Hudson River Cruises – The Last Century’s Mini-Vacations

By Mary McTamaney

Labor Day weekend just marked the end of summer vacation for most people. Soon school and work will consume everyone’s days. A few lucky families may plan winter holiday breaks to Florida or out into the warmer ocean currents on cruises into the Caribbean and beyond.

For Newburghers a generation ago, a cruise meant a local cruise up and down the Hudson River and it was a mini-vacation most could afford and enjoy 6 months a year. Steamboats plied the river in all directions offering both a routine way to commute among river towns and a delightful way to spend time sightseeing from a lounge chair set out on a grand promenade deck gliding over the Hudson. The Hudson River Day Line was the largest of the steamship companies and its vessels traveled from New York to Albany and to most cities and villages in between. Hudson River communities of all sizes had steamship piers and the “dayliners” came in all sizes as well. From small launches carrying a under a hundred passengers to giant ships with four decks carrying several hundred, these boats were a main means of transportation in the 19th and 20th centuries. The deep channel of the Hudson River is closer to the west shore in our bay and so Newburgh had the deep-water dock that could accommodate the biggest of the steamboats. The old Day Line dock was situated near the foot of Fourth Street and was a covered pavilion big enough to accommodate scores of people getting on and off the great ships.

Dayliners had companion nightliners, boats that made the longer overnight runs between New York and Albany. In the 1930’s, my father worked one season as a deck hand on the Albany, part of the fleet that carried many businessmen between Manhattan and the state capitol.

The Mary Powell steamboat named after a Newburgh woman was built in 1861.

Amenities on these Hudson River steamboats were terrific. There were full restaurants as well as snack bars and souvenir shops onboard. In the heyday of passenger transit, there was usually live music played by local bands and orchestras. Collins Band and Orchestra from Newburgh were often the featured performers on the ships including on the most elegant and famous of the steamboats, the Mary Powell. That giant side-wheeler was named after a Newburgh woman, the wife of Thomas Powell, whose steamboat line was established here in 1835.

In my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the river steamers were the favorite way to go into New York City before the days of good highways and before most Newburghers had or needed automobiles. An outing to New York whether for a family visit, to see a show or a concert or to go shopping was far more fun because folks could ride down the river aboard a dayliner. Couples could enjoy dinner on the way to a Broadway show and then dance to live music under the stars on the ride home.

Passengers aboard the Mary Powell.

One night last week a tugboat came down the Hudson and it was shining a bright spotlight at the Newburgh shore, perhaps looking for a landmark it would tie up to later. Usually the tugs have running lights and towing lights, but I rarely see them use their big spotlights. The beam of light washing across our yard reminded me of the way the nightliners would play their spotlights across the towns they passed to point out special scenic landmarks.

This hillside city of Newburgh had countless such landmarks to impress passengers. Once called the “City of Spires” for our many church steeples, Newburgh also boasted a wide variety of classical building facades visible from the river. The columned porticos of the courthouse and the Dutch Reformed Church were well-situated on the bluff over the river as was the massive YMCA building designed by Stanford White and the intricate Newburgh Savings Bank building designed by Calvert Vaux.

We still have many beauties left standing. Perhaps it won’t be long before they are pointed out proudly by the tour guides aboard a new fleet that will carry us out and around the river each day.

The above article by Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh Historian and Society board member, has been adapted from column originally printed in a previous issue of the Mid-Hudson Times. Posted here with permission.

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