Louise Bliss on Eleanor and Hudson River Voyages


Louise Bliss, head of the Hudson River Historic Boat Restoration and Sailing Society, has in recent years focused her energy on a wooden sloop sailboat, in need of much nurturing before it will be put back on its native Hudson River waters. The Eleanor is on the national and state historic registries. Bliss spent countless hours on the motorless boat, once owned by her father, voyaging many times all the way to New York Harbor. The following is a transcription of our talk Friday at the Hudson waterfront.

WS: Where did you grow up?

LB: I grew up in North Claverack, which now people know that as Gahbauer Road, 9H and 66, going toward Chatham. Exactly two miles in from that corner, my parents had an apple farm. Back then the road didn’t have a name. But it was exactly two miles in, and there was a big—we had a windmill for pumping water. And, so the mark was two miles, to the windmill. That’s how people found our farmhouse there. So that’s where I grew up.

WS: How many acres was the apple farm?

LB: I think—you know how people make their own stories?—I would say around a hundred acres. Which back then was significant.  And apple farming then wasn’t like it is today. Today it’s agribusiness. Big business. Back then I think it was a lot harder. A lot more difficult. A lot more kind of archaic machinery. Now they have such sophisticated ways of spraying and planting trees and, also, the trees that they plant now are those small dwarf trees. You know, it takes about two years to get five-ten-fifteen bushels of apples. Back then, the idea was to have big apple trees. If you had big apples trees, that was, you know, a highly productive tree. But the problem with that is, they were hard to pick. Because you needed the ladders. You needed to set the ladders. You needed people to climb the ladders. You need people to pick the bottom, get underneath. Now, it’s a picker’s heaven. They don’t even need a ladder.

And, it’s interesting, I was thinking about this before I came down, about the labor. How different it was then. Because—and I’m talking probably in the ’40s. 1940s. This is when I remember. Columbia County had all those factories. All the fabric mills in Stottville, the big mills up in Philmont. I mean, everybody had work. And they were hard working people who worked in the mills. But after they finished their shift in the mill at three o’clock, they would come and pick apples. Even if you had five men arrive at 3:30, they could pick till 8:30 or nine and they were good workers.

And then of course it changed when all the factories closed. All that good labor moved away. And so it was difficult to get good labor and it was interesting that further on, later on—it was funny because people came up from the islands, from Jamaica and places like that and they would come back each year and pick. But they didn’t have housing, they didn’t live around the area, so you had to provide housing.

WS: Was there any housing on your parents’ apple farm?

LB: The housing that my mother and father provided for the people that came up from, say, Florida—you know, the people who picked fruit in Florida and they came and followed the crops north—they had two house trailers. But then it got very difficult, because the government intervention came along and they had to inspect everything and housing had to be up to particular standards and there became a lot more government intervention.

WS: When did that start to happen?

LB: I would say that happened, late ’70s. Yeah.

WS: Is the farm still in the family?

LB: No. No. The way it was for farmers then was—you didn’t have a pension, you didn’t have a retirement fund. So, what your retirement and what your pension fund was, you would sell off part of your property. You would save some property around the house and maybe for a garden and for what you wanted. But you would sell the rest. And then a developer would come in and develop the property. So, that was interesting, because now, a lot of people don’t understand that farmers needed back then—I don’t know whether they still do today—I know a lot of the farmland is placed in, you know, forever green or bought up by the conservation group.

So, my parents sold off a lot of their acreage. But they did it very carefully because when they sold it they made stipulations about how big the different lots should be, like five-acre lots, you know, no less than a three-acre lot. Where they should be placed. If at all possible, the fruit trees should be maintained. And there was one hill that we used to call Christmas Tree Hill, because we planted all the trees on that hill. And it was written that the trees should remain on that hill. And that was very well paid attention to.

WS: How many houses have been built on that land?

LB: Well, it’s interesting because I still sometimes like to go out there and drive around. So, the early-on ones, now there’s one—I can almost count them—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight—I would say ten. I would say ten. Yeah. Ten. But the farmhouse is still there. But it’s changed a lot.

WS: How so?

