Thursday, December 8, 2011

Steamboat Model MARY POWELL c.1887 -The History and Build/ Rex Stewart

Few models exist on the renowned sidewheeler MARY POWELL. Some have been produced with minute detail while others varied in levels of craftsmanship and quality. But no matter how the steamboat has been presented over the years, MARY POWELL remain to be, nationally and internationally, one of the most favorite builder subjects today.

MARY POWELL was built at the onset of the Civil War. She was launched in 1861 at the request of Captain Absalom Anderson who, prior to the "M.P.", commanded the THOMAS POWELL -a swift sidewheeler known to many as the "Swan of the Hudson."

                Steamer MARY POWELL docked at Rondout Creek, New York c.1887

Thomas Powell was a prominent citizen of the village of Newburgh, NY located 60 miles north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River. The firm of T. Powell and Company composed of Powell and Captains Samuel Johnson and Robert Wardrop who established a steamboat line in 1835 which lasted ten years. Upon dissolving the line, Powell kept the steamboat HIGHLANDER and went into partnership with his son-in-law, Homer Ramsdell.
In 1846, Powell and Ramsdell brought out the new THOMAS POWELL for day service between Newburgh and New York City. She ran in line with HIGHLANDER and two years later, because of fierce competition, Powell and Ramsdell sold their interests to the Anderson and Romer families. As steamboats were being acquired by different firms along the Hudson, there was a need for fast and reliable boats. A new steamboat came to the river in 1860 named the DANIEL DREW, a celebrated New York-Albany dayboat that gained reputation on the Hudson when she raced and beat the ARMENIA of river fame.

Captain Anderson, viewing the swift DANIEL DREW as she daily passed his Rondout dock, knew that it was time to upgrade and build a new steamboat that would be the talk of the entire Hudson Valley for next six decades. The sidewheeler would be the inevitable "Queen of the Hudson". The name being the MARY POWELL. Anderson's goal was to have a vessel that would outdo every Hudson River steamboat known. He made it clear to the builders that the vessel had to make better time than his THOMAS POWELL -and that a heavy forfeiture of the contract would be in place if that recommendation failed. When the Allison Shipyard in Jersey City, N.J. completed MARY POWELL, she measured 267 feet in length, with a beam of 34.5 feet and depth of hold at 9.2 feet. Her tonnage was 819.
Because of Captain Anderson's steamboat ties in the area, and his highest respect for Thomas Powell, it was only fitting to name his vessel after Powell's wife whom, in her own right, had ties of historical proportions in the maritime.

Mary Ludlow Powell established a firm maritime history in addition to being the widow of Thomas Powell. Her eldest brother entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1795 and rose to the rank of captain. Mary's next eldest, Robert Ludlow, had been assigned to the U.S.F. CONSTITUTION and was aboard when "Old Ironsides" encountered and captured  H.M.S. JAVA in December, 1812. The best-known brother, Augustus C. Ludlow, was James Lawrence's first lieutenant on the CHESAPEAKE in the engagement with H.M.S. SHANNON off Boston on June 1, 1813. It was in this battle that the mortally wounded Lawrence gave the vain command, "Don't give up the ship!"

      War of 1812 CONSTITUTION Battle Station, handcarved in wood by the author. This
      representation show how the men were positioned during the fight with HMS JAVA
      when Mary Ludlow's brother served.

The MARY POWELL, now on the waters of the Hudson, was now becoming the echo of river folklore. In 1867, Captain Anderson retired from the steamboat business after selling his shares of MARY POWELL to Thomas Cornell, the steamboat potentate of Rondout, N.Y. This purchase was made three years prior. For several years, as the steamboat changed ownership, it was being scrutinized for performance. Then in 1874, a young steward came aboard the vessel, the young son of retired Captain Absalom Anderson. His name was Absalom Eltinge Anderson who would, many years later, become the prolific captain of the renowned steamer.

In 1872 the MARY POWELL returned back to Captain Anderson and remained with the family until 1883 when Thomas Cornell, again, acquired her. When the successor, Jansen Anderson, the Captain's eldest son passed away, Eltinge was not looked upon as the possible choice to keep the legacy of the family business. Between the seasons of 1884 and 1885 Eltinge, determined to prove otherwise, devoted much of his time preparing a pamphlet to promote the MARY POWELL. As a result of his efforts, Captain William Cornell retired and sold his share in the vessel to Eltinge.

           Portrait of the young Captain Absalom Eltinge Anderson, stmr. MARY POWELL

The MARY POWELL became the heart of steamboat folklore. For 55 years she travelled the Hudson and entered practically every port on her route. She was both beautiful and fast, having surpassed records of her contemporaries with no loss of life. She transported dignitaries and royals and accommodated renowned men and women of her day. She was a favorite at West Point and all points south of that landing. North, she was respected and won the hearts of the Albany-Troy citizens and was embraced as "The Queen" of riverboats.

In 1920 she finally ceased operations on the Hudson River and became legendary years afterward. A book about her was written by my friend and author, Donald C. Ringwald, and several years later, a descendant of the Mary Powell Family, Pauline Hending Matherson, commissioned me to build her an exacting model of the steamboat -which is in their Vermont home today.

             Bard painting of MARY POWELL as she first appeared on the river c.1861

Several MARY POWELL models were built in Albany during the '80s and early '90s -and a new version is now being built in New England at my Southbridge, MA studio. This version is the famous steamboat as she first appeared on the river in 1861 and is probably the only one of its kind anywhere, to date. This will be shared with the public and maritime community in a few months. To conclude, below are images of MARY POWELL as she appeared in 1887.

      Constructed entirely of wood, this project took approximately two months to build and
      is considered one of the most accurate models in the Hudson River Valley.

    This closeup shows the meticulous superstructure of MARY POWELL, from walking
    beam engine down to her paddlewheels. Her racy hogframes were state-of-the-art; a
    beautiful, graceful design that no other steamboat of her class carried. This was, in
    essence, MARY POWELL the "Queen of the Hudson".     

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  1. I would like to know more about the Powell family who was connected with this steamboat.

    My Powell ancestors were living in the Hudson River Valley prior to and after the American Revolution, having left the original homestead in Bethpage, Long Island, NY. I desecent from Thomas Powell, thru Moses, Obadiah, Frost, William B. B. Powell, Edward Frost Powell, and George W. Powell.

    If anyone who reads this is connected to the same Powell family and this steamboat owner, please contact me. Thanks!


    1. Mikki:

      I'm delighted that there are ancestors in Massachusetts and New York that have ties to the famous sidewheelers that operated in both regions. Unfortunately, I don't have any information on the Powell Family other than what has been written on this blog. However, as you know, the Anderson Family built a steamboat and named it THOMAS POWELL which I am currently researching for a future model.

      If I can be of any other assistance, don't hestitate to call. my number is 1-774-757-7137. I wish you well in your search.



  2. There was a restaurant in/near Kingston, called the Mary Powell, named after the steamboat. I didn’t know if perhaps it is still there. I ate there in 1989, I believe, give or take a year, and jested with the manager - do I eat for free since my name is Mary Powell? He said back, good heavens no, there are too many with that name, and we’d go broke! I often think about what a beautiful part of our country lies along the Hudson. Thank you for your blog.