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Old Timers - Boats 
of the Hudson River


Articles were published in the Greene County News from December 1963 to April 1966 and were written by F. Van Loon Ryder.

Transcribed by Sylvia Hasenkopf

December 20, 1963 

Debut of the Towboat 

With the ending of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly, new and luxurious steamboats appeared on the river in unprecedented numbers and it was not long before the owners were faced with the problem of what to do with the outmoded vessels. These older steamboats still had many years of service left and the only purpose for which they seemed suitable was in towing barges and canal boats that handled much of the river’s freight. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 further favored this solution. For this new service many of the once luxurious sidewheelers were stripped of their upper decks, staterooms, the “Grand Staircases’, and other passenger accommodations and entered into a new career. The BELLE, NIAGARA, C. VANDERBILT, ALIDA, AMERICA and SYRACUSE were but a few of the more notable “Palace Steamers” of their careers as towboats.

The first method of towing by these early vessels was accomplished by lashing the barges to the sides of the steamboat, three or four tiers deep and often the towboat would be completely surrounded by as many as 50 barges and the smaller canalboats. The towboat CONNECTICUT, on one occasion set out from New York with 108 barges strung out astern to make a record that has never been broken. At her masthead the CONNECTICUT’S crew had lashed a broom, indicating they had swept the river clean!

Making its way slowly up or down the river the towboat would start out with its barges and canal boats, the latter from the Erie and Champlain waterways, and by the time the tow neared its final destination it would have picked up or dropped off scores of loaded and unloaded barges. Frequently the tow resembled the center of a small village indolently floating downstream. For each of the boats in this flotilla had its human inhabitants, and the boat of the “canaler” was largely his world. He lived on it with his family from the opening to the close of navigation, often maintaining the vessel as his home while in winter quarters. Snugly domiciled in the small stern cabin, the family conducted their lives mush as people elsewhere.

The Captain’s wife washed clothes near her cabin door, keeping one wary eye on her small tot – a line made fast around his middle in case he should topple into the water. Older children clambered from barge to barge with the agility of small monkeys, ducking under the fluttering washlines, invariably followed by a yelping dog. The women exchanged gossip in the manner of women all over the world. The long ears of mules ad horses often appeared from the windows of the forward cabins as these animals enjoyed a well-earned rest from their towpath labors. Windmills, pumping water from the large ice barges, turned lazily in the breeze to further enhance the resemblance of this island community to its land-locked counterpart.

In the evenings, groups of men and women would assemble on one of the barges, and the music of a guitar or concertina would waft across the water; for it was on these weeklong trips to the metropolis that the canalers took their ease, renewed acquaintances and resumed social amenities.

The average fee for towing the canal boats to the “city” was $15, but when competition was cutting prices, the trip could be had for as little as $5. The cargo of these Beaverwyck Tows” as they were generally called by the riverman was likely to be ice, cut out the previous winter and stored in the numerous ice houses that dotted both shores from Rondout to Albany. Or it might be bricks, from the many brick yards, some of which turned out as many as 100,000 a day, formed from the clay of the Hudson River valley. Important too, was hay for the city’s horses – the Third Avenue street car system alone had 3,000 horses stabled for their Horse Trolleys. Coal, wheat and other produce from the fertile upland farms found their way to the metropolis by means of these tows.

Steam towboats were the property of individuals at first but later passed into the hands of incorporated lines. By the year 1830k there was the Swiftsure Line of A. Van Santvoord, the New York and Albany line of John Newton, and the Troy Line of Philip Hart.

Notable among the old towboats was the NORWICH, launched in 1836 and, built for the Norwich-New York run, came to the Hudson in 1843, and after a brief career as a passenger boat, running from Rondout to New York, she was cut down and became a towboat. Because of her staunch construction she was frequently called the “ICE KING” due to her ability to break the river ice and was generally the first to open navigation in the spring and the last to retire for the winter. The NORWICH survived minor disasters and served for nearly a century. Many of the once famous and popular passenger sidewheelers ended their fays in the ranks of these old work horses of the Hudson; laboriously plying the river with their tows while their swifter, grandiose successors took over the passenger traffic. Few sailing vessels larger than schooners called at out ports prior to the year 1816, but soon after this date the American sailing packets from Europe, averaging 600 tons, required service of a small passenger steamboats handled the chore at first until these packets increased in size and number, and even the small clipper ships pointed the way to the construction of sidewheelers specifically designed for towing. The first of these were the OSWEGO, the CAYUGA and the AMERICA. 