LB: Well, after my parents died, then we had to figure out what to do with the house. So, fortunately I have three sisters and we all came to an agreement—we always got along well that way—and we decided that, even though we didn’t want to—we couldn’t afford the upkeep on the house and it needed a lot of work—. So, we sold it. And given the time, New Yorkers bought it. And the first people put a lot of money into it. Oh, they did a lot. Foundation, plumbing, electrical. A lot of stuff. But they changed the architecture of it a bit too. They took off one of the side porches which I always thought was nice. And they took off the old back kitchen. And they changed the look of the house quite a bit.

But, then those people sold it very quickly—within ten years, it had three different owners. Yeah. So, each owner did something else. So, the house has been maintained. But when I go inside I hardly recognize it.

WS: You know the current owners?

LB: No, but the first people that bought it, I did go in and they did some strange things like turned the stairs around to make a bigger bedroom upstairs. And they opened it up a lot. The Manhattan look. They gave it the Manhattan style. Nothing wrong with it, you know. But more white and open. Like a loft. Gave it that spacious look. Anyway—.

WS: Your father purchased the sloop Eleanor?

LB: Yes. And when I was looking for those scrapbooks, I came across a handwritten bill of exchange when he acquired that. And it was November 1952. 1952, yeah. It was kind of a gentlemen’s agreement. When you own a boat, and I think something particularly like the Eleanor, a wooden boat with some history, kind of a special boat, and the owner really loves the boat—the deal is to find someone to take over the boat. And care for the boat. No matter whether it’s Eleanor or any other boat. I don’t think it’s that way with a motor boat if a person’s had a motor boat for a couple years it’s kind of like, good, buy it, I’ll be outta here. But I did find that—it was 1952, November. He bought it. It was signed by Edmund Livingston, who owned it prior to my father.

I’ll tell you, that was a big change in our family. When my father bought that boat. Because then—when we had gone on vacations and gone off together as a family, that changed because all the focus went on the Eleanor and on sailing. And it made for a big change in what we were doing.

And when we started out my mother—my mother was very in favor of my father having the boat because we’d looked for a boat for a long time. I remember going on rides on Sunday. And going along and looking for a sail boat. Matter of fact, we looked at one down in the Roe Jan Creek. And it was a little squirrelly sailboat—I mean how did they get it in and out under the railroad? I think you would’ve had to take the mast down to get out in the river. But we went out, the man rowed us out, it must have been high tide. We rowed out, we got in the little boat. It was very squirrelly. Tippy. But my sister and I loved it because it had this little underneath place and little curtains and we thought it was so cute. But it wasn’t a good family boat. Besides it was weird that it was in the Roe Jan Creek.

We were very attracted to the river. He graduated from the New York State Maritime School. In 1922. Which means that he sailed across the ocean twice in a big school ship with sails. Coal and sails. And he grew up on Lake Michigan in Chicago. So, he had a yearning for this sailing. And it went really well with farming because when it was too windy to spray you could sail. And in the fall when all the apples were harvested it was a great time to sail. So it worked out really well.

WS: Do you remember any hairy situations sailing with your father?

LB: Well, you know what I used to say? You never know what a sail is going to be like, because every one is different. Every one is different. Like for example, now, we’re sitting here, you see how the wind has come up? So, now this would promote a whole different feel about the sail. We were here before and there wasn’t very much wind. So, yeah, this is a nice wind—it’s from the north, so you can sail south. But anyway, we didn’t have a motor. We never had a motor. And, back when we first started sailing, the river was really, really dirty. So this would’ve been the fifties. It was very, very dirty. There was a lot of sewage being dumped into the river, there was a lot of trash. And, when we would go sailing, if spray would come over the sail, we’d go “ahhh, we got it on our face.” The first thing we’d do when we’d go home is we’d wash our hands and wash our face. And the other thing is, there were very few boats on the river. Very few boats on the river. Like we might go sailing on a Sunday. No motor. And we’d take someone along. And, by four o’clock the wind would die. And all of a sudden they’d say, “Well, I gotta get back, Phil.” “I gotta get back.” Someone would always have to “get back.” And, so then we’d say, if we see a boat, we’ll hail them to come over and take you off. And we might be out there for the rest of the day and never see a boat. You might see one over on the other side of the river and everybody’d wave and try to get the person to come over. So, very few boats on the river. And very few boats in the creek, where we kept the Eleanor.

WS: Where did you keep it?

LB: We kept it over in the Catskill Creek for a long time. You know the creek where the nose is, before you make the bend. Just on the east side of that. But, where the Catskill Yacht Club is now was Plusch’s boat yard and they had a dock. But those other places, they were not there. They were not there.

