Riding upstate on the Hudson River Day Line

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During the last half century, an escape to upstate New York has usually meant a drive up the Thruway or Taconic, or a train ride on Amtrak or MetroNorth. But in the early 20th century, ferries shuttled New Yorkers between Manhattan and points along the Hudson, from Indian Point to Albany.

I was reminded of this earlier this month when, on a road trip upstate, I came across a postcard depicting the Hudson River Day Line Steamer “Hendrick Hudson.” Sent to a Mrs. R Tyde in Stephentown, NY, on July 26, 1950, the back of the card reads, “Dear Folks, Spending the day in Bear Mountain. We had a nice trip up and a nice dinner when we got here. Love to all, Claire, Eleanor and Margie.

That nice trip came near the end of a long, slow decline of a Hudson River steamer industry that had peaked a quarter century earlier.

Launched on March 31, 1906, the $1 million Hendrick Hudson was billed as the “grandest and swiftest river steamer in the world.” At 400 feet in length and 82 feet wide, the steamer had six decks and could hold more than 5,000 passengers, “a capacity equal to that of the five largest hotels in New York City.”

A booklet announcing the launch continued,

On the hurricane deck are large observation rooms, Convention Hall, all enclosed in plate glass, giving an uninterrupted view of both sides of the river. The after observation room can be reserved and rented as a convention room.

The grand promenade around these rooms is probably the most commodious afloat, one seventh of a mile in circuit, while the enormous main saloons and dining room, finished in mahogany, will be tempting in their elegant luxury. A string band will occupy a stand suspended in an opening in the saloon deck forward, so placed that the music will be heard also in the forward part of the main deck, which will be finished in French gray oak. Three thousand people can sit comfortably within earshot of the orchestra. Besides these great saloons there will be fourteen large parlors and ten smaller rooms, all artistically decorated. On the shade deck there will be two Louis XVI drawing rooms in ivory enamel and gold. On the saloon deck there will be two Japanese rooms, four in quartered oak after the style of Art Nouveau, two Dutch rooms in oak, two French Empire parlors in mahogany and gold, and two in the colonial style in poplar and mahogany.

There will be a large teakwood writing room and a woman’s boudoir in white mahogany. The central feature of the interior will be the grand stairway, surmounted by a stained glass dome.

The Hendrick Hudson was part of a fleet of several steamers that cruised up and down the Hudson beginning in the late 1800s with Albert VanSantvoord’s founding of the Hudson River Day Line. Steamers brought passengers not just to Albany, Bear Mountain and West Point, but also to amusement parks at Kingston Point and Indian Point. Service peaked in 1925, with two million passengers riding a fleet of seven steamboats.

First the Great Depression, then the proliferation of the automobile, brought a decline in passengers traveling the Hudson—with the exception of a brief surge during World War II due to gasoline rationing.

Under the headline “Hudson Day Line Ends 85-Year Run,” the New York Times announced on Nov. 9, 1948, that “economics and the automobile have scuttled the Hudson River Day Line.

However, the following May, operations resumed under new management, “with its four excursion vessels refurbished and gleaming under coats of fresh paint, according to a May 25, 1949, article in the Times.

The Hendrick Hudson, however, did not last. On June 3, 1951, the Times reported its sad ending:

The once famous Hudson River steamer Hendrick Hudson, whose decks have been trod by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages in four decades of providing pleasure for those in the metropolitan area, will start her final voyage tomorrow morning.

As a towline is put aboard from the McAllister Brothers tugboat John E. McAllister at Pier 81, North River, the vessel will begin one of the longest trips of her career—to Philadelphia—where the shipbreaker’s hammers will turn her into scrap.

The article also states that the Hudson never sailed under its new owners. If that’s true, then Claire, Eleanor and Margie did not ride it to Bear Mountain. Perhaps they sailed on one of the Hudson River Day Line’s other three remaining ships, the Robert Fulton, Peter Stuyvesant or Alexander Hamilton.

The Hudson River Day Line ceased operations for good in 1971

As Roger Mabie stated in a description written for the Hudson River Maritime Museum,

On the morning of September 13, 1948, the “Robert Fulton” left Albany on a routine last day of the season down river trip, making all of the usual landings. Shortly thereafter the Hudson River Day Line announced it was ceasing all operations. Ironically, a man named Robert Fulton started New York to Albany steamboat service and a boat bearing the name “Robert Fulton” ended it. It was the end of an era

A successor company did acquire three of the old Day Line vessels and operate them mostly on the southern end of the River. At first, there were three, then two, and finally one—the “Alexander Hamilton” which made the last landing on Labor Day 1971.

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