s holdings are now nationally recognized as the best collection documenting the life and culture of the Upper Hudson Valley region from the late seventeenth century to the present.15 The curatorial collections include more than 20,000 objects, including 1,600 paintings, 1,200 ceramic pieces, 4,000 prints, 1,100 drawings, and 500 pieces of furniture.16 Additionally, the library holdings include over 85,000 photographs, 1,000 linear feet of manuscripts, 140,000 volumes, and 125 periodicals.17 The Institute houses five permanent exhibitions: 19th Century American Sculpture, The Landscape That Defined America: The Hudson River School, Traders and Culture: Colonial Albany and the Formation of American Identity, Sense of Place: 18th and 19th Century Paintings and Sculpture, and Ancient Egypt. Colonial Albany silver, limner portraits, furniture, ceramics, textiles, and manuscripts can be found throughout the museum.18 But the highlight of any trip to the museum this year will likely begin with the new steamboat exhibit.

The exhibition commences in the third-floor Square Gallery. As visitors crest the marble staircase surrounded by salmon-colored walls and white marble statues, they will figuratively stand in the age before steam, a time when travel and freight transport were difficult and expensive. Though the Hudson had long been used as a means of trade and commerce, it had its limitations, and no vessel could yet keep up with the growing demand. Throughout the eighteenth century, residents of the Hudson River Valley relied on sloop and stagecoach, the fastest transportation available. Still, transit time for any great distance took at least several weeks, often several months. There would be no rail service until the 1830s. Dirt roads were seasonally impassable, and rivers and tributaries offered one-way travel.19 Though by the turn of the nineteenth century a sloop could travel roughly five to six miles per hour with the tide, it still had to anchor when wind and tide conditions were unfavorable.20 Women and children rarely traveled long distances.

 As the Society for the Promotion of Arts, Agriculture and Manufactures gathered books and searched for a more permanent residence, a man named Robert Fulton studied abroad in Europe. For some years prior to the turn of the nineteenth century, he tinkered with art and mechanics, submitted proposals for submarines, and toyed with mines and torpedoes. Ultimately, he developed a relationship with Robert R. Livingston, then U.S. minister and plenipotentiary to France.21 At that time, Livingston possessed a legal monopoly for a steam powered boat that could run on the Hudson, but only if he could construct a boat that could run at least four miles an hour.22 He tried the endeavor twice before but was stymied by the mechanics.23 When Livingston and Fulton met in 1802, they discussed plans to build a steamboat that could run from New York City to Albany. Their goals and skills seemed a perfect match. Fulton had the firm grasp on mechanics, which Livingston lacked. He would assist Livingston in the construction of a boat that could meet the four-m.p.h. quota for his monopoly. Fulton also was familiar with a number of prominent French scientists. Livingston, on the other hand, had the financial means and the political clout to make Fulton’s mechanics a reality. For Fulton, who had struggled monetarily, this was a welcome opportunity for paid employment.24 They began working together immediately.25 Through some finagling, they convinced the British government to grant them an export license for an engine from Boulton and Watt, a pivotal acquisition. From then on, Livingston handled the finance and patent, and dealt with customs, while Fulton completed theoretical work and experiments, supervising the construction of the engine and boat.26 They planned for the enterprise they hoped would change river travel forever.

As visitors to the exhibit stand at the glass doors marking the entrance to the Square Gallery, they will hear a soundtrack of whistles and calliopes. (Some of this period music is derived from recordings available at steamboats.org).27 Even the most tentative visitor, standing uncertain in the threshold, cannot help but lean closer, pry open the door—and step into the age of steamboats. A quote from Robert Fulton creeps across the three facing walls: “As the component parts of all new machines may be said to be old…the mechanic should sit down among levers, screws, wedges, wheels, etc. like a poet among letters of the alphabet, considering them as the exhibition of his thoughts; in which a new arrangement transmits a new idea to the world.” Below this quote, the workings of the basic steam engine are first introduced with the mechanical drawings and watercolors by Albany artist/draftsman Richard Varick DeWitt (1800-1868). These drawings illustrate the complexity of the engine, the mechanics of which Livingston could little comprehend. The delicate ink washes on rag paper feature handwritten notations and specifications.28 In 1806, Fulton arrived back in the States to work on the hull of the burgeoning vessel, the North River Steamboat of Clermont. When construction was finally completed in the spring of 1807, the vessel’s dimensions measured 140 feet long, sixteen feet beam, and seven feet depth of hold, with twenty-eight inches draft of water.29 On August 17, 1807, the steamboat set sail from a dock in New York City near the State Prison in Greenwich Village (The prison would close twenty years later, with the opening of Sing Sing upriver).30 A small crowd gathered to watch from shore, a jumble of faces splashed with surprise, fear, skepticism, relief, even jealously. Fulton watched from the deck as his craft completed the first successful steamboat voyage of any substantial distance, chugging along at a respectable five miles an hour. The thirty-two hour trip to Albany passed without serious incident, the boat only stopping briefly for a few minor repairs. Soon after, Fulton wrote to his friend and mentor Joel Barlow that:

