The once and future age of steam on the Hudson
By Ron Soodalter
If you were standing on the east bank of the Hudson River nearly one hundred years ago, gazing across at a bridgeless Bear Mountain, you would have seen an impressive flotilla of large passenger steamboats, each waiting its turn to offload thousands of tourists. Since 1807, when Robert Fulton made steam-powered water travel commercially viable — no, he didn’t invent the steamboat; he was simply the first to make it pay — the Hudson River towns came to rely on steamboats for their goods, services and visitors.
The boats ranged in size from the smallest launch to leviathans such as the St. John, whose 418-foot length made her the world’s largest inland steamer. For the first time in human history, water travel no longer depended upon the organic power of wind, tide or a strong arm. Speed of passage became relatively predictable; as historian Tom Lewis wrote in his definitive book, The Hudson, “The steamboat made saving time sacred.”
It also brought the exquisite beauty of the Hudson Highlands home to millions of sightseers and tourists from all over the globe, and it did so in style. For New York City folk, it provided the perfect getaway — a single-day trip from a Gotham dock to Albany, with stops along the way, or a glorious first-leg excursion to a rustic “mountain-house” vacation. For nearly 170 years, steam travel became all things to those whose business and pleasure lay on the Hudson River. Even after the advent of gasoline- and diesel-powered boats and trucks, and the installation of a railroad line from New York City to Albany, steamboats of all types plied the river. It was not until the 1970s that the last side-wheeler on the Hudson made her final trip. She had been christened the Alexander Hamilton, and by this time, nearly all her sisters had sunk, burned, foundered or been scrapped or sold to China or the Bahamas.
Now, all the excursion steamboats are gone — all, that is, except one. The SS Columbia — the nation’s oldest surviving passenger steamer — was built in Detroit in 1902 by Frank E. Kirby, the most celebrated naval architect of his day. Her steel hull is 216 feet long, with a 60-foot beam and an 11-foot draft. In her prime, the propeller-driven steamer was powered by a huge 1,200-horsepower steam engine, and her five decks could accommodate some 3,200 passengers in high style. Paneled in mahogany, with an open-air ballroom, gilt moldings, a grand staircase, and walls hung with fine examples of the Hudson River School of Art, Columbia epitomized the grace and elegance of the Gilded Age.
The Columbia was retired in 1992, after 90 years of service on the Detroit River, and for the next several years, she lay neglected. Her ceiling-mounted life jackets lost their flotation, which crumbled, fell and blanketed the decks. Her metal fixtures corroded; her impressive hull began to rust. After years of inattention, the Columbia was designated a National Historic Landmark Vessel by the federal government.
Then, six years ago, several enthusiasts formed a not-for-profit organization — the SS Columbia Project (SSCP) — with the intention of buying the vessel and ocean-towing it to the Hudson River, where the Columbia would “provide enriched public access to the cultural, scenic and environmental resources of the Hudson Valley, revitalize our waterfront communities through responsible heritage tourism, and educate the public by creating a unique floating museum and resource.” The project was the brainchild of Richard Anderson, a New York-based art dealer and dynamo who fell in love with the idea of rescuing the Columbia, and giving it new life on the Hudson.
The board members of the SSCP envision a fully restored steamboat, with its large ballroom and salons providing venues for concerts, lectures on the region, and art and history exhibits. The boat will become a floating museum, gallery and historic facility, all in one. The plan would be for the Columbia to steam out of Manhattan’s 79th Street boat basin, and stop at various river towns on its way north. Said SSCP board member Fred Osborn, a descendant of both steamboat magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and Robert Fulton’s partner Robert Livingston, “It’s not just a boat ride. It will convey you to historic sites all along the river, such as Sunnyside, Bannerman Island, the Foundry Cove Preserve, and the Incline Railway. Our goal is to impart a 19th-century aesthetic, using 21st-century technology.”
The plans for the Columbia are ambitious indeed, calling for millions of dollars in contributions and matching funds. Thus far, the vessel has been stabilized, and the roofs and exposed decks covered with water-resistant roofing membrane. Osborn estimates an outlay of $1,000,000 to prepare the Columbia for an ocean tow, and to haul it out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, around Nova Scotia, and into the Hudson. Once here, it will require another $10-11 million to restore her.
It is a massive and costly undertaking, and much remains to be done. The project — and the board itself — suffered a major setback in January, when leading light Richard Anderson died unexpectedly. Board members, however, are determined to proceed. Said Osborn, “Richard’s death was devastating. But we have a strong board, and we are all convinced it’s do-able.”
At this juncture, the SSCP has a commitment of matching funds from New York state, as well as the enthusiastic support of such preservation-minded organizations as the National Marine Historical Society and the Hudson River Foundation. If all goes according to plan, the Columbia will be in dry-dock for preparatory work by April, and in New York by fall. If the project succeeds, the benefits to the region would be incalculable for both residents of and visitors to the Hudson Valley. And the steamboat’s whistle will be heard once again on the river.