The life & times of Rondout transport tycoon Thomas Cornell

Ferryboat Transport at Rondout dock, circa 1910 with tug C.W. Morse and many Cornell tugs in winter ice. (Hudson River Maritime Museum Collection)

Have you fallen in love with the Rondout waterfront yet? If not, you haven’t been there in recent years. And its revitalization continues at a slow but inexorable pace. At this writing, in December 2019, the City of Kingston has just announced the approval of four New York State Consolidated Funding awards, two of which are for waterfront-related improvements. In November, the city hosted a forum called “Weaving the Waterfront” that sought public input on proposed designs for four major redevelopment projects currently in the works: a Waterfront Resiliency Design, Rondout Riverport Shoreline Stabilization and Public Access, Kingston Point Climate Adaptive Design and Kingston Point Park Improvements.

Yes, you got that right: They’re even thinking ahead to rising river levels due to climate change, designing new modular bulkheads that can be heightened as needed. This is long-term, big-picture planning for an incredible public resource that could make the Rondout a major tourist destination. Public/private partnerships are also part of the dream, with developer Rob Iannucci, owner of some two miles’ worth of Rondout riverfront real estate, a major stakeholder with grand visions of his own about how to make the Strand, Kingston Point and Island Dock irresistibly appealing.


Iannucci’s hobby is collecting antique watercraft; under the aegis of Fleet Obsolete, he has acquired four of only 12 surviving World War II PT boats. He stores part of his collection at the Cornell Building at 108 East Strand, a large brick structure adjacent to the Ole Savannah restaurant. Via his company Historic Kingston Waterfront Revival, Iannucci plans to turn it into a museum. The building itself is what remains of the physical core of an important chapter in Hudson River history: High on its façade you can still make out the words “Cornell Steamboat Co. Founded 1827.” The date is inaccurate, but it was from this space that shipping and railway magnate Thomas Cornell and his heirs ran a powerful mercantile empire that lasted nearly a century-and-a-half.

To set the stage: Robert Fulton’s first-ever commercially successful steamboat, the Clermont, began carrying passengers between Manhattan and Albany in 1807. And passenger traffic was indeed the primary focus of the business of steamship manufacture as it developed over the next couple of decades. Many of these sidewheeler vessels were luxuriously appointed to accommodate wealthy patrons. But demand quickly increased for boats that could carry freight faster than the Hudson’s sailing fleet – especially once the canal-building boom of the 1820s and ’30s made it possible to transport coal from Pennsylvania, iron from the northern Great Lakes, produce from the Grain Belt and other sought-after inland commodities to New York City and other ports along the Eastern Seaboard. Local products such as ice, bluestone, bricks and Rosendale cement were also much in demand downriver. The terminus of the Delaware & Hudson Canal being at Eddyville on the Rondout, the Creek – handy to the Hudson, well-protected from storms and about halfway between the City and Albany – was the obvious place for shipbuilding to become a thriving industry.

Thomas C. Cornell (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Mathew Brady-Levin Corbin Handy Photograph Collection)

White Plains native Thomas Cornell (1814-1890) first came to Eddyville in 1837 at age 23 to join his father, Peter, and uncle, also named Thomas, who were profiting handsomely from a dock and general store that they had established to serve the D & H Canal workers. The store, Cornell and Gedney, sidelined as agent for the steamboat Frank, and soon other boats signed on. The younger Thomas invested at first in a sloop – the Hudson’s traditional mode of transport for heavy freight – but quickly spotted the speed advantages of the steam engine, and got into steamship repair, modification and manufacture. Cornell became part-owner of the steamer Telegraph in 1847: an acquisition that launched an empire and a dynasty.

As river traffic boomed in the decades following the opening of the D & H and Erie Canals, steamships began towing barges laden with goods instead of loading them onboard. This reduced their speed and efficiency. So, as early-model passenger steamboats aged, Cornell made it his business to acquire them, strip them of their finery and put them to more prosaic use as towboats. By 1850, he had already obtained the contract for towing D & H Canal Company barges. A canny businessman, he grew adept at buying boats on the cheap, as their original owners overextended themselves financially. His fleet grew steadily, becoming the largest of its kind in the country, and he later took up the manufacture of tugboats as river transport technology evolved. The Cornell Steamboat Company’s fleet was the dominant towing operation on the Hudson from 1880 to the 1930s, peaking at more than 60 vessels.

Cornell also bought up old boats and barges for use as “stake boats”: floating moorings for fleets of empty barges. He was twice the owner of the grande dame of Hudson River passenger steamships, the Mary Powell, acquired the Rondout Daily Freeman, started the Rondout Savings Bank in 1868. He invested in railroads, incorporating what became the Ulster & Delaware Railroad in 1866; became president of the Wallkill Valley Railroad, sold it and used the proceeds to build the Grand Hotel in Highmount, designed by famed architect J. A. Wood (, which had its own station on Cornell’s railway line; turned his boat-repair shops to the business of fixing locomotives as well.

He also served two terms as a congressman. By the time of his death in 1890, at the age of 77, Thomas Cornell had arguably become the most powerful man in Ulster County. His son-in-law Samuel D. Coykendall, an active partner in many of his enterprises, carried on and expanded the family business, acquiring competing enterprises wherever possible. He built the Kingston trolley system and the amusement park at Kingston Point.

But by the turn of the century, technological change was softening the markets for many of the products that the Cornell Steamboat Company was created to ship. Coykendall bought the D & H Canal in 1899 and shut it down permanently five years later. Although he converted the fleet to propeller-driven tugboats upon Cornell’s demise and began to contemplate shifting the fuel of his steamships from coal to oil as early as 1901, the company did not install diesel engines in its tugboats until 1924 – 11 years after Coykendall’s death – due to squabbling among his six sons.

The 20th century proved a time of continuous decline for what had formerly been a robust and many-faceted business operation. What remained of the Cornell Company was sold to its largest customer, the New York Trap Rock Corporation, in 1958, and liquidated by 1963. The last president of the firm, Clarence W. Spangenberger, died in 2008 at the age of 102. For the once-bustling Rondout waterfront district, it was the end of an era. But perhaps its renaissance has already begun.

There are 3 comments

  1. Stefan Saffer

    Amazing that there is not one mention about the actual use of the space as an artspace called Artport in this article. Whilst this was published there was and still is today an Exhibtion with 60 local artists in this amazing building. How could that have been not noticed ?

  2. Melinda

    Interesting profile yet no mention of who he was as a human being, only what he did. I would like to know how he lived. How he treated his employees. What he contributed beyond his business activities. As a Public Historian, I want to make history known, relevant and compelling. Public Historians are needed to help bring the lessons of the past to light so human beings can make better decisions in the future.

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