The morning I left New York there were not perhaps thirty persons in the city who believed that the boat would even move one mile per hour, or be of the least utility…and although the prospect of personal emolument has been some inducement to me, yet I feel infinitely more pleasure in reflecting on the immense advantage my country will derive from the invention.31

Within weeks, the North River Steamboat was set to ferry passengers up and down the Hudson. The fare for a trip from New York to Albany was seven dollars. (Current visitors to the Albany Institute of History and Art can enter the exhibit for only eight dollars.)32 And though the North River Steamboat has long since made its final trip up the Hudson, studies by DeWitt on display in the Square Gallery provide an accurate depiction of the vessel. In Three Part Study of a Boat, DeWitt shows the North River of Clermont as it first appeared in 1807, and after remodeling in 1808. A series of insets provide a privileged glimpse that most regular passengers would not have been privy to.33 The primary oval inset depicts the original vessel, the middle provides the remodeled boat with covered paddlewheel, and the bottom inset shows the engine and interior of the boat.34

Paintings across from DeWitt’s works offer a new perspective on the North River Steamboat. In depictions by E.L. Henry and Robert Havell, Jr., the faces ofonlookers along the banks are biased with time and nostalgia. In Havell’s 1840 oilpainting The Steamer Clermont, a crowd cheers during the boat’s maiden voyage.In Henry’s 1910 rendering of The Clermont Making a Landing at Cornwall (mostlikely inspired by the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration), there is a similar level ofRomanticism, though the reaction of the crowd is a little more diverse.

In actuality, reactions to this new steamboat were mixed. Resistance came from a handful of Hudson River sloops. Jealous captains seeking reparations for lost profits rammed the steamboat, repeatedly putting it out of service.35 Other captains emphasized the danger of steamboat boiler explosions. A sloop ticket from 1809 (featured in a case below the paintings) promises the traveler the most reliable passage with provisions.36 Certainly, many people were fearful of the large and noisy steamboat and opted for transit by other means. It is said that when sailors of other crafts first found themselves alongside of the steamboat, “gaining upon them in spite of contrary wind and tide, [they] actually abandoned their vessels and took to the woods in fright.” 37 As the boat moved along the river at night, some onlookers prayed, calling it a “monster moving on the waters defying the winds and tide, and breathing flames and smoke.” 38 But a number of people praised the speed and efficiency of the “Steam-Boat,” and its representation in art, news, and journals continued. By 1808, only a year into the North River’s service, a poem had already been written about it. The work is attributed to Fulton’s friend Joel Barlow, an American poet who helped Thomas Paine publish the first part of The Age of Reason in 1795. The poem, The Steam Boat, is scrawled on a sheet of paper today taped together and yellowed with age. “It is the work of fiendish genius/ Nurtured in this western clime,/ Where free-born millions hence delighted/ Shall feel th’inventive power sublime.” 39

But despite mixed reactions and minor setbacks, Livingston and Fulton could finally rest easy by March of 1808. In the case beneath DeWitt’s drawings sits a New York State document extending the monopoly first granted to Livingston in 1798. It gives both partners full reign on the Hudson: exclusive rights to all steam navigation. This meant they now had authority to seize the steamboats of competitors and wield penalties for injury or destruction done to their own.40 The river was cleared for their steamboat dominance.

The right-hand corner of the gallery features engravings of men pivotal to the steamboat enterprise. An engraving by Alonzo Chappel depicts Fulton; one by Asher B. Durand shows Barlow.41 There are also similar miniatures of Richard Varick DeWitt, Daniel Drew (later owner of the People’s Line), and Robert R. Livingston.42 Visitors may pause in front of a May 6, 1814, letter to the Albany Argus in which Fulton advertises the freight service of not only the North River Steamboat, but also two newer vessels: the Paragon and the Car of Neptune.43 Along with the earlier designed Richmond and future designs for the Chancellor Livingston (unveiled in 1816), the Fulton-Livingston steamboat enterprise was on its way to becoming a small fleet. But Fulton would never live to see the vast armada that was to come. A case in the Square Gallery contains an unassuming letter from Robert L. Livingston to his brother, John. Dated February 24, 1815, it reads:

