For fans of history, steam-powered transportation and the Hudson River, the idea described at a Tuesday morning meeting at the Hudson River Maritime Museum holds obvious, even compelling, appeal.
The idea is called S.S. Columbia Project. Briefly summarized, the plan is to take a 115-year-old steamboat which once plied the Great Lakes around Detroit and transport her at some point in 2018 from Buffalo, where it is now, on a barge via the St. Lawrence Seaway down the East Coast to New York City and up the river to Kingston.
Once docked at the HRMM, a complete restoration of the wooden “house” of the steel-hulled boat, anticipated to take five years, will begin. Once she’s ready to go, Columbia, which will retain her original steam engine and boilers, will then begin making trips up and down the Hudson, allowing passengers to relive the long-gone and much-missed experience of steamboat travel.
The obstacles? The big one is money. The whole project is expected to cost about $18 million; some $4.3 million of that has already been raised from public and private sources. Another is finding at least one community along the river to commit to building a dock suitable for the 216-foot craft; no such dock currently exists. According to Kingston’s Ann Loeding, who is working as Columbia’s project coordinator, a proper dock could cost in the neighborhood of a million dollars. But quite possibly less — the $1 million estimate is based, she said, on the conditions surrounding potential dock at Kingston Point. (While the Columbia will enter the Rondout Creek to begin her restoration phase, it’s considered too difficult to routinely maneuver her in and out of the creek, so Kingston Point is seen as a far superior spot for its dock.)
Loeding said a community’s willingness to invest in the plan is vital, and stressed that the project, a not-for-profit all-volunteer enterprise, isn’t going to push itself on anyone. “We’ll certainly be a part of the discussion, but we can’t lead it,” she said, adding that the project is talking to the state Department of State to help willing communities more easily plug into potential funding sources for dock construction. She said interest has been shown by the Town of Marlborough, which has already included a concept for a Columbia-suitable dock in its planning for the Milton waterfront. Loeding said Newburgh has also indicated some interest.
The idea seemed to be well-received at the Tuesday session, which was put together by the Business Alliance of Kingston and co-sponsored by the Maritime Museum. Representatives from the city, the county and the Kingston Waterfront Business Association were present. Robert Iannucci, who owns substantial real estate along the Rondout which he is in the process of redeveloping, was on hand and seemed to like the idea. “As our development plans gel, let us know what’s going on and we will happily accommodate,” he told Loeding.
On hand from the city government were Julie Noble and Kristen Wilson. Mayor Steve Noble, contacted for a response, responded thusly: “The S.S. Columbia has the potential to allow Kingston to become home to a large, historic vessel that could explore the beautiful Hudson River. At this point, much restoration is needed, which in itself could become a teaching tool, tourist attraction and job creator on the Rondout and would continue Kingston’s tradition of boat building. I look forward to closely following this initiative and will continue to support it as best we can.”
The boat herself is not a Hudson Valley native — the iconic river steamboats like Mary Powell and Alexander Hamilton are long gone. But Columbia was designed by naval architect Frank Kirby and painter/designer Louis O. Keil, who also designed Hudson River Day Line vessels Hendrick Hudson, Robert Fulton and Washington Irving, so the resemblance will be there. Columbia will likely be certified to carry a maximum of 1,500 people; Loeding said, adding that, for planning purposes, the project considers a passenger load of 500 to be more in line with expectations for the number of passengers that would disembark at Kingston.
The plus side, besides the obvious joy of riding a steamboat up and down the river, is bringing moneyed people into the community. Loeding offered an estimated figure of $28,000 in direct passenger spending each time she docks in Kingston. Also not to be discounted was the economic benefits of having a multi-year construction project on the Rondout.
“Even when she’s docked and being restored, [the Columbia is] going to be a destination,” for events, said Loeding, noting that a theater troupe staged a play on board the boat in Buffalo last summer.
For more information, visit www.sscolumbia.org.