A Last Glimpse Of The Steamboats

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Americans have always loved steam. We cannot claim the steam engine as our invention, but we did adopt it at once and brought it to the peak of its development. The device took on peculiarly American forms in this country; compare, for instance, the tidy British locomotives with their rangy American counterparts. So too with our steamboats. While they lacked the sharp beauty of the clippers, they made up for it with their powerful, chunky, intricate American grace. They plied our rivers and coastal waters for most of the last century, the lines vying with each other to produce ever grander, more luxuriously appointed ships. And they were grand, for they were a source of pride as well as income to their owners. As early as 1847 owner George Law, churning up the Hudson on his Oregon , ordered chairs, bunks, doors, and even wainscoting fed into the furnaces to avoid the terrible humiliation of losing a race to one of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s ships.

Most of the steamboat men were of Law’s cut. They were proud and arrogant and looked down on the railroads as crude, grimy transportation, useful only in getting travellers to the docks. Once aboard ship, the passengers could sleep in princely staterooms, stroll through vast “grand saloons,” and eat lobster for fifty cents while they watched the lights of small towns ghosting by on the shore.

Throughout the first quarter of our own century the ships grew larger and more splendid, but they were doomed. Even at the height of their glory they were being forced out of commission by cheaper, lesser forms of transportation. Their fate is eloquently expressed in the painting on the opposite page. Here is the sidewheeler Ida , a victim of the Depression, mouldering by a weedy bank in Saugerties Creek, New York, through the dog days, waiting for the wrecker’s hammer. She was painted by William Gordon Muller, whose evocative views of American steamboats appear in the following portfolio.

Muller was six years old when he was first beguiled by a Hudson River Day Line sidewheeler gliding upriver with her flags flying and an orchestra playing on her deck. From then on the big ships were never far from his thoughts. By the time he was eighteen, Muller held the post of quartermaster on the Day Line steamer Alexander Hamilton , by then the last sidewheeler on the East Coast, now unhappily gone to join her sisters in retirement. Muller currently divides his time between acting as art director for an advertising agency and painting his scenes of the steamers in their heyday. “I take pride in painting my steamboats very accurately,” says Muller, “drawing from a large collection of reference material and from knowledge gained firsthand from my involvement with some last members of the real thing.”

But Muller’s paintings are more than accurate representations. They can also serve to remind us that, as a people, we tend to be far too dedicated to destroying the remnants of our immediate past. The steamers with their long white hulls and huge walking beams were a vital and significant part of that past. But the big ships are gone, and they will not come back, and we can only echo the sentiments of Rudyard Kipling’s mournful quatrain on the vanished Fall River Line:

No more I’ll see the trawlers drift Below the Bass Rock ground, Or watch the tall Fall steamer lights Tear blazing up the Sound.