Just as the speedier and more luxurious steamboats had pushed them out of the passenger business, the sidewheel towboat was being nudged off the river by the altogether new propeller driven towboats. One by one the old sidewheelers were retied from service. By the early 1900’s the powerful propeller tugs from the Cornell fleet and other lines slowly but inevitably replaced the picturesque sidewheeler towboats.

December 26, 1963

CALLIOPE on the River

In 1855 Joshua Stoddard invented the Steam Calliope and formed the American Steam Music Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, the name “CALLIOPE” was chosen in honor of the Greek Muse – meaning sweet or magnificent __iced. The translation may be misleading but the musical of___ was inescapable for its undulating and enfolding waves of sound could be heard over the countryside for many miles.

The first vessel fitted with this instrument was the towboat UNION, chartered by the Music Company in 1856. For four years several exhibitions were given daily as the UNION sailed around New York harbor and adjacent waters.

The first sale was made to the owners of the GLEN COVE, a passenger sidewheeler on the New York to Albany run. This was undoubtedly the first passenger vessel to have a calliope. Although this particular instrument was of the revolving type it proved a noteworthy success in attracting passengers. Two years later, in 1858, the ARMENIA, another Hudson River sidewheeler, followed with a larger organ having a keyboard of 34 whistles. The CANNONICUS, a Narrangansett Bay sidewheeler also had a calliope early in her career but as it consumed too much steam from her boilers, it was removed after several seasons; the passengers too, complained of the noise although it was quite entertaining to the people ashore. The fourth vessel to boast a steam organ was JAMES RAYMOND, a powerful Mississippi River showboat. The third and probably the last Hudson River sidewheeler to be so equipped was the GENERAL SEDGEWICK.

The Civil War caused as abrupt termination of the American Steam Organ Company and the few calliopes produced during the ensuing 25 years were made by Kirkup and the Van Deusen Bell Works in Cincinnati. In 1872 the West Coast was represented by the steamboat CHIN-du-WAN. After the war, the first Mississippi showboat to have a calliope was French’s NEW SENSATION in 1887. In 1890 Thomas Nichols, formerly Kirkup’s bookkeeper, revived the Cincinnati business and from 1890 to 1928 there was hardly a showboat on Western waters that could not boast a calliope. From 1897 to 1914 Nichols had a worthy competitor in George Kratz, of Evansville, Indiana, whose instruments were reputedly superior in quality and sweetness of tone.

A brief description of his captivating instrument may be of interest: The principle component was a four inch main steam pipe, formed into a V or U, about five feet in length and mounted on a heavy framework about 30 inches above the deck. Along the top of this large pipe or steam chamber was a row of double balanced poppet valves and above the valves were the whistles, ranging in diameter from one to six inches and pitched to produce notes of the scale. The whistles varied in number from about 15 up to, in the largest organs, 58, the average number being 32. On the earlier wheel or crank operated models a cylinder with pins was devised by Stoddard, which acted upon the valve stems when turned, being similar in principle to the cylinder in a mechanical music box. Improvements followed whereby the valve stems were linked to a keyboard, placed across the open end of the V or U, and the calliope was then played like an organ. To feed the correct pressure of steam to the keyboard – generally about ten pounds to the square inch – a reducing valve was used. To play the instrument a soft and very fast touch was needed. And to produce music worthy of the name a quick wit and ingenuity, as well as practice, were essential as the smaller organs lacked a full scale of sharps and flats.

A few of the more famous calliope players were Professor Van de Wyde of the ARMENIA; Newman of the SEDGEWICK; Young of the AMAZON; Choissier of the NEW ERA; Wills (Caliope Red) of the AMERICAN and, last, little Callie French of the NEW SENSATION who “always donned asbestos gloves” beforehand.

The more popular tunes were in order: “The Blue Alsatian Mountains”; “Goodbye, My Lover, Goodbye”; “Turkey in the Straw”; Dixie”; “I’m a Yankee Doodle Boy”; and “My Old Kentucky Home”. “Home Sweet Home” was taboo, as a superstition among river show folk was that the calliope that played this melody would rest on the river bottom before the next sunset.

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