Magnolia, Contemporary, Glistening.
The PS Washington Irving, a side-wheel paddleboat, was delivered on May 3, 1913 to the Hudson River Day Line. Captain Thomas Van Woert boarded the vessel late on the 3rd, ready to oversee the stocking of her staff for the fast approaching maiden voyage. She was due to depart the Desbrosses Street Pier in New York City, headed for Albany, New York on May 17, 1913. Able to carry up to 6,000 passengers, she was 414 feet long and 86 feet across at the widest point. With a 6,200 horsepower engine, she was strong and powerful. The ship was named after the author Washington Irving, and tickets for her maiden voyage cost each traveler $1.00.
Every morning at dawn the captain made it a point to give the ship an inspection from stem to stern. The ship’s crew was well-advised to be on station, in uniform, when the captain came by, or suffer a severe dressing down as the result. Captain Van Woert ran his ships clean and would not stand for those who were slovenly. He had been known to put men off with their belongings at the dock if they were found to be drunk on board. Having grown up with an alcoholic father Captain Van Woert would suffer no drinking from his men. There were seldom any problems, the crew loved their captain. Hard as he was on them no more honest a man could be found on this river or any other. He was always fair, and strove always to do the right thing. If any man had need, the captain was always available for issues that concerned anyone onboard. Many a crewman found that with a short conversation in the passageway he might relieve himself of a burden and resume his work with renewed vigor. Many a contemporary had difficulty with this sort of thing, but the captain cared about his crew, and to a man they knew and responded to it.
Van Woert rose early, as was his custom, on the 16th of May. He completed his toilet then checked his uniform in the mirror before departing his cabins. A tall, trim man, with his dark hair combed back he cut a rakish figure. Everything was in place. Spectacles, good. Pocket watch wound? Good. He brushed any imaginary dirt bits off of his black hat and set is squarely on his head. That will do. He had to appear in order in front of his crew at all times; the rule of conduct aboard ship required a certain level of formality. One must exhibit leadership after all, in order to inspire others.
At the completion of his dawn inspection the captain took breakfast in his quarters. He then spent a long day supervising the loading of fifty oil paintings by artists illustrating the Irving period, to be displayed in the Magnolia Room. Tomorrow was the big day; the maiden launch of the PS Washington Irving. This was far from his first command, but she was certainly the largest he had ever run the river with. He walked the lower deck that evening with his coffee, watching the water run past. At one point the saw the galley boy in the shadows.
“Here. Boy.” As the youngster scrambled forward he tripped on a coiled rope and sprawled at the captain’s feet. Van Woert only smiled and offered a hand. “What’s your name son?” The captain asked him.
“W-Worley. Sir.” The boy stammered, obviously flustered. “Jacob Worley.”
“Well Master Worley, what brings you to the deck tonight? I should think you would be in your cabin sleeping. The morning will find us all quite busy.”
Young Worley looked out at the river flowing past. “I just… just needed to see the river, sir.” He replied, standing up straight. Captain Van Woert smiled, thoughtful.
“Me too son, me too.” He patted the boy on the back. “Carry on then.”
“Aye aye sir!” Worley stood at attention for a second and then scampered back down to the galley. Van Woert continued his walk out to the bow where he resumed his contemplations. Unless you had grown up on a river as he had, it was hard to explain the allure to others. He too had been a young galley boy on a paddleboat when he was sixteen. He could still remember his mother’s face, tears glistening in her eyes when he told her that he was leaving to make his livelihood on the water. It had been no surprise to the family, surely.P
Van Woert had grown up in Memphis, Tennessee beside the mighty Mississippi, floating raft after raft, and later small boats up and down the river. It was the great paddleboats that had finally captured his attention to the exclusion of all else. Twenty-five years later he was now the captain of the largest passenger-carrying riverboat ever built. In the morning all manner of passengers would be boarding, taking tea on fine china in the parlor and strolling on the upper decks. It would be prudent to take himself to his cabins and retire, but Captain Van Woert stayed in place many moments longer. He too, simply needed to see the river.