Just as Cleopatra continued her charm for three generations of admiring men, Mary Powell lived 60-years in the affections of many friends, receiving marked respect and holding favor years after most steamboats had been converted to other uses, scrapped or sunk, a notable example of steamboat longevity and appreciation.
The steamboat Mary Powell, built in 1861, sailed on the waters of the Hudson River over a period of 55-years. She was one of the fastest steamboats of her time, was pleasing in appearance, and reliable. She became known as the "Queen of the Hudson."
By the middle of the 19th century, commerce on the Hudson River was particularly vigorous. The Hudson River-Erie Canal corridor was one of the principal gateways to the west. The Delaware and Hudson Canal, opened in 1828, brought coal destined for use in the northeast from Pennsylvania to the Hudson River at Kingston. The railroads were just beginning to appear on the scene, all of which made the steamboat the principal method for the movement of people and freight.
By the 1860s, the section of Kingston bordering the Rondout Creek had become the leading port between Albany and New York. Between 1861 and 1863, three large steamboats were built to take advantage of the booming economy and home ported at the village of Rondout (in 1872 becoming part of the city of Kingston). Two of the steamboats were night boats, carrying of freight and overnight passengers. The third was the Mary Powell, designed as a day steamer solely for the carrying of passengers.
Mary Powell was built for Capt. Absalom Anderson of Kingston in 1860 and named for Mary Powell, of a family identified with Hudson River sailing sloops and steamboats for 100-years. A portrait bust of Mary Powell adorned the pilot house. Michael S. Allison of Jersey City was the builder and the design Capt. Anderson's own - 260-ft length, 34.6-ft beam and 10.3-ft depth of hold. When first introduced, the engine, by Fletcher Harrison & Company, had cylinders 62-in diameter by 12-ft stroke. Boilers were return flue-type with water bottom, located on guards, shell 9.6ft diameter, 11-ft front and 33-ft length. The radial wheels were 31-ft diameter, with 26 buckets, 10.6-ft length and 42-in dip. Mary Powell was lengthened in 1874 to 286-ft length of keel and 300-ft overall.
Mary Powell succeeded Thomas Powell on the Rondout day route established by Capt. Anderson in 1856. For virtually her entire career, her schedule was to leave Kingston early in the morning and make landings at Poughkeepsie, Milton, Newburgh and Cornwall, arriving at her pier in lower Manhattan in the late morning. On her return, she would leave New York at 3:30 pm and arrive back at Kingston in the early evening. Over the years, other landings were made or discontinued as traffic warranted, as did minor time changes in her schedule. The period of operation normally was from mid-May to late September or early October.
Initially, Capt. Anderson apparently was somewhat disappointed in his new vessel's speed. After the close of her first full season in 1862, the Mary Powell was sent back to the shipyard, cut in two, and 21-ft added to her length. The added length achieved the desired result and, thereafter, the Mary Powell was known as one of the fastest boats on the Hudson. Her reputation for speed was such that during the latter part of the 19th century, a number of newly built yachts were brought to the Hudson and run along with the Mary Powell to test the desired speed of the yachts.
The Mary Powell was always superbly maintained and had almost a yacht-like appearance. Known as a "family boat," Capt. Anderson saw to it that all passengers conducted themselves properly. If they did not, it was said they ran the risk of being put ashore at the next landing.
Major Thomas Cornell of Rondout tempted Capt. Anderson with an offer to buy Mary Powell during the winter of 1865-1866. The Major's interest was genuine, but much of his experience was with another kind of steamboating and Commodore Van Santvoord purchased Mary Powell in 1869 from Maj. Cornell in exchange for the towboats Baltic, New York and Oswego and a one-day towing route from Rondout to Albany. Mary Powell was first operated by the Hudson River Day Line for a period of three years.
Next, the Mary Powell Steamboat Company, of which John Brinkerhoff had controlling interest, succeeded to ownership, and Capt. Billy Cornell of Eddyville was commander. Mary Powell reverted to Capt. Anderson in 1872 and was rebuilt in 1874, the engine cylinder increased from 62- to 72-in diameter. The new measurement was 983-tons.
Much discussion has centered upon Mary Powell's speed. One of the best runs was made in August 1867, then commanded by Capt. Fernand Frost, with Andrew Barrett chief engineer. Leaving New York at 3:32, Mary Powell's whistle blew outside Rondout Creek at 7:48 pm, having made five stops, landed 800 passengers and taken on travelers. Poughkeepsie was made from New York, 7 August 1874, in 3-hrs 39.5min (actual running time 3-hrs and 19-mins). Mary Powell, in 1881, made Rondout from New York in 4hrs and 12-mins, distance 92-mi.
