Chapter 6

Rail and Steam at the Upper Landing

Under the capable hand of William Reynolds, both industry and shipping continued to flourish at the Upper Landing during the 1840s. The Innis (formerly Hoffman) House underwent some renovations, adding some Greek Revival architectural features to fit the fashion of the times. These alterations entirely removed the building’s original roof, adding an extra half-story to the house and a double-hipped roof to cover it.14 However, the 1840s also brought a new development to the Poughkeepsie waterfront: the railroad.

Hudson River Railroad

Hudson River Railroad

Railroads first appeared in the United States in the 1830s, with one of the first lines opening between Albany and Schenectady in 1831. As railroads began to traverse the country, the Hudson Valley continued to rely on river-based commerce and travel. However, convenience and tradition could only serve as a bastion against technological improvements for so long. In 1842, the Poughkeepsie town council created the Hudson River Rail Road Central Finance and Correspondence Committee, which included influential businessmen Isaac Platt and Matthew Vassar. This committee set about organizing local support for the construction and finance of a rail line along the Hudson River. Within a year, the Committee raised the large sum of $3,000,000 to fund the construction of a rail line connecting Poughkeepsie with New York City. Construction began that year, slowly extending southward. By November of 1848, the railway had only reached Fishkill Landing (the modern town of Beacon).15

The coming of the railroad was opposed by many of the old families of the Hudson Valley, who feared that the train would cut them off from the river and draw business away from their shipping interests. While no documents survive stating William Reynolds’ personal opinion on the railroad, he did work to expand his business during the years the railway was under construction, perhaps hoping that Poughkeepsie’s new role as a rail hub would increase river traffic. In 1849, Reynolds constructed a new warehouse at the Upper Landing to accommodate the increased amount of cargo coming into the city. On January 4, 1850, the Hudson River Railway opened, touted in the Poughkeepsie Telegraph as a “great public improvement, second only to the New York and Erie Canal.”16 The next day, William and James Reynolds purchased another plot of land (formerly owned by the short-lived Poughkeepsie Silk Company) to expand the docks.

The 1850s were a boom time for the Upper Landing. Newspaper advertisements purchased by William Reynolds hawked goods that had been shipped up from New York City by rail or boat, such as Rhode Island onions, or floated down the D&H Canal, like butter churned in Delaware County. These goods were sold alongside local wares, such as Dutchess County-raised pork. The barges Clinton and Republic, operated by Doughty, Wilkinson, and Company, were added to the small flotilla sailing in and out of the Upper Landing. These barges carried a varied cargo, ranging from passengers to bat guano (used for its nitrogen by some of the factories at the Upper Landing) to exotic dyewoods.

Perhaps inspired by the success of Doughty, Wilkinson, and Company, William Reynolds commissioned Poughkeepsie’s Finch shipyards to construct a new steamship, to be directly owned and operated by the W.W. and J. Reynolds Company. In 1854, this ship, christened the Reliance, entered service, freighting goods and passengers back and forth from Albany.17 The Reliance was captained by M.S. Reynolds, a relative of the ship’s owner. It ran twice weekly to the state capital, and became a regular fixture on the Albany docks.

Ad for the Reliance

Ad for the Reliance

Together, these ships did a brisk business at the Upper Landing, bringing goods and passengers to the newly-incorporated (1854) City of Poughkeepsie. They also connected the Upper Landing to the great, bloody epic of the Civil War. Following the attack by Confederate troops on Fort Sumter in 1861, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion. Lincoln’s call to arms was announced to the nation on April 15 of that year. Two days later, William Reynolds volunteered the Reliance for military service through the New York state government.18 It also appears that several members of her crew, including the chief and assistant engineers and three other crew members, volunteered for service aboard the ship. The steamship was gratefully accepted, then armed to serve as both a gunboat and troop transport. On February 6, 1862, the Reliance took part in the Union attack on rebel fortifications on Roanoke Island as the prelude for General Burnside’s invasion of North Carolina. The short, sharp battle took the island and 2,500 Confederate prisoners for Union and paved the way for an invasion of the Carolina mainland.19 The Reliance also supported two landings in the following campaign, at Plymouth and New Bern.

While the Reliance was off fighting, the war years brought several changes to the Upper Landing. One of these was that, in April of 1862, W.W. and J. Reynolds became Reynolds and Company. In the meantime, the firm continued to ship out of the Upper Landing. The biggest disruption to business at the Upper Landing during the Civil War came on August 14, 1865. As reported in the Poughkeepsie Eagle:

About twelve o’clock last night fire was discovered near the gangway, on board the Barge Republic at the Upper Landing. The hands on board of the vessel were aroused from their sleep, and the lines by which the barge was attached to the dock were soon cut, and the vessel drifted down the stream to within a few feet of Arnold’s Lumber yard, when she grounded. The Joseph C. Doughty ran down to her in order to get her off when she too grounded in a position dangerously near the Barge. Soon after the barge again commenced drifting and finally reached the middle of the river, being at the time enveloped in one sheet of flame. The ferry boat soon got afloat and proceeded to the Brewery dock, took on steam Fire Engine No. 4, and followed the burning vessel. The Barge had considerable freight on board, including 15,000 bushels of salt, valued at $2,000 or $3,000. In the office on the boat was a large sum of money, the proceeds of sales all of which was lost. Owing to the lateness of the hour we are unable to give the entire loss or insurance. The fire was evidently the work of an incendiary. 20

Despite the terrifying details of the account, the Republic was repaired in a matter of days, and was once again running to New York by April 18th. The next year, the Civil War finally came to an end. As the Reliance returned to the Upper Landing, life in Poughkeepsie slowly began to return to normal. To celebrate the steamship’s role in the war, Reynolds & Company debuted a line of products dubbed “Reynolds Reliance.” Despite the celebratory attitude that must have awaited the ship and its crew, difficult days lay ahead. As the nation began to struggle with the problems of Reconstruction and full-scale industrialization, the river-centric businesses of the Upper Landing struggled to remain relevant in a world increasingly dominated by the railroad.


14Architects, et al., 13; Flynt, 4

15The diary of runaway slave James F. Brown includes some details of the railway’s arrival in Beacon. The original diary is housed at the New York Historical Society, and a transcribed copy can be found at Mount Gulian Historic Site in Beacon.

16Poughkeepsie Telegraph, January 9, 1850

17Albany Journal, August 18, 1857

18He was joined in this by neighboring Poughkeepsie business owner Matthew Vassar, who similarly volunteered his sloop, the Matthew J. Vassar. Eagle History of Poughkeepsie 

19Michael Zatarga, “The Battle of Roanoke Island,” website of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. http://www.nps.gov/fora/historyculture/battleofroanokeisland.htm 

20Poughkeepsie Eagle, August 15, 1865


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