Sunday, January 23, 2011

Floating Palaces

 [Note to readers: with this post, I am now offering images that can be enlarged by clicking on them. Often, the detail in the enlarged image greatly enhances the beauty of the picture. If the image can be enlarged, the mouse arrow will change to a hand when hovered over the image.]

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

This photo is part of the Detroit Publishing Company archive at the LOC.  The date could only be determined to be sometime between 1900 and 1910.  The large steamboat in the left background can be easily seen to be the the Drew in this enlargement of a segment of the picture below:


Steamer Drew
 The poignancy of the image captured my imagination and I wanted to know more.  I did a little googling and learned that the Steamer Drew was built in 1865-66 for the People's Line, a company that operated steamboats on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany.  The line specialized in so-called "night boats", steamboats with sleeping cabins to accommodate overnight trips. The Drew might have been named for Daniel Drew, one of the shrewdest steamboat operators and Wall Street investors of the 19th century but I couldn't find documentation for this and there was already an earlier steamboat named the Daniel Drew sailing the Hudson.

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
The Drew sailed without incident for over 30 years with its sister ship, the Dean Richmond. In the fall of 1896,  the new steamboat, Adirondack, was added to the People's Line. The Drew continued to carry passengers for a few more years but was finally retired in August of 1901.  The ship was sold to J.H. Gregory of Perth Amboy, New Jersey to be scrapped.  Unfortunately, the retired steamship burned to the waterline from a fire of undetermined origins on July 2, 1902.  The picture above must date from sometime between August 1901 and July 1902. If you look closely at the image, you can see some men in the wreckage near the bow of the ship.  Were these workmen or were they vagrants looking for something to plunder and were perhaps the source of the fire?

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.
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