Thomas Cornell And The Cornell Steamboat Company - Purple Mountain Press

by Geddy Sveikauskas in Woodstock Times

As Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare teaches, the race does not always go to the swift. Economic history teaches the same lesson.

There's nothing in our regional history more glamorous than the sleek, luxuriously appointed passenger steamboats that raced each other up and down the Hudson River. Frequently, as Stuart Murray's Thomas Cornell and the Cornell Steamboat Company, reminds us, the loser in a race suffered more than indignities. "Getting first into a harbor or alongside a wharf meant the other boat was locked out," Murray explains, "and the spoils belonged to the first boat on." The waiting passengers hurried to get on the earlier boat. Who wants to wait for a loser?

Though he occasionally owned these "belles of the Hudson," Thomas Cornell (1814-1890) didn't owe his fortune to these. No, his wealth was founded on the unglamorous, almost pedestrian towboats that led barges laden down the river and empty ones' back. In fact, he often converted the obsolete dowagers of the passenger trade he bought at low cost to towing use.

The publication of the splendid book by Purple Mountain Press in Fleischmanns is accompanied by an exhibit on the same subject at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in the Rondout running now through October 8. Many of the photos in the book, mostly from the incomparable collection of Jack Matthews, appear on the walls of the museum.

This is the first commissioned piece in Purple Mountain's history. Publisher Wray Rominger explains that Bill Spangenberger, the 95-year-old Rhinebeck resident who was the last president of the Cornell company, wanted the story told while he was still alive and while he could share his archive of Cornell material. There'll be a book signing at the maritime museum at 7 p.m. next Tuesday May, 8.

Thomas Cornell's success was not modest. Operating from the Rondout headquarters where he repaired and maintained as many as 60 vessels, he at one time owned the biggest fleet of towboats in the country. He used the wealth generated by his business to gain a powerful position in his trade and to invest in other transport-connected industries.

As his economic power increased, Cornell used it to squeeze better margins from his business. If you had a loaded barge you wanted to get down to New York City, it would more likely than not travel on Cornell's schedule. Starting up near Albany, a Cornell towboat and a helper tug would move slowly southward, gathering barges all its way.

The economic lesson is clear: It's better to seek a virtual monopoly on an unglamorous trade than be one of many competitors in a more glamorous one.

Cornell began his career, of course, when steamboating was in its adolescence. The successful trip of Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat from New York City to Albany in 30 hours in 1807 had opened a new era in river transportation.

In the 1830s, the young Thomas Cornell learned his trade on the Rondout Creek, working for a Coxsackie man, David P. Mapes, Mapes was owner of the sidewheeler General Jackson, which had the contract to haul barges for the D& H Canal Company. Mapes also owned a stage line in the Catskills, which was advertised as coming and going at Rondout in time for travelers to catch his steamboat.

In 1844 Mapes found himself so financially overextended that when his steamboat Victory sank he was unable to get the quick cash necessary to replace it. A competitor, Daniel Drew, took over the D&H contract.

"Daniel Drew handled the D&H Canal towing that Mapes had lost," writes Murray, "but Drew's heart was more in great passenger boats that plied the river day and night. Thomas Cornell, however, was interested in the towing business."

By 1847, Cornell had become part owner of the Eddyville based steamer Telegraph, built in 1836. For the next few years, he improved his position, buying and selling interests in boats, seeking new opportunities and connections, and more often than not building his business on the cheap after others had overextended themselves. While he converted aging sidewheelers like James Madison into towboats, Murray notes that he was not beyond using another coal-boat towing vessel which plied the Rondout Creek, John F. Rodman, "as an excursion boat for locals to take moonlight trips with music and dancing late into the night."

By mid-century, the passenger steamboats had all abandoned the old practice of towing barges. That would have slowed them down. And being on a boat that towed freight wouldn't exactly have been fashionable, either.

