It’s 5 p.m. at a Manhattan pier on the Hudson River. Your carriage is stowed below deck, and your luggage has been delivered to your stateroom. After freshening up in your private bath, you make your way to the grand saloon, where the orchestra plays Strauss. As you waltz beneath crystal chandeliers, twin paddlewheels begin to turn, and your journey to Albany begins on one of the river’s celebrated night boats.
Many people are familiar with (and some may even recall riding) the Hudson River dayliners, which carried passengers from Manhattan, Poughkeepsie and other points to popular destinations such as Bear Mountain and Kingston Point Park. Sadly, the night boats — true queens of the river compared to these smaller, more utilitarian vessels — have faded into oblivion.
Yet, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, the night boat was the way to travel between New York City and Albany, both for the wealthy and not-so-rich couples splurging on an unforgettable honeymoon. For the former, these floating palaces provided the first leg for reaching some of America’s poshest destinations: Saratoga, the Berkshires, the great camps of the Adirondacks. Yes, it took longer than hopping aboard a noisy, dirty railroad car — but that was the point. All the more time to luxuriate! With live music, multi-course meals and even barbershops, it’s amazing anyone chose to sleep on the fine linen sheets.
Every generation had a boat that stood out among the fleet, setting the gold standard of river travel. Early on it was the Oregon, sailing from 1845-63. It averaged a swift 25 mph in good weather, but that wasn’t the draw if you believe one reporter’s appraisal of the ship’s amenities. He gushes about the Oregon’s cut crystal stemware, “the best French china,” “magnificent fittings” that “dazzled the eye” and the 500 square feet of carpeting needed to cover the floors of its staterooms. In total, the ship’s furnishings cost $130,000, nearly $4.4 million today.
If anything, the décor got even grander (or gaudier) in the mid-1860s, which heralded the beginning of the night boats’ golden days. At first, the undisputed champion of the Hudson was the Drew, which plied the river from 1866-1896. Some 400 feet long, it boasted 3 tiers of luxurious staterooms and a grand saloon with a domed skylight supported by Corinthian columns. Going to and from the saloon required taking stairways crafted of Santo Domingo mahogany.
When it came time for the Drew to retire, its owners replaced it with the Adirondack, what many consider the ultimate in travel on the Hudson. It was bigger and faster than the Drew — in 1899, it made the NYC-Albany run in under 6.5 hours, despite carrying 400 passengers and 350 tons of freight. It also outpaced the Drew in splendor, featuring 5 decks, a 300-seat dining room and 350 staterooms. Plus it offered an exciting new feature: a searchlight with a range of 2 miles, allowing passengers to glimpse landmarks along the route.
Certainly, passengers never lacked for food. A night boat menu from the early 20th century enumerates the copious amounts of produce stowed aboard to satisfy hunger pangs. The list includes 4,000 lbs. of meat, 500 lbs. of fish, 400 lbs. of butter, 2,500 lbs. of vegetables, 700 loaves of bread and 400 dozen eggs.
The end of the line
Sadly, the Adirondack’s supremacy on the Hudson ended with World War I, when she was enlisted to provide barracks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Moored afterward for a number of years in Athens, Greene County, she eventually sank in shallow water and was sold for scrap. While none could rival the Adirondack, other boats followed in her wake. So did a 1920 Broadway musical, called The Night Boat, featuring music by Jerome Kern.
Two decades later, in January 1941, the thrill ended with one last round-trip voyage. “The Hudson River has lost its most famous institution,” reported the Associated Press. “No longer will the line make its celebrated overnight run between [New York City] and Albany with as many as 2,000 passengers.” A change in travelers’ habits — now they wanted to arrive at their destinations faster — combined with new, far-flung vacation destinations accessible by airplane led to a steep decline in night-boat ridership, making operations unprofitable.
In a way, you could say that speed killed the night boats, ending one of the most glorious eras in the Hudson River’s maritime history.