Skip to main content


Tugboats: Workhorses of the Hudson River

1983.02.2 painting of tugboat pocahontas

The Hudson River was the great natural highway into the interior of New York State for centuries.   Transportation for people and goods was by boat for over two hundred years after the arrival of European, mostly Dutch, settlers in the early 17th century.

Because of the growth of New York City into a major port and population center as immigrants poured into the city in the 19th century, the need there for food and building materials soared.   The Hudson Valley produced many of the products needed, and shipped them by sailing vessels called sloops and schooners for at least two hundred years from the beginning of settlement in the 1600s.   Steamboats came on the scene gradually after 1807 carrying mostly passengers for many decades. Eventually steam towboats pulling multiple barges and canal boats took over the freight traffic on the Hudson. Though not speedy, these long tows were the cheapest way to ship bulk cargoes. Older passenger steamboats such as the Norwich were used at first as towboats.   Sidewheel steamboats such as the Oswego were built as towboats starting around 1850.   Propeller driven tugboats in the familiar shape that we know today began to be seen in the 1860s.

Rondout, the port of Kingston, was a major shipping point, and the busiest port on the Hudson for most of the 19th century (1800s).   The major product shipped from Rondout was coal brought here from eastern Pennsylvania over the Delaware & Hudson Canal from 1828 to 1898. Coal was the main fuel of the steam age of the 19th century, so Rondout boomed from coal transport.   Local products also shipped from Rondout during the same time were Ulster County bluestone shipped widely for use as sidewalks;   Rosendale cement, a sturdy natural cement used in building New York City; and bricks from local brickyards also used to build New York City.     Ice cut from the Hudson River was shipped to New York City on barges to be used for food preservation.   Food products were also shipped, including grain from the Midwest brought to the Hudson over the Erie Canal, and hay for the many horses in the City.

The Cornell Steamboat Company of Rondout became the largest towing company on the Hudson by the 1880s because of the enormous amount of freight to be transported to New York City from the Hudson Valley, especially from Rondout. Towboats and tugs pulling long strings of barges could be seen day and night on the Hudson from the 1850s through the 1930s.   The Cornell Steamboat Company had a virtual monopoly on towing on the river from the 1880s through the 1930s.   The company had a fleet of up to sixty tugboats of all sizes at one time. There is much less tug and barge activity on the Hudson today than there was even in the 1950s as freight was being shipped by rail and later truck, and the old cargoes like bluestone, ice, and cement had mostly disappeared from the scene.   Today the main cargoes shipped by tug and barge are oil, crushed rock, and some cement.

-Allynne Lange

Listen to the sound of a tugboat horn. Courtesy YouTube.