In 1860, Cornell bought the hull of James Kent, built in 1823 by Fulton and his partner, chancellor Robert L. Livingston, as part of the Fulton-Livingston line. When Fulton lost his monopoly on steamboating, the partnership was overwhelmed by competition. Dismantled and cannibalized, James Kent was used as a coal barge carrying anthracite out of the Rondout Creek. Cornell used it as a stake boat, a permanent floating mooring at which empty barges were assembled, organized by how they were to be dropped off on their northward journey. "For another 25 years of humble service as a stake boat," Murray writes, "the remarkably well-constructed James Kent would remain a legacy to the first days of steamboat enterprise in America."

The current exhibit at the maritime museum contains a 1950s magazine advertisement boasting the Cornell company's "120 years of towing, from the Norwich, built after designs by Robert Fulton, to the Thomas Cornell, modern workhouse of the fleet." The Norwich, a famous local towing steamer with formidable icebreaking abilities (she was supposedly known as "The Old Ice King"), provided service on the Hudson River from 1836 to 1917. In its later years, the legend painted on its sidewheel read, "The Oldest Steamboat in the World, Built 1836."

As Cornell prospered, he added towing steamers, built repair shops, kept up with technological change and began to get involved in railroading. Though he twice owned Kingston's steamboating pride, the Mary Powell, Cornell never ceased to see greater opportunity elsewhere. With management assistance from his capable son-in-law, Samuel D. Coykendall, he was in the right place during the great boom of the post-Civil War era in the carrying of natural resources to the New York City market.

Writes Murray: "Rapidly growing New York City was the great market for Hudson Valley ice, as it was for bluestone, farm produce, cement, lumber, crushed stone, brick and coal. Since 1869, Rosendale cement quarried and manufactured locally and shipped on barges towed by Cornell boats, had been used to construct the Brooklyn Bridge."

Active in other enterprises by virtue of his community standing, Cornell at one time owned the Rondout Daily Freeman, started the Rondout Savings Bank, was president of the Wallkill Valley Railroad, controlled what became the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, was a congressman, and sometimes through Coykendall was involved in almost innumerable enterprises. For instance, Coykendall financed the first creamery, built in Roxbury and connected through the U&D to the rest of the Cornell empire.

The Cornell Towing Company, which had about 450 employees in the 1880s fixed rail locomotives as well as steamboats. A photograph at the Hudson River Maritime Museum shows the rail repair shops on the land side of the East Strand, the boat repair shops (two still exist across the street from Kingston's sewage treatment plant) on the water side.

When he sold his interest in the Wallkill Valley Railroad, Cornell used the proceeds to take possession of the huge Grand Hotel, which accomodated 450 guests in a lavish style on the Delaware-Ulster county border at Highmount. Ownership of the hotel marked yet another direction for the Cornell-Coykendall empire.

When the opportunity arose, Cornell bought other steamboat companies, especially those with tugs and towboats. He replaced vessels constantly, keeping his fleet up-to-date.

Thomas Cornell, described by Murray as Ulster County's most powerful figure, died on March 30, 1890 at the age of 77. "On the day of his funeral , it was a testimony to the community's affection for him that gleaming locomotives slowly pulled handsome coaches draped with black crepe through town, and carriages decorated with flowers in the form of a procession," writes Murray. "For this day, all business along the industrious Rondout Creek came to a complete stop."

Coykendall, in Stuart Murray's words, took up where Thomas Cornell had left off. Needless to say, he continued to buy towboat competitors whenever the price was right. Said a Newburgh newspaper admiringly, "He is said to have broken up more lines than any man in the business, by getting control of their boats and business." He was also wiling to divide the business with a competitor when that seemed the right thing to do.

Coykendall pushed the U&D rail line to Oneonta, built and operated the Kingston trolley system, invested in Rosendale cement, local ice and local bluestone. He owned a huge dry-goods business in Minneapolis.

At the turn of the 20th century, the world was changing. New construction techniques and the invention of refrigeration were beginning to create competition for important Hudson Valley products. Changes in the coal and transportation industries made it clear that the best days of the D&H Canal were behind it. The use of steel girders and poured concrete in New York City construction weakened the brick industry.