[I] have received the melancholy news of the Death of poor Fulton. He caught a severe cold about a fortnight since in New Jersey, John R. Livingston having prevailed upon him to accompany him to Trenton —he died yesterday morning his loss will be severely felt both by his friends and the public.44

The next decade passed with the unveiling of several new steamships: Demologus (later launched under the name Fulton the First), the DeWitt Clinton, and the final debut of the Chancellor Livingston.45 As visitors move into the adjacent Round Gallery, they will be greeted by letters, photographs, and the works of “port painters,” a group of New York marine artists who painted steamboats on canvas in the style of the Hudson River School painters. (Many of these paintings were later made into prints by Currier & Ives.) The gallery features steamboat portraits by James Bard, Fred Pansing, Joseph B. Smith, Antonio Jacobsen, and Charles Parsons and his son, Charles R. Parsons. They are commonly considered the leading marine artists of the era.46

Rates cheapened with the overturning of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly in 1824. The landmark court case, Gibbons v. Ogden, spurred an age when steamboats were made faster, more efficient, increasingly elegant, and in greater numbers. In 1824 the James Kent could make the journey to Albany in less than half the time of the North River Steamboat’s maiden voyage: fifteen hours and thirty minutes.47 Two years later, the transit time was cut by another three hours. Passages were made both day and night with the addition of sleeping cabins. As visitors to the exhibit move along the walls of the Round Gallery, they enter into a new area of steamboat travel. An earthenware plate honoring Chief Justice John Marshall, presiding judge in the Gibbons v. Ogden case, is one of the many artifacts celebrating the beginning of this whirlwind. This kind of earthenware, produced by English potters Enoch Wood & Sons, was commonly used in the dining rooms of the new independent and passenger-oriented steamships.48 Dinner, dessert, and soup plates all featured the standard dark-blue transfer-printed shell border in the tradition of Staffordshire china.49

By 1863, the Hudson River Day Line offered new luxury in passenger transport on the Hudson. Amidst art displays and chamber music, commuters and tourists took in the majesty of the Hudson. Day Line promotions included the slogan “strictly first class—no freight.” 50 As modern historian and author Donald C. Ringwald writes in Hudson River Day Line: The Story of a Great American Steamboat Company: “No one had seen America until he had seen the Hudson River, and no one had seen the Hudson River properly unless he had done so from the deck of a Day Line steamer.” 51 The Round Gallery contains oil paintings of these magnificent vessels. Also on display are guidebooks such as Disturnell’s Railway and Ship Guide, published by the American News Company in 1865. It features maps and information on fares, distances, and steamer departure times. The 1860s were the golden age of steamboat travel, the era of dinner parties, cotillions, and brass bands. All of this was offered with the elegance of first-class hotels for nominal fares. In the center of the Round Gallery is a mannequin wearing a ball gown restyled from a wedding dress. It was considered the height of high fashion in the grand saloons on board “palace steamers.” 52 A mere century before, women and children seldom traveled alone. Now children ten to twelve years of age would meet friends on deck. Women attended social gatherings on board, and now possessed the means to visit friends and relatives up and down the river. As rail and steam services became widely publicized and accessible, travel became commonplace.

But just as the steamboat rose from obscurity, so too did it fade with the coming of the twentieth century. The gallery slowly comes to an end with a black and white photograph from an unknown photographer. The pictured steamboat, the C.W. Morse, seems almost weary. At 427 feet long and four stories tall, it once was one of the longest side-wheel steamers on the river.53 Eventually, it was sold at auction and dismantled for scrap. The steamboat era disintegrated with the growing use of automobiles and railroads in the 1920s and ’30s, and with the increasingly passenger-oriented air travel system that developed in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Internal combustion engines and electric power came to dominate the travel industry.54 Steamboats became something of a novelty in the 1920s, and the once grand and powerful Hudson River Day Line struggled to find passengers for day-trip excursions to Bear Mountain and Indian Point Park. By the Depression, the Day Line filed for bankruptcy. Despite a brief reprieve during World War II, it was forced to end service on December 31, 1948.55

Today, there are few remaining artifacts from the steamboat era. One can still board the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga in Shelburne, Vermont. It was salvaged from Lake Champlain after service ceased in 1953 and grounded as an addition to the Shelburne Museum. It has since become a National Historic Landmark.56 The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, features cargo and other artifacts recovered from the steamboat Arabia, which once traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and sank in 1856. Online, the curious steamboat enthusiast may explore several virtual exhibits; steamboats.com features hundreds of steamboat photos, links, and other historical data. But when it comes to the history of steamboats on the Hudson, a trip to this exhibit provides the best perspective. It ends with a quote from Mark Twain: “The steamboats were finer than anything on shore. Compared with superior dwelling-houses and first-class hotels in the valley, they were indubitably magnificent, they were palaces.” 57 Ruth Greene-McNally, the curator in charge of this exhibit, tends to agree. When asked what one thing she wanted visitors to come away with after viewing the displays, what sense she wanted them to retain about the era, she said that it was “a vivid sense of steamboat transportation in its ‘heyday’ and the social significance of commercial steamboat service. For the first time, everyday citizens could afford to see the country and own the view of the plentiful Hudson River Valley, and they were able to do so in style.” 58

Endnotes

1. The Hudson River Maritime Museum, Hudson River Whalers http://www.hrmm.org/hudsonny/

hudson_whalers.htm.

