The Hudson River was yesteryear’s Thruway

Clockwise from left: a Day Line steamer, the Hendrick Hudson, arrives at the dock at Kingston Point Park (Friends of Historic Kingston); The Day Line was a popular means of travel between New York City and Albany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries ( Hudson River Maritime Museum); a postcard depicting the elegant dining room on the steamer Berkshire on the People’s Line (Stephen Blauweiss Collection).

A condensed chapter from the forthcoming book The Story of Historic Kingston

Steamboats began their domination of Hudson River travel after Robert Fulton’s North River (often colloquially referred to as the Clermont) traveled from New York City to Albany in 1807 in a record 32 hours. By the 1820s, steamboats were a common sight, running at night as well as during the day. Night boats became popular with businessmen traveling between New York City and Albany, who could travel first-class and arrive well-rested in the morning.  


Through the 1840s, steamboat travel was the easiest and fastest method of transportation in the Hudson Valley. It dwindled in the 1850s due to competition from faster railroads, but in the days before air-conditioning, trains made for a dusty, dirty, stifling trip in the summer. 

The Hudson River Day Line, the best known, began regular operation in 1863 when the Daniel Drew departed New York City for Albany. The term Day Line was used to differentiate it from the Night Line. The trip cost $1.50 (about $40 today). An era of large, elegant vessels favored by wealthy New Yorkers had begun. 

A popular activity at Kingston Point Park was welcoming steamships, which often carried prominent passengers. (John Ham Collection)

The luxurious boats had salons with crystal chandeliers, gilded woodwork, and elegant dining rooms serving fine cuisine. A typical kitchen was stocked with 4000 pounds of meat, 500 pounds of fish, 400 pounds of butter, 2500 pounds of vegetables, 700 loaves of bread, and 400 dozen eggs. There were amenities in the parlors, writing rooms, and lounges for smoking, drinking, and playing cards. The carpeted rooms featured sofas, upholstered chairs, live music, newsstands, and even a barbershop. One of the salons was always reserved for the ladies. 

The night boats were primarily operated by People‘s Line beginning in 1835. Excursions were described in their brochures as “strictly first class,” which meant there was no need to worry about proximity to the great unwashed. A passenger’s carriage was stowed below deck and their luggage was delivered to staterooms outfitted for sleeping and complete with private bathrooms. These floating palaces had names like the Hendrick Hudson, the Robert Fulton, the Washington Irving, the Alexander Hamilton, and the Peter Stuyvesant—all white men, with one exception, the Mary Powell. 

The Mary Powell, named in honor of Newburgh businessman Thomas Powell’s widow, was the largest of the fleet at 288 feet. The most famous steamer in the U.S., the “Queen of the Hudson” had all the Victorian-era amenities. She was commissioned in 1861 and for 50 years traveled between New York City and Kingston six days a week, leaving and returning so promptly — at 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. — that people set their watches by its horn. Thomas Cornell owned her several times. Accidents involving steamboats were fairly common, but the Mary Powell had a perfect safety record. She was decommissioned in 1919. 

The Adirondack, added in 1896, had five decks with 24 parlors, a 300-seat dining room, and 350 staterooms. It offered an exciting new feature: a searchlight with a range of two miles, allowing passengers to glimpse landmarks along the route.

The main salon on the Adirondack, one of the People’s Line steamers. (Stephen Blauweiss Collection)

By 1902 the Day Line had more than 250,000 passengers. It added a number of new boats to its fleet, including the Hendrick Hudson with a dome of Tiffany glass and 24 parlors.

A Broadway musical called The Night Boat opened in 1920 featuring music by Jerome Kern. That decade was perhaps the most successful for the Day Line with nearly two million passengers carried in the peak year of 1925, when they had seven steamers on the line. 

The Great Depression signaled the beginning of the end, and the last night boats traveled in 1939. The Day Line’s final journey was in September 1971.

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