Though the new horseless carriage was decades away from changing the transportation business, the use of fuel oil to heat the company tugboats' boilers was being discussed. "The owners of the Cornell Towing Line are contemplating changing the fuel of the steamers from coal to oil, but of course this innovation cannot be put into operation this year," the Kingston Daily Freeman reported in April 1901. They are anxious to get rid of the annoyance of a possible coal strike every year, and the change from coal to oil as fuel will accomplish this, and at the same time be a stroke of economy."

That article suggests that conversion to oil was imminent. Was it? Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers.

Stopping at the Rondout's incomparable harbor would have been only a hindrance to the day liner and night boats that sped the river. They stopped instead at Rhinecliff, and a Cornell ferry took passengers across to Kingston. So Coykendall built a passenger boat wharf on the Kingston side. He not only extended the railroad line to the other side of the wharf but brought his trolley line there, too. Then he built a Victorian amusement park, Kingston Point Park, near the whole thing.

"It was an instant success," writes Stuart Murray, "especially on summer nights, when folk took the trolley down to the end of the line at the park, a feature common to many American cities at the time, and which would be for decades to come."

Coykendall died in 1913, leaving six sons to run his far-flung businesses. From now on, family disagreement played a significant role in how the company made its decisions. This factor made business survival in a changing world all that much more difficult for the Cornell company.

The company certainly seemed to be doing well, absorbing rivals and reaching further afield with each acquisition. It was not obvious for a number of years that Cornell was gaining a larger slice of an evershrinking pie.

"That [Cornell] empire had a strong foundation," writes Murray, "but it faced a new age of electricity and oil and swift change, and with that change came great adversity for the Cornell Steamboat Company, although in 1913 it was as yet unforeseen."

Perhaps there's a second lesson of economic history here. A company that finds its core business threatened has only a limited amount of time to realize its predicament and develop a strategic plan that enables it to survive.

By 1924, Cornell was a pioneer in dieselizing tugs, while many competitors were slow to take that step. It should be noted, however, that this move came 23 years after the breathless Freeman article suggesting the imminence of that change. In that period, Edward Coykendall, in control of the company, constantly vetoed his brother Frederick's pleas to convert the Cornell fleet from coal to diesel faster. It took a coal fire on the company's Rondout premises in 1936 for Cornell to dismantle its coal fueling facilities.

To keep customers, Cornell kept its costs low by adhering to a rigorous schedule. But as the customers became fewer, Cornell had to meet their scheduling demands as well. Year by year, the company waged an ultimately unsuccessful battle to keep control of its core business.

The resources from other parts of the Cornell-Coykendall empire were for various reasons not available to the core enterprise, it seems. Part of the reason was that these contributing components, too, like the D&H Canal and the U&D Railroad, were past their prime and required rather than generated capital. By that time, too, the brothers who controlled the various components may no longer have seen Cornell as a coherent whole. And part was that the Coykendalls, more accustomed to maintaining residences in New York City (like at the Dakota) and serving as directors of important colleges, were more accustomed to opening envelopes with dividends in them than with managing a deeply troubled business enterprise.

Maneuvering slowly through the ups and downs of the economic cycle, the Cornell firm drifted inevitably on its downward course. In 1958, the company, kept afloat only by the credit and ingenuity of its officers, sold its stock to its single substantial customer, New York Trap Rock Corporation. The company formed to liquidate the assets, Stuart Murray noted, was called Lenroc, Cornell spelled backwards without one "l."

The saga of the Cornell company is a significant part of our local history. After reading this book, I'll never see the Rondout in quite the same way.

It is true that Murray's book often focuses more on the doughty old Cornell boats than on their part in the complex history of this part of the world. More than likely, this is where the book sales come from. But Murray's is a more credible work. Through anecdotes, data and knowledge of the past, the author describes important ingredients of the historic context through which the indomitable Cornell company steamed.

The exhibit at the maritime museum is more uneven. Some of the individual blown-up images alone make the trip to the Rondout worthwhile. But to my eye the show lacked an editorial perspective or some other connecting thread that can make such exhibits compelling. Lectures and other events are scheduled to round out the show. Call the Hudson River Maritime Museum at 338-0071 for details.

Read a review from the Schenectady Gazette.

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