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The Border Between History And Memory

The photo above shows two of the Hudson River Day Line steamers passing each other near the Hudson Highlands. The Highlands are a small (and relatively low, and very old) mountain range on both sides of the river, from somewhat south of Peekskill to somewhat north of West Point. They’re part of what makes the central section of the river so picturesque. The photographer was on one steamer and took a picture of the ship headed in the opposite direction, past a pair of ridiculously-cute little lighthouses.

Travel along the path of the Hudson has been important since the Dutch colonial days. Until the Hudson River Railroad was completed in 1851, the only serious way to complete the trip in a reasonable amount of time was on a boat or a ship; for a long time that meant sailboats. To give a sense of the importance of this route, note that Albany was the ninth or tenth largest city in the country in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, and in the same state as New York, which has been the largest since the first census in 1790. Albany was effectively replaced in the top-ten list in the 1860 census by Buffalo, which had explosive growth starting with its role as the transshipment point between the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes.

In 1863, the Hudson River Day Line began running steamers both ways, offering the same kind of regular schedule and amenities available on coastal steamers and, eventually, on the trains. It had competitors, but it was the big line on the route. The Day Line continued in that form until 1971, although the multiple ships were eventually replaced by a single ship yo-yoing upstream and down. Amazingly, the peak ridership was in the 1920s, long after the New York Central had made the Hudson River Railroad its very fast main line.

After the last regular Day Line ship was retired in 1971, the line counted for a while longer into the 70s, running excursion trips. This is where memory comes in: I distinctly remember hearing radio ads for the Day Line as a child, while eating breakfast before school, and they talked about a seven-hour trip, which I vaguely remember as being described as from New York up to the Tappan Zee. The 1926 schedule shows almost ten hours in one direction between NYC and Albany, so my memory seems confirmed: the post-1971 trips were no longer transportation but simply a day cruise.

How long did the excursion cruises last? I don’t know – I never went on the ship and I only remember the ads because they sounded romantic to me as a child – and it’s surprisingly hard to find using google because searches about the Day Line show up loads of information about the pre-1971 ships. The photo above, from the early 1900s, suggests that even as mere transportation, the trip could be a pleasure cruise.