by Shannon Butler

In the collections here in the Local History room, there is a pencil drawing of an old steamboat named Isaac Newton. The drawing (seen on the right) depicts the boat in its prime, right around 1847, and it was sketched by a young man named Henry R. Howard. This little drawing has once again sent us down the rabbit hole of historical research and opened up some new history and connections. The son of the man that made this drawing would go on to appreciate history and the importance of images as a photographer.

The steamboat Isaac Newton was built in 1846, and was for a long time considered to be one of the largest and most elegant steamers of its day. It was not named after the famous English mathematician, physicist and astronomer, but instead, it was named for a New York Steamship builder and sailor. At the time of its original construction, it was 338 feet long; later, in 1855, it was extended to 405 feet. The ship consumed about four tons of coal an hour, which was more than any other ship at the time. The state room on board was considered luxurious and there was a large stained and painted glass dome that stretched the length of the saloon. “The Bridal room carpeting was said to have come from the drawing room of King Louis Phillippe of France and over the head of the bed was an antique painted altarpiece with cupid holding two doves.” This grand ship typically sailed from NYC to Albany carrying both passengers and cargo.

On December 3rd, 1863, the ship was about an hour out from its port when one of the boilers exploded not far from Fort Lee. Flames quickly consumed the midship section while passengers scrambled towards the stern (back). Luckily, there were not many passengers, as it was nearly the end of the river season (the river used to freeze over entirely in the 19th century), so casualties were few. Boats of all shapes and sizes that happened to be passing by sailed as quickly as they could to rescue the terrified passengers and crew, but seventeen people were injured and fourteen died in the flames and smoke. The ship was a total loss and it was valued at over $250,000 (that’s over $5 million in today’s currency).

Henry R. Howard may have either sailed on this ship or passed by her when he came to Poughkeepsie with his employer, John P. Adriance. He ended up working as a shipping clerk at the Buckeye works factory, so it is even possible that he saw the Isaac Newton sail by quite regularly (perhaps he sketched this while on a lunch break). In 1866, Henry married Emily Fanning who was the daughter of the county clerk, and they had a son, Frank B. Howard. Young Frank would make a name for himself in the local publishing world. He was the City Editor of the Poughkeepsie Evening Enterprise newspaper from 1888 to 1910, and also was a correspondent for the Associated Press and newspapers in New York City and Chicago. Frank would be well known for his photography skills during the course of his life. In fact, many of the images that we have in our collections were taken by him. He snapped everything from architectural images to courtroom scenes.

Frank was a member of the Dutchess County Historical Society, so it comes as no surprise that he was interested in preserving as many historic views as he could with his camera. In the collection we have one of his photos of the steamboat “The Washington Irving” sailing up the river past Poughkeepsie. This image was taken at least half a century after his father had sketched his steamboat scene. Was he paying homage to his father? Or was it just a coincidence? We may never know.

Hudson River steamboat catastrophes: contests & collisions by J. Thomas Allison 974.73 ALL

01 – A drawing of the steamboat Isaac Newton by Henry R. Howard, 1847 – R10LD20 – Local History Collections
02 – A photograph of the steamboat Washington Irving taken by Frank B. Howard – R1LD20 – Local History Collections
03 – – a sketch of the sinking of the Isaac Newton depicted by Harper’s Weekly, 1863