Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hudson River Steamboat Portraits: The Majesty Masks the Mayhem

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you already know that, beneath the placid surface of these beautiful works of art there lurk some strange and wonderful histories. What could be more lovely than a majestic steamboat gracefully making its way up the Hudson River, flags flapping in the breeze, verdant hills and fluffy clouds completing the scene? Who wouldn’t want to be on that boat, on that gorgeous day in 1845?

Me, for one, knowing what I do.

The steamer Niagara (oil on canvas, 34 ¼” x 56 ¼”) in the Fenimore Art Museum collection was painted in 1852 by James Bard, one of a pair of brothers who made their reputation in New York City by providing ships’ portraits to captains and ship owners from 1830 to 1890. We hosted a traveling exhibition of their work in 1998 (see photo at bottom). The Niagara was 265 feet long and was used as a day boat for the New York, Albany and Troy Line. It was launched in 1845 under the command of Albert DeGroot (pictured here), a self-made young man who grew up on Staten Island as a neighbor of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was one of the great steamboat captains, builders, and ship owners of the day, and took a liking to the young Albert and nurture his career.

DeGroot, like many steamboat captains, wanted to succeed by attracting customers for his boat. At this time, one of the most effective ways to do this was to be able to advertise faster shipping times for people and goods. The most effective way to get faster shipping times was to add steam to already over-taxed boilers.

Can you tell where this is going?

In 1847, while racing a competitor, the Roger Williams, DeGroot directed his engineer to put in more steam. When told that this was impossible, he ordered the gears to be changed so as to double their velocity. The steam chimney exploded, killing two firemen and injuring seven passengers. That’s right, he was racing another steamboat while on his appointed route between New York and Albany.

The newspapers had a field day. The Ulster Republican called for the officers of the Niagara to be convicted of manslaughter, and laid on the sarcasm: “human life is cheap, and steamboat captains can sport with it as they please.” DeGroot, like many other captains of the era, was not removed from his post, and in fact went on to command another vessel, the Reindeer, that in 1851 broke the Albany-New York record with a time of seven hours and 27 minutes. In fact, there are many accounts of him that are glowing in their praise of his charm and concern for his passengers.

Fortunately for DeGroot, he had left the command of the Reindeer before she blew up in September of 1852, killing several passengers. This was about the time DeGroot commissioned our painting of his Niagara on its launch day, with its steam chimneys gently throwing sparks up into the air, and its passengers enjoying the scenery from the deck seemingly without a care in the world.
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  1. Another great post, Paul. Hearing the backstories behind these pieces really adds a layer of interest to my appreciation for them. Great stuff...

  2. Thanks, Gary. I always appreciate your comments.

  3. Paul, was the round shaping at the top of the painting pretty normal for paintings of this sort at the time? Or was this painted as part of something else, not to be hung specifically as a painting?

  4. Yes, you do see the spandrels at the top of frames quite a bit in the mid 19th century. Often the areas were left unpainted by the artist in anticipation of the frame covering the corners with a decorative add-on (that's what a spandrel is). Many works were painted in an oval but framed in a rectangular frame with four spandrels in the four corners. I'll try to remember to post a pictre of the frame on the Bard painting so you can see what I mean.

    Thanks for the question.

  5. Wow, so interesting. I have been researching my Degroot ancestors and two of them ... Captain Freeman Degroot commanded the steamboat "RedJacket" and his son Captain Robert P. Degroot commanded the "Chancellor", but these boats were out of Elizabeth Port, NJ and part of the New Jersey Central RR.
    I have read that Captain Albert Degroot organized the presentation of a bronze of Benjamin Franklin (placed in Union Square, NYC) to NYC in 1872.
    Also read that Commodore Vanderbilt sold all of his steamboats to the US Gov. during the Civil War and then went on to Railroads.

  6. Thanks for your comment! Yes, there are alot of side stories here, more than I could possibly recount. We have a DeGroot descendant right here in town who volunteers at the museum!

  7. Lynn Weddington TuckerSeptember 23, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    I have been doing quite a bit of research on William H. Degroot of New York City --- a merchant, insurance pioneer and land speculator who also developed the fabulous townhouses on St. Luke's Place. He also has roots in Staten Island --- so there MUST be a connection. Could you please ask your museum volunteer if she could be so kind as to enlighten me? Coincidentally, I am a summer resident of Springfield --- and a subscriber to your newsletter.

  8. Hi Lynn. Thanks for your comment. I passed it along to David Mulligan, our docent who is a descendent of Albert DeGroot. Here is what he said:

    Albert DeGroot did come from Staten Island in the 19th century. Somehow he became connected to Commodore Vanderbilt who gave him employment, Eventually, my ancestor rose through the ranks and commanded two ships on the Hudson: The " NIagara" ( "our" painting) and " The Reindeer." That painting went to my grandmother's sister and her daughter sold it to the NYC Historical Society where it can now be viewed. That side of the family was not as generous as ours. Without a doubt, Albert's most famous passenger on one of his ships was Jenny Lind. To show her appreciation for his kindness, she gave him a diamond brooch. That brooch was broken down for rings that still are in the family. I have my mother's and grandmother's. Albert is buried in the family plot in the Richfield Springs cemetery(Lakeview). I know he lived the good life, and eventually retired to the family farm in Richfield Springs. That is about the extent of my knowlege of Captain Albert DeGroot. I do have a copy of his obituary---a very impressive one as were all of that era, regardless of what people did in life. I would be glad to send this person a copy of it.
    Regards, D. Mulligan

    David's email is

    Let me know if you need anything esle! Thanks again.



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