2. Rebecca Haynes, “Explore The Hudson Valley’s Rich History,” Hudson River History Tour,

http://www.hudsonriver.com/history.htm.

3. Ibid.

4. Ruth Greene-McNally, “Exhibition Outline,” the Albany Institute of History and Art.

5. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “History of the Albany Institute,” http://www.albanyinstitute.

org/HTML/history.htm.

6. John J. McEneny, Albany: Capital City on the Hudson. (Sun Valley, CA: American Historical

Press, 1998), 131-133.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “History of the Albany Institute,” http://www.albanyinstitute.

org/HTML/history.htm.

10. Diana S. Waite, ed., Albany Architecture: A Guide to the City. (Albany, New York: Mount Ida

Press, 1993), 85-86.

11. John J. McEneny, Albany: Capital City on the Hudson. (Sun Valley, CA: American Historical

Press, 1998), 131-133.

12. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Programs and Events,” http://www.albanyinstitute.

org/events/index.htm.

13. Waite, ed., 85-86.

14. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Education,” http://www.albanyinstitute.org/Education/

index.htm.

15. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Collections: Collecting into the 21st Century,” http://

www.albanyinstitute.org/collections/index.htm.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Continuing Exhibitions,” http://www.albanyinstitute.

org/exhibits/continue.htm.

19. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Gallery Labels”

20. William E. Verplanck and Moses W. Collyer, Sloops of the Hudson. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s

Sons) quoted by The Hudson River Maritime Museum, http://www.hrmm.org/diglib/verplanck/

part1.html.

21. Cynthia Owen Philip, Robert Fulton: A Biography. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1985), 120.

22. Friends of Clermont, “Livingston—Fulton Steamboat Partnership,” http://www.friendsofclermont.

org/steamboat/history.html.

23. Philip, 123.

24. Friends of Clermont, “Livingston—Fulton Steamboat Partnership,” http://www.friendsofclermont.

org/steamboat/history.html.

25. Philip, 124.

26. Ibid. 126

27. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Upcoming Exhibitions,” http://www.albanyinstitute.

org/exhibits/upcoming.htm.

28. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Gallery Labels”

29. John H. Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation. (New York: Stephen Daye Press, 1958),

20.

30. Ibid.

31. Robert Fulton, “Letter to Mr. Barlow.” (n.d.). quoted in John H. Morrison, History of American

Steam Navigation. (New York: Stephen Daye Press, 1958), 23.

32. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Gallery Labels.”

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Alice Crary Sutcliffe, Robert Fulton and the Clermont. (New York: The Century Co.,

1909) quoted by the Hudson River Maritime Museum, http://www.hrmm.org/diglib/sutcliffe/

chapter4-1.html.

38. Ibid.

39. Joel Barrow, “The Steamboat.” (c. 1808), quoted in The Albany Institute of History and Art,

“Gallery Labels”

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Gallery Labels”

44. Robert L. Livingston, “Letter to John Livingston.” (1815), quoted in The Albany Institute of

History and Art, “Gallery Labels”

45. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Gallery Labels”

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. The Hudson River Maritime Museum, “The Hudson River Day Line” http://www.ulster.net/

~hrmm/steamboats/dayline.html

51. Donald C. Ringwald, Hudson River Day Line: The Story of a Great American Steamboat Company

(New York: Fordham University Press, 1965), quoted by The Hudson River Maritime Museum,

http://www.hrmm.org/diglib/ringwald/dayline.html.

52. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Gallery Labels”

53. David Lear Buckman, Old Steamboat Days on The Hudson River (The Gafton Press, 1907), quoted

by The Hudson River Maritime Museum, http://www.ulster.net/~hrmm/diglib/oldsteam/chapter12.

html.

54. The Albany Institute of History and Art, “Gallery Labels”

55. Ibid.

56. The Shelburne Museum, “Steamboat Ticonderogahttp://www.shelburnemuseum.org/collections/

detail.php?id=8.

57. Ibid.

58. Ruth Greene-McNally, museum curator.

 

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