RISE AND DECLINE OF HUDSON'S COMMERCE
1786 TO 1825
COLUMBIA COUNTY, NEW YORK
By Captain Franklin Ellis111
If the growth and prosperity of Hudson had been remarkable from the time of its settlement to 1786, it was scarcely less so for many years after that time. Shi-building continued to be a leading industry. The hills in the interior and the forests of the upper Hudson furnished an abundance of excellent timber to the ship-yards of the Morgans (Titus and James), Jenkins, Gelston, Sears, Lacy, Abiel Cheney, Wm. Johnson, and others, who during the latter years of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the present century were widely and favorably known for the good quality of their work.
There were no less than five yards here, and more than once it was the case that every yard had a heavy ship on the stocks all at the same time.
Of sea-going vessels owned in Hudson, the number did not largely increase after 1786, but the aggregate tonnage became greater by reason of old ships being replaced by new and heavier ones from the home dock-yards. The small craft hailing from Hudson also became numerous, making regular trips hence to New York, Albany, and the other towns along the river.
It has been quite generally believed that the ships of Hudson in those days were almost wholly engaged in the whale-fishery, --an idea which probably arose from the fact that many of the proprietors were from the whaling port of Nantucket,--but this is erroneous; only a few were employed as whalers and sealers, while the greater part were engaged in trade with southern ports in the United States (particularly Charleston), Havana, and other Cuban ports, Santo Domingo, Curaçoa, the Windward islands, Demerara, and Brazil, and occasionally with ports in the Mediterranean.
Lumber, hoops, staves, and heading were leading articles of export to the West Indies, and there were also shipped immense quantities of fish,* beef, pork,† and country produce of all kinds. This explains the immense influx of sleighs into Hudson which has been before mentioned, and which a few years afterwards became much greater, so that in a single day, March 2, 1802, twenty-eight hundred of these vehicles entered the city from the interior. This is on the authority of the Hudson Balance, of a few days later date. This extraordinary activity, however, was probably confined to the term of "good sleighing"; farmers and others improving that opportunity to transport their products to the great warehouses, from which the ships received their cargoes. As many as fifteen vessels were known to depart from Hudson in a single day, all fully laden with these various products. The interior region, of which Hudson was the mart, embraced not only Columbia county, but a large portion of Berkshire county, Mass., and something of the northwestern part of Connecticut.
The following mention of the city of Hudson was made by John Lambert, an English tourist, in a narrative of his travels through this section, in November, 1807. Having given an account of the incidents of his journey by stage from Albany, he said, "In the evening we arrived at Hudson. This town is of modern construction, and, like Troy, consists of one very long street. The houses are of wood or brick, many of them built with taste, and all spacious and commodious. Shops and warehouse are numerous, and there are several large inns, from which I conceived that a considerable trade was carried on between this town and the interior.
"It has the appearance of a thriving settlement, and its situation is elevated and advantageous for commerce. There are several large brick warehouses near the wharves for the reception of goods, and a great many small vessels sail continually between this town and New York.
"Ship-building is carried on here, and a vessel of three or four hundred tons was just ready for launching. Several other vessels of that size were also in the harbor.
"The next morning, November 22, we embarked on board the ‘Experiment,’ a fine new sloop of one hundred and thirty tons, built expressly for carrying passengers between Hudson and New York. The passage-money was five dollars, for which the passengers were provided during the voyage with three meals a day, including spirits; all other liquors were to be separately paid for.
"Mr. Elihu Bunker, who commanded the vessel,‡ was part owner as well as captain, and seemed to be a plain, religious sort of man. He had more the look of parson than sailor, and had posted a list of regulations at the cabin-door, which, if properly enforced, were well calculated to keep his passengers in good order. In truth, something of the kind was necessary, for we had upwards of fifty passengers on board, nearly all men. Among the forbidden articles were the playing of cards and smoking in the cabin."
The great European wars which succeeded the French revolution created an almost unlimited demand for neutral vessels; and this, with the lure of extravagant rates of freight, had the effect to induce many of the ship-owners of Hudson to abandon the legitimate trade, and to place their vessels on the far more remunerative trans-Atlantic service. For a few years the result of this was most satisfactory, and brought great gain to the Jenkinses, the Folgers, and others who had embarked in it, but in the end it wrought disaster and ruin.
The first of the events which brought this disaster in their train was the British "Order in Council," issued May 16, 1806, declaring all the ports and rivers from the Elbe, in Germany, to Brest, in France, in a state of blockade. This was followed, in November of the same year, by the "Berlin Decree" of the Emperor Napoleon, declaring all the British island in blockade; and for this the English government retaliated, in January, 1807, by another order, blockading the entire coast of France. These orders and decree made all ships attempting the trade to any of the places declared blockaded subject to capture and condemnation. Under them a number of Hudson vessels were so taken and condemned, and those which escaped capture found their hitherto profitable employment at once and completely extinguished.
This was a heavy blow to the shipping interests of Hudson, but one more severe, and which may be termed the finishing stroke, was given by the embargo laid during the administration of Mr. Jefferson (Dec. 22, 1807) on all vessels within the jurisdiction of the United States. Mr. Reuben Folger, himself a nautical man, and one of the wealthy merchants and ship-owners of Hudson, said of this act, that it was a signal to the nation to heave to under bare poles; that the ship of state had been turned out of her course and yawed about by a lubberly helmsman, until the voyage was ruined and the owners half broken. Before the new system of gunboats and embargoes, he said, he had always been able to find a keg of dollars under his counter, but never afterwards.
Certain it is, that from that time the commerce of the city experienced a decline more rapid than had been its wonderful advance; and with it declined the business of ship-building and the industries dependent thereon. The War of 1812 increased the losses, and in 1815 the prestige of Hudson was so far diminished that it was discontinued as a port of entry. The Bank of Hudson (chartered in 1808) failed in 1819, filling the measure of disaster, and during the lustrum which ended in the year 1825, the population of the city decreased from five thousand three hundred and ten to five thousand and four.
*The fish exported were principally herrings, which were cured both by smoking and pickling. This was a sources of very considerable revenue to Hudson at that time, the fish being much more plenty in the river then than at present. It is related that a single firm in Hudson sold and shipped one thousand barrels of the pickled fish in one day. Shad were also cured and shipped to some extent.
†Slaughtering and packing were extensively carried on in Hudson; the establishments for these purposes being located in the vicinity of North bay. The large quantities of hides produced by these were manufactured into leather by the numerous tanneries of the city.
‡A twin vessel, a sloop of the same size, and also bearing the name of "Experiment," was commanded by Captain Laban Paddock, and the two together formed what was known as the "Experiment line" between Hudson and New York. The application of the name Experiment lay in the fact that they were trying the experiment of a line of packet sloops running for passengers alone, and under no circumstances receiving freight, even of the lightest description and in the smallest quantity. They made semi-weekly trips between the two cities, and became exceedingly popular. The enterprise was highly commended and praised by the newspapers, which predicted for it great success; and this would doubtless have been realized but for the appearance of Fulton's steamboat, the "Clermont," which at once revolutionized the methods of river travel, and made success impossible for packets depending on wind and sail.
The two Experiment captains, Bunker and Paddock, were veteran ship-masters, who had retired from the more arduous duties of ocean navigation, and adopted this more pleasant business upon the river. Another of the same class of men was Captain Robert Folger, who had commanded the ship "Hudson," the first vessel launched at this port. He too abandoned the seas and entered the river trade. Among the river craft commanded by him was the fast-sailing sloop "Sally," running between New York and Hudson.