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Hudson River Sloops

The Dutch gave us a distinctive vessel, the Hudson River sloop, a single-masted fore-and-aft rigged, shallow-draft sailing ship with a low bowsprit and a single headsail set from the forestay. Early sloops had a square-rigged topsail, but a triangular sail that could be handled by fewer crew members later replaced this.


The first Dutch ships in New Netherland were ungainly keelboats with high sides. Drawing as much as twelve feet of water, they could also be used as ocean-going vessels. Faced with the capricious winds and powerful tides of the Hudson, however, the Dutch soon modified these cumbersome craft.


The specialized Hudson River sloop that evolved was a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed, low-sided, wide boat carrying a large area of sail--a vessel that could navigate the river's unpredictable currents.


In its heyday around 1830, the average sloop on the Hudson displaced about 85 tons and could as much as 125 tons of cargo. Seventy-five feet long, with a beam as much as 25 feet, its draft was only about six feet. Emphasis was on large cargo capacity and comfortable passenger accommodations. Even more important was a draft that would allow transit of the notorious treacherous shifting shoals and sand bars in the Hudson's upper reaches below Albany.


The Hudson soon became an elongated commercial empire of vast extent, and the broad-beamed sloop was its queen. By 1810, 206 sloops were plying the river. Twenty-two years later, John Finch, an English traveler, would write, "Twelve hundred sloops are employed on the Hudson. They are painted with the most brilliant colors, and their white sails and variegated flags and streamers, present a beautiful addition to the scenery of the river."


Sloops "Clearwater" and "Sojourner Truth" on the Hudson River, ca. 1980

Sloops were built in virtually every Hudson River town and village. Among the vessels registered between 1789 and 1867, Nyack built 170, followed by Marlboro (in Ulster County) with 112 and Albany with 106. In the lower Hudson Valley, Mount Pleasant and Sing Sing jointly accounted for 76. Peekskill built 62.


A sloop generally carried a captain, pilot, three or four sailors, and a cabin boy or cook. Cargoes were varied. Produce of the land--flour, grain, hay, lumber, and furs--was brought downriver to the cities. Manufactured goods and imports went upriver--crockery, earthenware, cloth, hardware, oil, rum, salt, sugar, tobacco. Early sloops were called "merchant sloops," "freight sloops" or "market boats." Such vessels had no regular time of departure or fixed destination. They went when and where goods were available to be hauled.


At the peak of the sloop's popularity around 1830, a hundred could be seen on the Tappan Zee on a summer day. Every town and village along the Hudson had its own fleet of sloops, ranging from a half dozen to as many as 50 or 60. Large anchorages resembled a forest of masts.


An innovation in design eventually enabled sloops to be made larger and increase their carrying capacity. This was the centerboard, a vertically sliding dropped keel that made the vessel much easier to handle. A centerboard made it possible for a large and heavily laden vessel to have a draft of only six feet, and clear the Hudson's shifting shoals.


Steamboats offered growing competition, but sloops remained an important means of transport. Several well-publicized incidents of mechanical breakdown of steam vessels led some to believe that steamboats were an unreliable or even a dangerous mode of travel. Sloops were also popular because they offered service to and from the smaller towns at which the steamers did not stop.


The Sloop Clearwater

Competition from the Hudson River Railroad in 1851, however, sealed the sloop's doom. The first train had sped from New York City to Greenbush, opposite Albany, in less than four hours.


Additional competition from tow boats and barges eventually limited sloops to two tasks: local traffic in goods and passengers, and the carrying of low-priority bulk cargoes--lumber, bricks, coal, flagstone, lime, cement and hay--in their holds and on their broad decks. Sloops that transported bricks were dubbed "brickers."


By 1860, few sloops were being built. One of the last of these was the Stephen Underhill, displacing 42 tons, launched at Croton Point in 1867. Older sloops that remained were converted to more easily managed two-masted schooner rigs or became mastless barges and harbor lighters. Others were weighted with stones and sunk to become breakwaters, or were run aground and left to rot. At the turn of the century, only a few abandoned hulks survived.


Hudson River sloops are long gone from the river, but a few modern replicas remind us of their glory days. The Clearwater, designed by Cyrus Hamlin and built in 1969 by the Harvey Gamage Shipyard Company of South Bristol, Maine, is used for educational purposes. Two smaller sloops, called "ferry sloops," also were built. A wooden-hulled Woody Guthrie, and the Sojourner Truth, with a hull of ferro-cement, replicate the smaller market sloops owned and operated by farmers and local entrepreneurs.


The Sloop Clearwater
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