Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Wrong River

This post is the second in a series dealing with early tourism on the Hudson ...

Last time I wrote about some of the problems that John Fitch – creator of the first steamboat – had with ... well, with being John Fitch. Fitch's temperament probably made him the wrong person to try and sell the public on his newfangled steamship. But he had another problem stemming from where he decided to set up shop: the Delaware River.

The Delaware river was deep and fairly easy to traverse. It had established coach lines paralleling it. In other words, Fitch had competition from regular ships and coach. Granted, Fitch could go twice as fast for half the cost, but his ship was an awkward looking thing just waiting to burn or explode. Steamboats were still a new and crazy idea, and Fitch's line didn't last long enough for people to become comfortable with it.

Fitch wanted to expand to other rivers where he would have better luck, but his backers were in Pennsylvania. He fled to France, but his bad luck followed him: the French revolution made things too hot for him. Fulton, on the other hand, was backed by Chancellor Livingston, who had both the wherewithal to support him, and a pressing local need for him to fill.

The Hudson has two nicknames that are relevant here: Henry Hudson himself called it the “River of Mountains,” and the Mahicans called it the “River that always flows” or perhaps “the river that flows both ways.”

Hudson's nickname captures the experience of anyone who has ever traveled the river and watched the mountains pass by on either side. Flanked by the Catskills and the Taconics, the Hudson passes through terrain that is both imposing and difficult to traverse.

The result is that the Hudson – the main artery of transportation in the northern colonies – was also the only means of north-south transportation for New York. Its presence made Albany the hub of turnpikes coming from the west, but the mountains prevented coach lines from paralleling the Hudson. If you wanted to travel from the economic center of New York City to the political center of Albany, you had to travel by ship up the Hudson.

But then you had to reckon with the Mahican's observation. Anyone who has ever watched the Hudson from a stationary point knows how much it is controlled by the tides. Just outside my window is a sandbar in the center of the river that is invisible at high tide, but exposed and covered with plant growth at low tide.

Even after the sandbars were charted, the changes in the flow of the river could impede all headway. Unable to simply rely on the flow of the river, sails were the only way to make progress. But the mountain weather disrupted stable air currents and made the direction of the wind unpredictable.

Stories abound of how long it could take to make the trip between Albany to New York City. Three days at least, three weeks at most. One story concerns two brothers who both set sail for New York City at the same time: one from Albany, the other from London. Both arrived on the same day, twenty four days later.

All of this made the Hudson the ideal river for Fulton's new boat. Fulton's North River Steamboat made the trip with satisfying speed: just over thirty hours without a breakdown. His connection to Chancellor Livingston tied him to New York's upper class, and they could immediately see the use of a boat that didn't rely on wind. Fulton's financial success was assured.

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