The Hudson River has a long history with steamboats. From Fulton’s first North River Steamboat, launched for passenger service in 1807, to the last voyage of the Alexander Hamilton in 1971, there have been many famous and notable steamboats to ply the Hudson’s murky waters. But one steamboat stands out above the rest.
Built at the beginning of the Civil War, the Mary Powell gained the moniker “Queen of the Hudson” even before she had her first official passenger. Noted for her beautiful lines, her speed, and the professionalism of her operation, the Mary Powell soon became a beloved Hudson River icon. Constructed at a time of fly-by-night steamboat operations and fierce competition for speed and cheap fares, the Mary Powell outlasted almost all of her competitors.
In operation from 1861 to 1917, the Mary Powell provided daytime passenger service between Rondout, NY (now part of Kingston, NY) and New York City. Managed in large part by a single family — Absalom Lent Anderson and his son (Absalom) Eltinge Anderson were her two primary owners and captains — the Powell commanded loyalty among both crew and passengers.
In her long tenure, the Mary Powell saw incredible changes to society and technology. The start and end of the American Civil War, the start and end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, telegraphs, automobiles, flight, the income inequality of the Gilded Age and the reform of the Progressive Era, culminating in the biggest sea change of all, the First World War. Over the 56 years of her career, the United States became a different country, and the Mary Powell soon became a symbol of a bygone era. As early as the 1890s, newspaper articles were using her as a rose-colored lens to romanticize the past, a tangible connection to a rapidly disappearing way of life.
Her lionization into steamboat sainthood continued after she was scrapped. Souvenirs were saved by residents throughout the valley. Passengers and former crew wrote poems eulogizing her “death,” and people continued to speak of the Mary Powell with misty-eyed fondness well into the mid-20th century. As interest in local history and history preservation increased in the lead up to the 1976 Bicentennial, the Mary Powell was featured on everything from public murals to commemorative pewter plates.
In this online exhibit, companion to a physical exhibit featuring many of the surviving artifacts of the Mary Powell, we will explore the people, events, and artifacts of the Mary Powell, and how she fits into the context of national and local history.