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Hudson River Day Line and the Golden Age of Steamboat Travel (1863-1948)

Of the many Hudson River steamboat lines, the Hudson River Day Line was the one which became the best known in this country and abroad. Its "white flyers" were famous for their elegance and speed, and they provided the most enjoyable way to travel the Hudson River. No one could claim to have seen America without seeing the Hudson River, and the only way to properly see the Hudson River was from the deck of a Day Liner. Important foreign guests were taken for steamboat rides soon after their arrival in New York.

The company stressed "passengers only" and so it achieved a cachet of elegance the freight carriers could not boast. It reached its zenith of operations in the 1920s, at which time it had the largest and finest fleet of steamers to be found on any river. The hard times of the 1930s began the decline of the line as a through carrier to Albany, despite a flurry of activity during World War II.

On September 13, 1948, the Day Line steamboat Robert Fulton made its last run from Albany to New York City, bringing to an end the era of gracious steamboat travel on the Hudson River. This event also marked the end of regular steamboat service on the Hudson River between New York and Albany that had begun with Robert Fulton’s maiden voyage of the Clermont in August 1807.

The Hudson River Route brochure and map.

Steamer Alida 

The exodus of Drew and Vanderbilt as major players in the steamboat business provided an opportunity for smaller, independent operators to offer day-boat service between New York and Albany. 

Alfred Van Santvoord was one of the entrepreneurs who seized this opportunity. He bought the steamboat Alida and entered the day boat business in 1856. Another steamboat, the Armenia, owned by Captain Isaac Smith, also ran between Albany and New York, with little interference to Van Santvoord's boat. (When the Alida was going upriver, the Armenia was going down river.)  Although independently owned, the two boats provided regular service.

Steamer Daniel Drew

image of daniel drew steamboat

In 1860, the steamboat Daniel Drew, owned by Daniel Drew, entered day boat service, but Drew soon sold his interest. It then was purchased at auction in 1863 by Alfred Van Santvoord and his partners, John McB. Davidson and Chauncey Vibbard, to operate as a day boat.  The Daniel Drew was one of the best boats on the river, and Van Santvoord announced he would soon build a new steamboat to run with the Daniel Drew

Facing this threatened competition, Captain Smith sold the Armenia to Von Santvoord. The steamers Daniel Drew and Armenia began to operate as day boats between Albany and New York on the same schedule as a single line. This combined operation was the beginning of the Hudson River Day Line.

Image source: Daniel Drew, photograph, ca.1870s
William B. Elmendorf Papers – SC11970, Box 3, Folder 1)

Steamer Mary Powell – “Queen of the Hudson

image of mary powell steamboat

Most beloved of all the steamboats on the Hudson River, and perhaps the best-known American side-wheeler of the nineteenth century, was the Mary Powell. Honored as the “Queen of the Hudson” for her style and speed, she dominated the river, becoming the standard of comparison not only for other passenger vessels but also for private steam yachts.

The Mary Powell, built in 1861, sailed on the waters of the Hudson River over 55 years. For virtually her entire career, she left Kingston early in the morning, made landings at Poughkeepsie, Milton, Newburgh and Cornwall, and arrived at her pier in lower Manhattan in the late morning. For her return trip, she would leave New York at 3:30 p.m. and arrive back at Kingston in the early evening.

The Mary Powell had but two captains for most of her years of operation: Captain Absalom Anderson and his son, Captain A. Eltinge Anderson. Known as a "family boat," Captain 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.

Image source: (Fred B. Abele Transportation History Collection
SC22662, Box 26, Folder 11a)

Letter of Captain A. Eltinge Anderson to William B. Elmendorf, June 9, 1906

Steamer Chauncey Vibbard

image of chauncey vibbard steamboat

In the first full season of the Day Line in 1864 the steamer Chauncey Vibbard was launched and paired with the Daniel Drew to provide regular steamboat service between New York and Albany. Service was offered six days a week, but never on Sunday. As one of the steamboats was traveling upriver, the other was traveling downriver. The Day Line claimed its steamboats operated under the “nine hour system.” That is, it took nine hours for the boats to complete the trip between Albany and New York City, with Poughkeepsie as the half-way point for these trips.

Image source: Chauncey Vibbard, photograph, 1882
(William B. Elmendorf Papers – SC11970, Box 3, Folder 2)

Steamers Albany and New York

image of Albany steamboat

In the 1880s the Day Line, in order to better promote its business, felt that it needed to upgrade its fleet with new boats that were not only larger and faster, but also more elegant in appearance and décor. The Day Line introduced the Albany in 1880 and the New York in 1887.

These two new steamers, built on iron hulls 300 feet in length, could accommodate 1,500 passengers and claimed to be the fastest steamboats in the world. hey were built exclusively for carrying passengers, and were said to be the finest boats ever constructed for the business. The Day Line advertisements emphasized that it was "strictly first-class – no freight."

Image source: Albany, photograph, 1882
(William B. Elmendorf Papers – SC11970, Box 3, Folder 1)

image of New York steamboat

These boats featured spacious cabins finished in highly polished woods; they were handsomely paneled, luxuriously furnished and adorned with statuary and paintings by celebrated artists. The dining rooms were on the main deck, where the traveler could enjoy an excellent dinner, which was served on the European plan, and lose nothing of the view of the most charming of American rivers.

Image source: New York, photograph, ca. 1890s
(William B. Elmendorf Papers – SC11970, Box 3, Folder 3)

Steamers Hendrick Hudson and Robert Fulton

The Hendrick Hudson

image of Hendrick Hudson steamboat

The Hendrick Hudson was put into service in 1906 at a cost of almost a million dollars. She had an advertised length of over 400 feet and was licensed to carry 5,500 passengers.

Art was commissioned for interior decoration. Murals depicting Henry Hudson's Halve Maene, Washington Irving's home, the senate house at Kingston, and the capitol at Albany were part of the interior displays.

Image source: Hand colored postcard issued by Albertype Company,
Brooklyn, N.Y. Fred B. Abele Transportation History Collection
– SC22662, Box 26, Folder 9b

The Robert Fulton

image of Robert Fulton steamboat

Introduced in 1909 for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, the Robert Fulton replaced the New York, which had burned at Newburgh the previous year. The interior boasted five murals by marine artist Samuel Ward Stanton showing the development of steam navigation on the Hudson River. The Day Line's Hendrick HudsonRobert Fulton, and Albany steamers led the first division of the great naval parade marking the centennial of steam navigation and the tricentennial of Hudson’s voyage up the Hudson. Over 750 vessels participated in the parade, including over 100 steamboats.

Image source: Giant picture postcard issued by Albertype Company,Brooklyn, N.Y. ca. 1920s (Fred B. Abele Transportation
History Collection – SC22662, Box 26, Folder 9a

Postcard with image of Hudson River Dayline captain at the navigating wheel

Image source: Hudson River Dayline-The nerve center, Postcard(William B. Elmendorf Papers– SC11970, Box 3, Folder 4

Last Updated: September 21, 2021