Shortly after 1:00 pm on August 17, 1807, an ungainly vessel fitted with a smokestack pulled away from the dock on the Hudson River at Greenwich Village.Twenty-four hours later the steamboat docked at Clermont, Robert Livingston’s estate 110 miles upriver. The remaining eight hour journey to Albany continued the next morning. Upon arrival, the vessel’s inventor, Robert Fulton, immediately penned letters to friends describing his success. His maiden voyage started a steamship revolution on the Hudson River that lasted for more than a century.

Before steamships, travel and trade by stagecoach or sloop took weeks and months. After Fulton proved his invention would work, steamships regularly traveled the Hudson River between Albany and New York City, transporting passengers and cargo on regular schedules.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, steamships resembled floating palaces complete with interiors fitted with velvet upholstered seating, crystal chandeliers, fine paintings, and wall to wall carpeting. The Hudson River Day Line advertised its steamships in the 1880s as “strictly first-class—no freight.” A newspaper reported: “With rare exceptions, the passengers are nice people. The peanut and sausage eaters; the beer drinkers; the pipe smokers; the expectorators; the loud talkers; the life long enemies of soap and water, are never seen here.” Considerably larger than their predecessors, the new breed of steamships had steel hulls and six boilers. Better than 400 feet in length, these vessels serviced thousands of passengers per voyage.

Steamships eventually succumbed to the automobile and highway systems. On December 31, 1948, the Hudson River Day Line officially terminated service, ending the steamship era on the Hudson.

Magnifying Glass
Model of the Steamboat Swallow
F. Van Loon Ryder, Coxsackie, New York
c. 1968
Wood, paint, electrical wiring, small motor
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, funded by the Women’s Council of the Albany Institute of History & Art, 1968.51
Magnifying Glass
Steamship Chancellor Livingston
Richard Varick DeWitt (1800–1868)
Watercolor on paper
Albany Institute of History & Art, bequest of Sarah Walsh DeWitt, 1924.1.4