SIGNS OF RECOVERY--REVIVAL OF WHALING
COLUMBIA COUNTY, NEW YORK
By Captain Franklin Ellis112
About this time the first steamboat owned here (the "Bolivar") commenced running between Hudson and New York, but did not continue very long in the trade. In1830 the steamer "Legislator" was running from Hudson in the service of the Hudson Tow-boat Company; and the other shipping of the city consisted of nine sloops and three scows, of from forty to one hundred tons burden, trading hence to New York and Albany. The population was then five thousand three hundred and ninety-two--an increase of three hundred and eighty-eight in five years. This result, when contrasted with the loss of population between 1820 and 1825, was quite gratifying, as indicative of a revival of confidence in the future of the city.
In the year 1829 an association* was formed of citizens of Hudson, having for its object the revival and prosecution of the whale-fishery. They were full of hope, and believed that the former prosperity of Hudson might be again realized. Said one of the journals of that day, "Why may we not hope to rival those eastern cities which the whale-fishery has built up? We possess equal advantages, equal enterprise. . . . .Under present circumstances the hope is entertained that Hudson will again flourish as in its infant days."
Their first ship sailed in June, 1830. It was the "Alexander Mansfield," Captain Bennett. The result of her first voyage was waited with much solicitude, and when, at the end of nine months (March 27, 1831), she again dropped her anchor in front of the city, she was received "under the discharge of cannon, and amidst the acclamations of the citizens and sailors," although the day was the holy Sabbath; and when her cargo was announced the enthusiasm ran higher still, for she brought two thousand and twenty barrels of right whale oil, one hundred and eighty barrels of sperm, and fourteen thousand pounds of whalebone; this being the largest amount that had been brought in by any vessel in the United States during that year. In less than two months she was again ready for sea, and on the 20th of June she set sail for the South Atlantic (her former voyage had been to the Brazilian whaling-ground), under command of Captain Francis Neil, promoted from first mate, Captain Bennett having been placed in command of the "Meteor," a new and somewhat larger ship, which sailed for the same destination a few days later. Each ship carried four boats and thirty men. Most of the crew of the "Mansfield' were young men of Hudson. She returned in about eight months, reaching New York Feb. 26, 1832, with two thousand two hundred barrels of oil, and nineteen thousand pounds of whalebone. The "Meteor," on her return, dropped anchor at Hudson April 23, 1832, with almost exactly the same cargo, viz., two thousand two hundred barrels of oil and twenty thousand pounds of bone. About this time one of the ships (the "America") returned with a cargo of sperm oil amounting to eighty thousand dollars,--the most valuable cargo ever brought to Hudson by a whaler.
The success of the company induced other men of means in Hudson† to embark in the business, and the number of square-rigged vessels owned here reached fourteen, being, as nearly as can be ascertained as follows:
The names of captains here given are of those who were in command during the period from 1834 to 1838, excepting Captain Drury, who commanded the "Splendid" in 1845. We believe that only eleven of these vessels were engaged exclusively in whaling; it is certain that the "Martha"§ made one or more trips between New York and Holland in 1833. Hudson also owned a brig and a schooner, which were engaged in foreign commerce from 1835 to 1838, and probably later.
The revived whale fishery of Hudson continued for about fifteen years, and then ceased entirely. It was not terminated by decrees, embargoes, or war, but by the decay of the business, brought about by causes which no foresight or energy could avert or resist. The last voyages were made in 1845; the remaining ships were then sold to run in different trade from other ports. From that time Hudson knew no more of harpoons and lances and boat-steerers, and has seldom seen a square-rigger at her wharves.
And then arose the old cry which had assailed her in the days of her earlier misfortunes. It came from those who had envied her in the time of her supremacy, and were now anxious to kick the lion which they believed (or hoped) to be dead. The author of "Random Recollections of Hudson" wrote of the city, in 1847, that "the days of its prosperity have long since passed away. Its wealth has diminished, its business sources have dried up, and almost every vestige of its former glory has disappeared. There are now no shipping at its docks and no ships building. There is no song of the anvil to be heard, no sound of axe or hammer. There is no bustle of seaman along its wharves, no song of rope-maker upon its hills, no throng of wagons from the interior, no crowds of men in its streets. The ship-yards are overgrown with grass, the wharves have mouldered away, the rope-walk is deserted, the warehouses are empty, and the once busy crowds have disappeared." And the cause of all this decay and desolation was, as he said, the lack of liberality and enterprise in the citizens, who, although possess of sufficient pecuniary means, were afraid or unwilling "to risk one farthing for the general good, having neither the public spirit nor energy of character to employ those means to advantage."
Those who are familiar with the story of Hudson's varying fortunes, cannot be otherwise than amazed at the assertion made in the last sentence above quoted. Did those men lack enterprise who, in two years after their settlement, had collected twenty-five ships, and sent them hence to the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans? And was it not rather an excess of enterprise than a lack of it which impelled them to transfer those ships from their legitimate trade to the more enticing, one which afterwards proved ruinous? When in a single day the farmers of the interior came with nearly three thousand teams to deliver their loads to the merchants of Hudson, did they believe those merchants to be unenterprising? The Bank of Columbia, at Hudson, was the third bank established in the State. Were such institutions started in those early days by people who feared "to risk one farthing for the general good"? At a time of great financial depression, caused by the failure of that bank, and when the prophets of evil were announcing that "the summer-like days of her (Hudson's) commercial prosperity have passed, and public spirit and public pride are buried, with no prospect of resurrection," the Hudson Whaling Company resolved to disprove those gloomy prognostications, and, with the phantom of previous failure before their eyes, they put their ships upon the ocean. This surely did not betoken a lack of "energy of character!" Then came the project to construct a railroad¥ hence to the proposed line from Boston. There were none in those days who fully realized its importance, and many regarded the scheme as visionary. Yet, as we have seen, the people of Hudson subscribed promptly, liberally, extravagantly, to its stock, thus making their city the terminus of the first railroad line from the seaboard to the Hudson river, and again proving that they lacked neither enterprise nor energy. Their large investments in this proved a total loss, and bore heavily upon individuals, but were productive of lasting benefit to the city.
The abandonment of ocean navigation was the end of the old order of things in Hudson, and the opening of the railroad marked the commencement of a new era.
*This was incorporated April 30, 1833, as the "Hudson Whaling Company," Laban Paddock, president; capital, three hundred thousand dollars.
†Poughkeepsie and Newburgh also fitted out vessels, in imitation of Hudson, and for a time they were quite successful in the whale-fishery.
‡Captain Gardner sailed from Hudson in the whale-fishery from the year 1785, and he was still in the trade as late as 1837, and perhaps later, making at least fifty-two years of service. On the 19th of March, 1836, his vessel--the "Beaver"--brought in nineteen hundred barrels of sperm oil.
§The "Martha" was sold at auction in September, 1837, at Boutwell's City Hotel.
¥The different railroad lines will be found mentioned in the general history of the county.