The following texts are excerpts from various descriptions of racing steamboats on the Hudson River in 1830s, during the heyday of such speed trials.
“Racing On The Hudson,” Cortland Standard, September 25, 1909: “When steamboating was successfully established on the Hudson River it was natural that the owners and skippers of the various crafts that plied between New York and Albany should turn their attention to speed. Racing between boats of rival lines soon became a matter of almost daily occurrence.
“So keen grew the rivalry to cut down the time that these contests attracted as much attention and caused excitement equal to the famous contests of the halcyon days of navigation on the Mississippi…. they sometimes took long and desperate chances. Occasionally one boat would ram another, the furnaces were crammed with pitch pine and inflammable substances, landings were omitted and boats frequently left their docks before their advertised time, if by so doing they could gain a point on another boat. Newspapers and citizens inveighed against racing, but with little effect… a meeting [was] held in the Capitol at Albany in 1832 to condemn ‘the practice of steamboat racing.’
“…the New Philadelphia broke the record in June, 1831: ‘She made the actual passage in 9 hours and 44 minutes. She made five landings, which occupied her thirteen minutes, so that the actual time in making the passage was only 9 hours and 31 minutes. This is the quickest passage ever made, we believe, between the two cities.’ The star events on the river in 1832 were the races between the North America [launched in 1829] and the Champlain [launched 1832], a new boat, in which the North America was victorious. In their final brush in September the results were: ‘The North America left New York at twenty and the Champlain at forty-five seconds, past 7 a.m. and arrived at Albany the former at 4:18 and the latter at 4:26 p.m., with a strong head wind and not a favorable tide through. The North America came to and landed passengers at Newburgh, and also landed-passengers at Hudson with her boat. The Champlain made no landings. It will be perceived that the North America beat the Champlain about eight minutes, exclusive of the time occupied in making the two landings, performing the passage in 9 hours 17 minutes and 40 seconds.’ Later the Champlain laid claim to a trip in the ‘figured time’ of 8 hours and 43 minutes. Which, if true, was a record…”
New-York Evening Post, June 1831: “We are sorry to learn that the practice of putting certain steamboats to a competition of speed, on the North River, has been resumed this season. This practice is in itself highly reprehensible, and in the present state of alarm, in consequence of the late fatal explosion on board the General Jackson [in 1831], it is an act of disrespect to the passengers, and to those of a more timid make, particularly ladies, an act of absolute cruelty. If the proprietors of the boats engaged in this practice were to give fair notice – if they were to advertise that on such a day there would be a trial of speed between certain boats – that people would not then be landed at Colwell’s [near Peekskill] and West Point, and other usual landing places along the river – that the steam would not be let off at the few places where the boats stopped to leave or take in passengers; and that those only who were willing to risk their lives under such circumstances, were desired to become passengers, then all would be fair.
“Those who liked to witness the sport, and were willing to run the hazard of being blown up, could then go on board; and those who preferred a safe and comfortable passage, could take some other boat. Besides the alarm and terror of the passengers, there are other inconveniences. A gentleman sets out with his family, on a trip of pleasure, to go to West Point. In spite of his remonstrance, he is carried by West Point, and landed at Newburgh, amidst a mob of people, assembled at the wharf to witness the race between the boats. Here he is obliged to stay in a grog shop for several hours, waiting for a boat to come along and take him down again to his place of destination. In the meantime, his only amusement is to witness the tumultuous excitement which the strife between the boats has created among the people who are divided into regular factions on the subject; and who celebrate, as we are informed, the victory of a favorite boat, with discharges of rockets, and other fire-works.”
Racing On The Hudson: “In opposition to an association of steamboat owners who had controlled traffic on the river, the Nimrod and the Emerald went on the route in 1834 under the auspices of a new company. It was nip and tuck between the boats of the opposition lines that summer and also in 1835. The Emerald and the North America ran on the same schedule, and the run to Albany or down to New York was usually enlivened by the endeavors of the captains of the boats to get the better of each other, by fair means or foul. The Emerald usually started a few minutes before the North America, and if overtaken would try to crowd the North America out of the channel by crossing her bows. It was usually the slower boat which adopted such tactics. One day the Emerald and the North America came together with a crash near Coxsackie. The North America was disabled, while the Emerald, although crippled, managed to limp on ahead, temporarily triumphant.
New-York Evening Post, Sept. 1834: “We left Albany at half-past six this morning, in the steamboat Champlain. There is a violent opposition between two lines of boats. The fare to New York is fifty cents. We were contending with the Nimrod all the way down, and for five or six miles before we reached Hyde Park landing, the boats were in contact, both pushing furiously at the top of their speed, and we and our trunks were pitched ashore like bundles of hay. The people at the landing being all in favour of the opposition, except Dr. Hosack himself, nobody would take a line, and we might have drowned without an arm being reached to save.”
The Diary of Philip Hone, Sept. 1834: “We left Hyde Park and came on board the Champion, an opposition boat, at half-past twelve o’clock. The Albany, passed the landing a few minutes in advance, but did not stop. Our boat had three or four hundred passengers, and such a set of ragtag and bobtail I never saw on board a North-river steamboat — the effect of the fifty-cent system. If the people do not rise up in their might and put a stop to the racing and opposition, it will be better to return to the primitive mode of traveling in Albany sloops. I would rather consume three or four days in the voyage, than be made to fly in fear and trembling, subject to every sort of discomfort, with my life at the mercy of a set of fellows whose only object is to drive their competitors off the river.”