WS: There’s a lot of marinas in there now.

LB: There’s a lot of marinas and a lot of boats. So, we never had to worry when we were sailing out of the creek about too much traffic in the creek. But, that really picked up in later years, like on a Sunday, you’d have a lot of traffic.

So, yeah, hairy situations, how about sailing all the way to New York, lots of times, for OpSail. We were a featured boat in OpSail.

WS: What was that?

LB: That was when the tall ships would come from all over and all these boats were featured and 1986 was the year the Eleanor was featured. So, we went down many years for OpSail. But you have to figure if you go all that way, without a motor, it could take—we would leave on the 29th of June and get down to Manhattan around the third of July. In a motor boat, it takes maybe five hours.

WS: You always slept on the boat, or did you camp out?

LB: On the boat. Except one year when we were down there, they had a lot of boats in the Morris Canal on the Jersey side. Oh and also one year we brought our tents and when we got to Manhattan we set up our tents on the dock. Because we were so glad to get some space. After being on the sailboat, really crowded. It was so funny, because here we were sleeping in Manhattan, on the docks, in a tent. And across the street, there were people in apartment buildings with triple locks.

So, anyway, if you go all that way, you’re going to have some experiences. With the wind dying or the wind being very, very strong. Getting becalmed and spending the night on the river. Somebody described it once as camping out. You’re camping out on the boat. That’s what we did. We really camped out on the boat.

WS: Did you moor during the night?

LB: Yeah. If we were out of wind and the tide was going to carry us the wrong way, we would drop anchor, we’d throw the lead line, get out of the channel and sleep on the boat in the middle of the river. I liked it. I always slept on the bow. I liked the bow because it was kind of private up there. So, I was on the bow, two people’d be on the little cabin deck, depending on how many people went. My father always slept down below in a little bunk, maybe somebody else here, somebody else there.

The perfect crew was four. But sometimes we’d have as many as six. And that was a little crowded. But one thing about sailing and I try to say this—there goes a sailboat now—I try to explain, it’s not just learning how to sail, it’s learning all about communication and working with other people. As a team.

I’ll tell you what made it really good that was my father was a very good captain. He was a very good captain. All those years he never had an accident. Never had an accident on the boat. He always made sure everything was correct. We had things like kerosene lights—port and starboard kerosene lights. A lantern for the stern light. It was all Coast Guard-inspected. It all passed inspection. So, it was all okay.

Let’s see if I can come up with one outstanding—I’ll tell you, one time we were—okay—we were coming back from New York and it was late. And we were north of the Bear Mountain Bridge. Had just gotten north of the Bear Mountain Bridge. That was quite a sail. And we had to drop anchor. It was about the fifth of July. We’d always start to sail home on the fifth. And we dropped anchor. And we thought we were out of the channel. At night, it’s hard to see—to get the lights and everything right. So, we thought we were out of the channel, but these boats were coming down from, I think, West Point. These little boats. There had been a fireworks display up there. So, there were a lot of boats coming down. They’d be on this side of us and they’d be on that side of us. And we were rocking. And then finally a big barge came up with a tow—like that one that’s just going by—and they shone a light on us. And they said “Steer away! Steer away!” Because we were in the channel.

WS: The river’s pretty narrow in that section.

LB: Yeah. Some of the river is very narrow. So, then we had to up anchor. And the boat had come about and the anchor was underneath the Eleanor. It was underneath the Eleanor. So, I think it was Les and me and a couple other guys were—we were hauling on that anchor. Hauling on that anchor. It was like trying to drag a Volkswagon from the bottom of the—we could not get that anchor up. So finally we got the boat turned so it came off the anchor and we were able to raise the anchor. And then we paddled out of the channel and then we dropped anchor again.

But, Les, the guy on board, said “I’m sittin’ up all night. I’m gonna sit up on guard.” So he took up front. We would have some alcohol. Pop didn’t drink—the captain did not drink. Which is a good rule. But we would have alcohol on board for, like, five o’clock cocktails, which was another funny thing. So, I said, “Somebody give me that bottle,” I said, “I gotta have a pull on that bottle.” Boy, I took that bottle and choocka-choocka-choocka-choock. It was very stressful. It’s very stressful—.

WS: How close was it with the barge?

LB: I have no idea, but it was too close for comfort. It was one of those things where that tug captain was distressed. Distressed that we were in the middle of the channel.

