This article, “Tows on the Hudson. The Great Fleets of Freight Boats That Come Down the River,” first appeared in the August 18, 1889 edition of The New York Times. It was transcribed by Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer Carl Mayer and annotated by John Warren.
Very few persons who journey up and down the Hudson River either upon the palatial steamers or upon the railway trains that run along both banks of this great waterway know how great an amount of wealth is daily floated to this [New York] city on the canal boats and barges that compose the immense tows that daily leave West Troy [now Watervliet], Lansingburg, Albany, Kingston, and other points along the river bound for this city.
Twice each day — early in the morning and in the evening — a large number of tows made up of boats that have come through the Erie Canal from Buffalo, the Northern Canal [the Champlain Canal] from points along Lake Champlain as far north as Rouse’s Point, and through the Delaware and Hudson Canal from the anthracite coal regions of Lackawanna and Wyoming, in Pennsylvania, leave the above places in tow of huge side-wheel towboats and of puffing little screw propeller tugs, all moving toward one objective point, which is New-York City.
Frequently these tows will be bunched together, so that, within a distance of three or four miles on the river, there can be seen several hundred barges and canal boats afloat carrying in their holds hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise, produce, lumber, grain, and ore. Many of these single tows contain as much as 100 boats, and sometimes a larger number, marshaled six and eight abreast, and reaching back at least a quarter of a mile from the stern of the leaders to the sterns of the last boats. Few persons would believe it, if told that enough freight was carried in a single tow of this kind to load a couple of dozen large trains of freight cars; yet such in the case.
During the past week several such tows have arrived from Albany in tow of the powerful tugs of the Schuyler Steam Towboat Line of 15 South-street. Their largest steamer, the huge side-wheeler Vanderbilt, only a few days ago brought down from Albany 120 grain barges, each barge carrying from 8,000 to 10,000 bushels of grain, weighing 240 tons, with a gross tonnage for the entire tow of nearly 40,000 tons.
On Tuesday last one of their smaller boats, the Belle, Capt. John Oliver, assisted by the propeller James T. Easton, brought seventy-four boats from Albany and Troy, many of them laden with iron ore from Lake Champlain, while the others were loaded with grain and lumber and lying so low in the water that much of the time they were partially submerged. The gross tonnage of this tow was over 25,000 tons.
In taking a trip from this city to Albany, frequently as many as fifty of these tows are passed, it taking about thirty-six or forty hours for them to reach port at this city after leaving Albany. From Kingston, which is the tide-water outlet of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, another class of merchandise is shipped in the same manner.
From the mouth of the Rondout Creek, which forms the harbor of the thriving and busy city of Kingston, can be seen emerging every evening huge rafts of canal boats, tall-masted down-Easters [sloops], and barges of various sorts, laden with coal, ice, hay, lumber, lime, cement, bluestone, brick, and country produce. Many of these craft have received their cargoes at the wharves of Kingston, while others have come from the coal regions about Honesdale and Scranton, in Pennsylvania, all bound for this port and consigned to, perhaps, as many different persons as there are boats in the tow.
Of the heaviest part of the traffic of the entire river at least two-thirds is monopolized by the two great towing companies, the Cornell Transportation Company of Kingston and the Schuyler Steam Towboat Line of Albany. The Schuyler Company practically has a monopoly of the trade coming from the Erie and Champlain Canals at Albany and Troy, as well as the towing for the Pennsylvania Coal Company from Newburgh, while the Cornells hold in a tight grasp the business of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company from Kingston, both north and south, on the river. The business of the Knickerbocker and other ice companies, which is something immense in volume, is scattered about among individual towboat owners, the two companies spoken of above, and several smaller towing lines.
On the arrival of the tows that come from various points up the river at this port a complete transformation takes place from the sleepy quiet that has reigned on the boats while slowly, but steadily, on their way creeping down the river. As soon as a large tow is sighted far up the river, a number of tugs belonging to the various towing lines in the harbor start with a full head of steam and race with each other to reach the tow.
Each tug carries orders from the consignee of some particular boat to take it from the tow and place it in some selected berth. The boats to be dropped first from the tow are always placed on the outside or on the tail end, and as soon as the tugs reach them they begin to cast off and the tow begins to break up. They are then picked up by the tugs sent for them and taken to their several destinations.
The boats from the Albany tows, laden with flour and grain, are mostly taken to the piers along the East River from Pier 3 to Coenties Slip, the Erie and Atlantic Basins, and the elevator docks at Dow’s stores in Brooklyn. The boats laden with lumber, brick, cement, lime, building material, and bluestone from Kingston and other points are docked at the brick, stone, and lumber yards along the North [Hudson] and East Rivers, the coal barges go to Weehawken and Perth Amboy, and the ice barges to various stations along the North and East Rivers.
Among the famous towboats plying between this city and up-river points are the America, Anna, Belle, Cayuga, Connecticut, Niagara, Ontario, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Oswego, Mount Washington, Austin, Sammy Cornell, James T. Easton, the famous old ice king the Norwich [known as an important ice breaker], and many others. Many of these boats have labored upon this great waterway for at least thirty years, and some of them for a longer period.
They have earned fortunes for their owners, and have also furnished employment for a huge army of men whose lives have been spent on the river and whose occupation promises to descend to their children in turn. The wealth that has been transported to this city in tow of this fleet of steam vessels is incalculable, and probably far exceeds if not doubles that of any other waterway in the world.
Photos, from above: “Hudson River. A tow just north of West Point” postcard (Hudson River Maritime Museum); Sidewheel steam towboat with a tow made up of barges and schooners (Donald C Ringwald Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum); and Rondout Creek Railroad Bridge with tug Callanan No 1 and tow (Hudson River Maritime Museum).