George W. Murdock, who spent much of his life aboard Hudson River steamboats, was a member of Mary Powell's engine room staff in 1877, '78 and '79. He tells of three remarkable performances:
"We came out of Vestry Street and, from the time we got the jingle and dropped the hooks, until we were abreast of Piermont, was just 59-mins. This was the fastest time I ever knew her to make, though, to show how consistently she performed, there were two other trips made in 60-min and in 61-min. The distance is exactly 25-mi."
"Dropping the hooks" is engineroom parlance for that instant when the hand valving of the engine is discontinued and the hooks engaging the eccentrics begin the mechanical valving.
A race between Mary Powell and the Heffeshoff high-speed steam yacht Stiletto was staged 10 June 1885, when Stiletto came down from Bristol, Rhode Island, with Charles F. Herreshoff, father, and his sons, James B., John Brown, Nathaniel and Francis, aboard, with Gray fireman. Stiletto was 94-ft length, 11-ft beam and 7.9-ft depth of hold, powered with inverted compound condensing-type engine with cylinders 12.6- and 21-in diameters, of annular type, allowing large valve openings, and the boiler was sectional water tube-type 7-ft by 7-ft carrying 160-lbs of steam. Stiletto turned a four-blade wheel, 4-ft diameter, 400-rpm, and the fuel was egg coal.
The New York Morning Journal reported the start, opposite Hay's Soap Works: "Jing-aling-aling, sounded Stiletto's bell and, with almost a bound, she leaped forward. But Mary Powell was going very fast and crept up and up on Stiletto. It was a moment of intense excitement. Like the Prairie Belle 'on the Missip,' the Powell had never been passed. Brave old Capt. Anderson, whose pet she was for years, was not on board or his heart would have warmed to see this last word of science dropping back from his lovely queen. Cheers break out from the passengers on the Powell and handkerchiefs are waved."
When Sing Sing was reached, Stiletto was ahead, making the run in 1-hr and 15-minutes and, 5-min. later Mary Powell passed. Stiletto made Tarrytown in 63-min. Mary Powell continued up the river. Whether Stiletto could have gone a further distance at the same clip is debatable. The Heffeshoffs were satisfied and the victory brought no discredit to Mary Powell, then 25-years old.
Guernsey Betts was long Mary Powell's pilot. He could tell with certainty what she would do in every circumstance. There were landings on the river where peculiar tide eddies formed. Betts could put Mary Powell alongside Milton dock, while a gangway was run ashore; leave off and take on passengers, without making fast a single line. Few steamboats had the same ability to jump into full speed once the go-ahead bell sounded, her best clip in two lengths.
Mary Powell brought Gen. Custer's body and the distinguished funeral party from Poughkeepsie to West Point for interment of the remains upon the reservation in the late 1870s. The crowd taxed capacity beyond safe limits and, approaching West Point landing, moved to the shore side, carrying Mary Powell over to a dangerous angle. The boilers, being high up on the guards, did not give stability and there was a foot of water in the fire room, port side. The funeral party was soon ashore and the lines held, averting a tragedy.
Mary Powell was once struck by a cyclone and carried out of her course broadside against the rushing wind and tumbled about in what was probably the worst storm in man's experience on the Hudson, drifting 2-mi, Mary Powell lost her stacks before Pilot Betts could get her headed straight again.
The fiction that Mary Powell had but two commanders in her long career is difficult tie down, though the record shows many good shipmasters: Absalom Anderson, Billy Cornell, Fernand Frost, Elting Anderson, Will Van Woort and Captain Warrington, Mary Powell's last master.
With Mary Powell safely berthed in Rondout Creek for the winter, Capt. Anderson once embarked on a vacation - a steamboat trip up the Nile. The Scottish commander noted him standing on the upper deck and inquired if he was an American steamboat man. Captain Anderson assenting, the steamer's master said, "I only know of one American steamboat - the Mary Powell." "That's my ship," said Capt. Anderson with pride for Mary Powell's international reputation.
That Mary Powell should have lived so long, giving enjoyment to great numbers through many years, is explained from the care she always received. Summer seasons were short and the winter lay-up in Rondout Creek was painstaking, and she continued to be her best. It seemed as if she refused to grow old, and even when old age forced itself upon recognition, Mary Powell acknowledged her years gracefully just as she had done everything else.
Mary Powell was broken up at Kingston in 1923 by John A. Fisher for scrap salvage, but lives in Hudson River steamboat memories for the distinguished place she occupied through many years. Latterly, there were steamboats capable of passing Mary Powell, boats with just enough more speed to go by her - but no steamboat ever did.
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Source: Sea Classics