That was the same sail that when we were coming upriver it got to be night again and we were in the Germantown strait—very narrow there on the other side. Oh, there was terrible wind from the north. Terrible wind from the north and we were trying to go north. We were running against the tide and the wind. And you have to tack—you have to keep tacking back and forth. So every time you tacked, you had to slack the jib, because if you don’t slack the jib it pulls the bow around and you lose way. So, geeze, and I was on the mainsheet, which means that—if you’re on the mainsheet, you’re the person who’s going to slack the main sail to cut the power. So, the person who was on the jib, he just did not get it about slacking that jib. And my father, the captain, was on the tiller, working to move us ahead and every time we came about he’d have to tell that man, again, “Slack the jib! Slack the jib!”

Sails like that are tough.

I was going through some books the other day—I’m trying to weed out some books and things—and there was a book in there called Captain Courageous and my father had given it to me. And he wrote a very nice insert in there about, you know, you’re courageous, you could be this Captain Courageous, read this book and you’ll see yourself.

As he got older, he gave me more responsibility for the boat. He and I did a lot of sailing together, the two of us. Did a lot of sailing. Which was very enjoyable. As a teenager I hated it. Because I always had to be someplace else. We were up in Castleton one night—in Castleton—out of wind. It was like 7:30. And I think I was maybe a sophomore in high school. And I said, “I gotta get back! I have a date at eight o’clock!” And we had ripped the mainsail.

WS: Did the ownership of the Eleanor always stay in your family?

LB: My father owned the Eleanor from 1952 until 1998, when he passed away. And he sailed that year. He was ninety-five. Ninety-five. He was very sick but he still loved to sail and I think it was that May that we got the boat ready really early and we got on the river in May. About May second, which is pretty early. And it just rejuvenated him.

WS: What made you want to restore the Eleanor?

LB: So what happened was, when my father died, in his will he left it to my three sisters and me and once again we came to an agreement that we would keep Eleanor for a couple of years and then see what would happen. And we did, we kept the Eleanor for a couple years and we sailed it. It wasn’t as much fun without the Captain—without my father. Phil.

So then we decided we had to place it somewhere. And just like Edmund Livingston had placed it with my father fifty-so-many years ago, we wanted to have it restored for sail. To be in the water. We didn’t want to give it to Mystic and have it land up in a boneyard. So I did a lot of work researching different places that might accept her. And restore her. I did all the museums and all the restoration places all the way from St. Lawrence to Burlington, Vermont. And finally we came to the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island. And we did a lot of negotiations and I went out and visited. And shook hands and saw the program. And, yes, they would love to have Eleanor and they could take her into the school and she would be restored for sail. Perfect. Perfect. So they came and they picked her up. And she was there for probably ten years. I would say ten years.

And someone from Hudson had been over there and was familiar with the Eleanor and knew I was still around and knew my husband, Joe Keneally, and contacted us and said, you’ve got to bring the Eleanor back to Hudson, she’s just in a terrible state over there. She was in a boneyard in the back with some other boats they had promised they were going to restore and didn’t. So, I was over there in November for another cause. So, sure enough I went and saw the Eleanor, stuck back in the corner, in ruin, just falling apart back there, no cover, nothing. So, I went in, got into the office. I went in, pounded the desk and I said you’re going to send the Eleanor back to Hudson. You haven’t done what you said you were going to do. Which was too bad. But fortunately we’ve moved beyond that. And I try not to be sour grapes about it, but it’s part of the story.

And so they sent the boat back. I think they were very happy to not have the responsibility any more.

And then I found out that all the brass hardware had been taken off and the mast and the boom and the sail, all of that had been—I’ll say pirated. And even though I asked when I discovered that—for drawings or measurements. You know, for a restoration school I would think that they would teach their students the importance of recording. But they hadn’t.

So, that’s why we’re having to have this whole new rig made, the mast and the boom and the gaff. But that’s all right, because it’ll be beautiful and brand new.

There’s one really important thing to let people know is that Eleanor now belongs to the Hudson River Historic Boat Restoration & Sailing Society. A lot of people really associate me with the Eleanor and they know I’m really leading the charge on it. But it’s not because I own it—it doesn’t belong to me. It’s because I’ve made a commitment to do this and now I have a commitment to the people who are counting on it and have contributed money. You know, you have to be responsible and not drop the ball. No, we’ll see it through.