Racing On The Hudson: “Two new boats were brought on the line in 1836 and 1837, the Rochester and the Swallow. Both were out for blood from the beginning, and their contests afforded food for along-river gossip for several years. By steaming from New York to Albany on October 8, 1836, in 8 hours and 42 minutes the Swallow became the queen of the river and was advertised as ‘the fastest steamboat in the world.’ This distinction also was claimed for the Rochester. The logical outcome was a race which came off on November 1. Thousands of dollars were wagered on the result. Before the start the boats were groomed like thoroughbreds, superfluous weight was discarded, and the moat inflammable substances, pitch pine, tar, turpentine and grease, stood ready to be fed into their furnaces. It was the Rochester’s day. She not only kept her rival trailing most of the way, but established her right to be called “the fastest steamboat in the world” by making the run in 8 hours and 20 minutes. It was said for the Swallow that she led as far as Coxsackie, where her machinery became disarranged, causing her to lose a lead of six minutes, and the race.
“Nearly a year elapsed before the Swallow and the Rochester again tried conclusions. The Swallow redeemed herself, according to a contemporary newspaper account, as follows: ‘There was a beautiful trial of speed last night between the steamboats Swallow and Rochester, which are undoubtedly the fastest two boats in the world. They came out of their berths In New York together, and for twenty miles ran neck and neck, neither gaining nor losing a foot. The Swallow, however, finally glided ahead, and continued to gain gradually until she arrived here at half-past two o’clock, the Rochester being eight minutes behind. The Swallow made five and the Rochester six landings. There was a strong ebb tide most of the way. Had the boats left with a favorable tide they would have come through in eight hours.’
“The time was brought down below eight hours, in 1839 by the Swallow, the Rochester and the Albany. The Swallow‘s best running time, deducting stops, was 7 hours and 41 minutes, while the Albany pressed her mark with 7 hours and 49 minutes. The Rochester steamed to Albany in 8 hours and 35 minutes, with no deductions for stoppages, which was called ‘the greatest speed ever known.’ When the Albany made the distance in 8 hours and 27 minutes, including all stops, there was claimed for her the record for day boats up to that time.”
William C. Redfield, letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, 1839: “Steamboat Racing. This subject appears to have attained an importance in public estimation to which it has no just claims. That there have been instances of misconduct attending these competitions, I have myself witnessed ; and such instances are, doubtless, somewhat common. But that they are usually instrumental in putting in jeopardy the lives of passengers, is chiefly a bugbear of the imagination, which has been fostered by the public press till it passes on all occasions for reality. It does not appear to be generally understood, that the boilers of steamboats, if properly constructed, and particularly of those boats which carry large engines and work their steam expansively, are utterly incapable of generating a sufficient supply of steam to endanger the safety of the boiler while the engine is employed.
“The whole combination of parts in a properly constructed steam vessel is such as to allow, if not require, all the heat which can be applied to the boiler, with no other check than is afforded by considerations of economy; and the engine is competent to receive and work, with entire impunity to the boiler, all the steam which can by any means be thus generated. The entire structure is expressly designed for the attainment of the greatest possible degree of speed; and while this is aimed at, under the general restriction before mentioned, the parties in charge are only laboring in their proper vocation; provided always, that their conduct in other respects is judicious and proper, and that the vessel be navigating in smooth water of sufficient depth.
“Of the various disasters of our steam navigation, I can recollect but a single case in which the explosion of a boiler could reasonably be referred to racing ; and even in this case, it is probable that the disaster only occurred a few days or weeks sooner than it might otherwise have done.* I would by no means become the apologist of misconduct in this or any other matter; but it is time that the indiscriminate and sickly outcry which is so often raised on this subject should cease; for it is obvious that it can answer no other purpose than to increase the discomfort and terrors of weak and uninformed persons, or to furnish the occasion for a proscriptive paragraph in a public journal.
“The public have a real interest in the personal comfort and rapidity of steam navigation, which ought not to be trifled with in a senseless manner. These remarks are particularly applicable to the state of steam navigation in this quarter of the Union. Every calling and pursuit in life is a race. The politician, the jurist, the artisan, and the mariner, all justly aim to accomplish the greatest ends in the shortest period. Why are not the enterprising commanders of our packet ships arraigned before the bar of the public or subjected to penal enactments by Congress, for the unprecedented zeal and success with which, in late years, they have driven their ships through the waves of the Atlantic, in the face of dangers and of storms. Plainly, because those who have but little knowledge of seamanship do not attempt to control its operations. *I refer to a case on the river Ohio.”
Thanks to Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer researcher George A. Thompson for finding and transcribing the articles from the New-York Evening Post and the Diary of Philip Hone.
Illustrations, from above: Currier & Ives’ 1874 “American Steamboats on the Hudson – Passing the Highlands” (Library of Congress); a painting of the North America, the second by that name launched in 1839; and steamboat Champlain (courtesy Hudson River Maritime Museum collection).
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