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1824-1860: Better boats and "cut throat" competition

The Supreme Court ruling in Gibbons vs. Ogden was a resounding defeat for the Fulton-Livingston interests, and effectively ended their monopoly. Anyone was now free to build and operate a steamboat on the Hudson River.

This decision launched a massive effort to put steamboats into service on the river, not only for the New York City-to-Albany service, but for steam ferries across the river and local steamboat service for many towns. In 1819 there were only eight steamboats on the Hudson River. By 1840 there were over one hundred.

The court decision also launched an era of technological innovation. The size, speed and comfort of steamboats dramatically increased. These advances, however, were somewhat muted with the commencement of the era of bare-knuckled capitalism in the steamboat business that lasted almost to the eve of the Civil War.

Cornelius Vanderbilt and Daniel Drew, names that by the end of the 19th century were deservedly included in that rogue's gallery of "robber barons," got their start in the Hudson River steamboat business. While the steamboat monopoly granted to Fulton and Livingston had been broken legally, there was no reason a new monopoly could not be rigged. Within a few years, the North River Association was organized by steamboat owners to control passenger service and fares on the Albany-to-New York City run. If anyone dared to compete with them, the association would slash its fares until the competitor gave up. If this didn't work, it would buy out the competitor and then restore the higher fares.

Vanderbilt's steamboats competed with the association's boats and operated so successfully that the association felt compelled to buy him out.

Soon after, Daniel Drew emerged upon the scene in direct competition to the association, but he would not sell out to them. Instead, he battled against them until they sold out to him in 1845. However, Drew's interest in the steamboat business waned within the next decade when he found more lucrative money-making opportunities in the "gold rush" and the "iron horse."

Chief Justice Marshall (Steamboat)

The March 21, 1825 issue of the Cooperstown Watch-Tower reported that the Chief Justice Marshall steam-boat started her maiden voyage from New York City to Albany and Troy on March 15, 1825. The article notes the boat had a barber shop and a reading room.

The freight journal for the boat's first year of operation is owned by the New York State Library.

Transcript of article:

New York Spectator segment on Chief Justice Marshall

The New-York Spectator of the 15th inst. States that the new and elegant Steam-boat Chief Justice Marshall, Capt. Sherman, departs this afternoon, for Albany and Troy, on her first trip. – Captain S. commanded the Steam-boat Phenix, on Lake Champlain, for several years, and from our personal knowledge, he is well calculated to give general satisfaction to passengers.

After having observed the excellent and beautiful accommodations of the Steam Boats already on the Hudson River, we thought very little was wanting to render the accommodation for passengers complete. The Chief Justice Marshall, however, will vie with any boat on our waters, and to the ordinary accommodation for passengers, is added a large room on the upper deck as a reading room, where the papers from the Commercial cities are to be filed – There is a barber shop, and a very convenient room below, called the "washing room," where the water is let in from the river. In this room, bells are placed leading to the waiter's and barber's apartments. Another improvement we noticed, around the upper and lower decks, is a strong net work, which prevents the possibility of children falling over in their playful moments.

Image source:
The article about the steamboat's first trip reproduced in this slide is from the America's Historical Newspapers, 1690-1922 database, which is available at the New York State Library.


The Steamboat Victory

Illustration of the steamboat Victory

Woodcut Illustration of the Steamboat Victory

Built in 1827 for the Albany Steamboat Association to carry passengers and freight between Albany and New York, the Victory measured 139 feet in length. She was reputed to have been the first steamboat with a piano onboard.

Image source: William B. Elmendorf Papers (SC11970) -- Box 1, Folder 3

Thomas Gibbons Papers, 1821-1829

The Thomas Gibbons Papers at the New York State Library consist chiefly of accounts and invoices related to the operation of steamboats BellonaThistleSwan, and Linnaeus, they include details of wages paid to the crew, food and other provisions for crew, and the general maintenance of the boats, as well as many detailed accounts of freight shipments and costs.

Steam Boat Thistle Payroll:

Payroll for the steamboat Thistle

Partial Transcript:

We the undersigned composing the crew of the Steam Boat Thistle acknowledge the receipt of the sum, annexed to our respective [?] names, in full _____[?] for the month of July 1828.

Names Occupations Dolls. Cts.
Francis Miles Engineer 60 00
Elijah Richards Pilot 35 00
D.Haywood Kursiert [?]
Supervisor [?]
30 00
Edward Hubbard [?] Deck Hand 18 00
Edward P. B____ Ditto 18 00
For B___ Bloodgood [?] Ditto 14 00
James Coker Fireman 20 00
Wm. Ryers    Fireman 20 00
Thos. (his X mark) Newport Cook 20 00
Henry (his X mark) C_____   S[econ]d Cook 10 00
Henry (his X mark) Jackson Waiter 14 00
Wm. Henry (his X mark) Reece do [ditto] 6 50
John (his X mark) Banks do [ditto] 12 00
Amelia[?] (her  X mark) White Chambermaid 6 00
for Charles V_____ Deck Hand 5 00
for Charles Simonson [?] Barkeeper 10 00
    $296  50
Last Updated: September 21, 2021