Floating Palace: you don't hear the term much anymore but at one time it was the supreme compliment for a passenger-carrying ship. Rich paneling, gilded fixtures, lush carpeting, detailed Corinthian columns supporting a dome or skylight, grand staircases - a Floating Palace had all of these and more. Often (but not always), the words were used to describe an ocean liner. The steamboats which plied America's lakes and rivers in the 19th century also cultivated business by offering sumptuous furnishings and decor.
Scanning the fascinating photographs in the Library of Congress archives, I came across this photo which seemed filled with a melancholy for the past. The image was entitled, "Old Boats Beached to Rot Away, New York City."
|Old Boats Beached to Rot Away|
The Drew cost $800,000 to build, an enormous sum in the closing days of the Civil War, and was equipped to handle the tastes of even the wealthiest of clients. The ship was almost 400 feet in length and had 284 staterooms on three tiers of decks. The ship was powered by a vertical walking-beam engine having an 81 inch cylinder with a 14 foot stroke. That is a massive single-piston engine! Steam to feed the engine was supplied by two boilers mounted out on the external edges of the ship behind the paddlewheels. In the photo above, the boilers and side-mounted paddlewheels have already been stripped off the old ship.
|Ad from 1900 magazine|
Further searching of the Library of Congress archives turned up a beautiful Currier and Ives print of the Drew that was published in 1876 at the height of her glory.
The external boiler is clearly visible on the near side of the ship behind the paddlewheel. In fact, the semi-circular box that enclosed the upper half of the paddlewheel was a work of art in its own right. As you can see in the magnified view below, the paddlebox was painted to mimic the interior ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, complete with painted sculptures on either end of the arc.
The Drew was only one of hundreds of steamboats that sailed the Hudson in the century following Robert Fulton's steamboat, North River (often called the Claremont), which first sailed in 1807. Many of these ships, including the Drew, became legends in their own time. We have nothing like them today except perhaps the ever-bigger oceangoing cruise ships that have become small cities on water. They, too, are Floating Palaces but somehow they seem to lack the grace of the old steamboats of the Hudson. The real Queens of the Waters are gone forever.