Last call

The SS Columbia, back in 1945.

Longtime president of New York City’s Municipal Arts Society and a central character in New York State historic-preservation circles for several decades, Kent Barwick sought a week ago Saturday afternoon to drum up support for rehabilitating a long-out-of-operation recreational day liner that once served Detroit and is now temporarily resident in Buffalo. Barwick and others propose towing the S.S. Columbia, built in 1902 and laid up since 1991, up the St. Lawrence River on a barge and down the Atlantic coast to New York City, and then up the Hudson River to Kingston.

This audacious portage is not going to happen tomorrow.

The propitious setting for Barwick’s pitch was Teviotdale, a grandiloquent built in Linlithgo on an original 500-acre Columbia County holding by Walter Livingston and once occupied by his son-in-law, fabled inventor and engineer Robert Fulton. Fulton and Livingston’s daughter Harriet were married there in 1806.

The parlor in which Barwick spoke has very high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and tall mirrors. The best silver was on display nearby, and wine and liquor was available. Through the window behind Barwick, the leaves of a regal black locust tree swayed gently in a slight wind.

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One of the introducers was Pieter Estersohn, writer and photographer of the recently published Life along the Hudson: The historic country estates of the Livingston family (Rizzoli) and a sometime Red Hook resident. His picture book features 35 Livingston estates. 

It’s not quite clear how much money and time it will take to fix up the Columbia for it to provide excursion service from a mid-Hudson port to New York City, but it won’t be trivial amounts. Last year’s estimates were $18 million and five years, and that schedule is optimistic. It’ll take four to five million dollars just to get the three-deck 216-foot-long vessel to Kingston, and dock space for it will have to be built. 

In the depths of the Rondout Creek nearby are the sunken remains of the Mary Powell, the undisputed queen of Kingston’s steamboat fleet, and many other scuttled vessels. It’s a maritime graveyard.
Supportive Kingstonians are emphasizing the educational and training aspects that the arrival of the S.S. Columbia would generate. 

It’s a scheme worthy of the endlessly ambitious steamboat developer Robert Fulton, whom, with a touch of hyperbole, Barwick described as equal parts P.T. Barnum, Thomas Alva Edison and Leonardo da Vinci, “with a little Paul Manafort thrown in.”
Already with a background of far-fetched schemes and facile double-dealings, Fulton partnered in 1801 with Robert R. ‘The Chancellor’ Livingston, one of the five-man committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and later chief American negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase. The Chancellor, who had secured a 30-year state monopoly on developing a steamboat on the Hudson, was dazzled by Fulton, who had already practiced his powers of persuasion on Napoleon, William Pitt and Thomas Jefferson. 

It was the right idea at the right time and the right place. In 1807 The Steamboat plied the waters between Albany and New York City at an unprecedented pace. Bytsanders, said Barwick, described the vessel as “a puffing volcano.”

A new era that would tie upstate closer to New York City was born, and expanded to the Middle West when the Erie Canal was completed in 1825.

Neither The Chancellor nor Fulton, a great proponent of American canal-building, would live to see that era. Livingston died in 1813 at the age of 66, Fulton of pneumonia in 1815 at 49.

Fulton spent a lot of his life initiating litigation, trying to enforce and expand monopoly protection of steamboats. That struggle, based on mercantilist assumptions similar to Donald Trump’s, didn’t end well. In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Supreme Court gave Congress sole right to regulate interstate commerce. 

Presented by Hudson Hall, the Teviotdale event was the first in a series of talks and tours at historic Livingston estates. The series includes Edgewater (featuring a talk by co-president of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust Peter Kenny), The Bouwerie (with current owner Dianne O’Neal and preservation carpenter Emily Majer) and Chiddingstone (where guests are treated on a tour with current owners, architect Hermes Mellea and interior designer Carey Maloney).

How deep is the support for preserving the Livingston estates among the historically minded? The 40 or 50 people who had come to see Teviotdale and hear Barwick, among them Joan Davidson, grande dame of New York historical-preservation philanthropy, must be considered among the most fervent supporters of such a quixotic enterprise. But there’s so much to do, and it will take so much time do it. As the fate of the last possible transportation device to reconnect them to the rest of historic New York is discussed, there are so many country estates to restore, so many competitors for scarce public and philanthropic resources.
Barwick did not sound discouraged. How likely had it been that the Walkway Over the Hudson, an abandoned railroad bridge left to rust and rot, would become the attraction it has? And how likely had it been that the state would pony up $38.7 million in initial costs in 2001 and then support considerable further appropriations, including the latest, $2.4 million for an elevator on the Poughkeepsie side?

The re-introduction of S.S. Columbia would be a great step toward introducing all the people of New York to the Hudson River, Barwick concluded. He urged support. “We can use your help.” l

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