Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Full Steam Ahead

Another trip back to New York, this time as 1829 tuns the page

by David Minor
“The situation is most convenient, in a charming spot in the country, with the finest walks conceivable at our door, and it is in our power at any time to be in the heart of New York in twenty minutes.”
Last April we left James Stuart and his wife, our Scots travelers, in mid-December of 1829, moving from their boarding house in New Rochelle, New York; as it was closing for the winter. While they made their plans for upcoming travels they had settled temporarily in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Their boarding house is run by a Mr. and Mrs. Van Boskerck, a couple in their sixties, who live there with their two maiden daughters, who actually manage the business. Only one other boarder is in residence at the time. Leaving the operations to his daughters, Mr. Van Boskerck makes several trips a week over to Manhattan to drum up trade. Stuart will be paying a number of visits to the city as well. They most likely made their commutes on a steam ferry owned by elderly inventor and Revolutionary War veteran Colonel John Stevens, rather than aboard a rival vessel belonging to young Staten Island native Cornelius Vanderbilt. At the close of the revolution Stevens bought extensive land along three miles of lower Hudson River property confiscated from the estate of Loyalist William Bayard. Over the past ten years he’s begun making improvements to the property. The stretch of marshy New Jersey land had cost Stevens today’s equivalent of $90,000 (which will buy you almost a fifth of a condominium there today) and he’d chosen to name the site Hoboken, after the Dutch name Hoebuck, or High Bluff. Today it’s the site of the Stevens Institute of Technology.

It was at one end of this property that the Van Boskerck house stood, so his loyalties would have been to his neighbor’s fleet of steam vessels. In addition to four steamboats making runs between New York and Albany, Stevens and his four sons operate a number of other boats between here and Manhattan and to Philadelphia, as well as stage coaches across much of New Jersey. In the upcoming year Vanderbilt will become an increasingly large thorn in the sides of the five Stevenses, decreasing his fares to the point of unprofitability, eventually forcing them to buy him out at a cost of $100,000 plus ten annual payments of $5,000. The Commodore didn’t mess around.

Both Stuart and Van Boskerck had an easy commute. An eight minute walk to the Stevens dock down by the water, where the family manufactured their own vessels, and a ten-minute crossing in one of the four ferries, all of which can accommodate entire stagecoaches, which the passengers needn’t get out of. You have your choice of two landing sites, the foots of Barclay and Canal streets. All of this for a whopping sixpence sterling (only threepence during the summer months).

The Stevens family has other sources of income besides their basic transportation business. Spaces on the boats are rented out to concessionaires, who sell, “liquor, fruit, confectionaries, &c.” They also lease out their own hotel here on the New Jersey side. They charge pedestrians nothing for the privilege of strolling along public walks they laid out along the river. They do all right what with all those three- and sixpence fares to get there, thank you.

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