Anne Marguerite Hyde de Neuville (ca. 1749-1849), "Vue d'Amboy et du Steam-Boat" 28 juillet 1809
Detail from Anne Marguerite Hyde de Neuville, “Vue d’Amboy et du Steam-Boat,” 1809.

ARRIVING in 1823 at Perth Amboy, William Whitehead could recall only one previous experience of travel by water: a crossing of the Hudson with his father on a shallow-draft, two-masted rig called a periauger or pettiauger. (The size and design of such craft were, like the name, variable.) If there had been another such excursion, tellingly it did not stay fixed in his thirteen-year-old memory.

The periauger, developed by early Dutch watermen for plying the coves and creeks between New Jersey and New York, symbolized a vanishing past. Whitehead’s father opted for the old-fashioned sailboat only because the usual steam-propelled vessel was out of service.1

A young Cornelius Vanderbilt, about the time of William Whitehead’s birth, captained a periauger to ferry goods and people back and forth from Staten Island. It was a modest beginning for the future robber baron, who would soon exchange wind-driven boats for new modes of travel powered by fire and steam.

On regular runs between New Brunswick and New York, Vanderbilt’s steamboats frequently called at Perth Amboy.2 The presence of the man everyone came to know as the “Commodore” must have made some impression on the life of the young William Whitehead, yet it is hard to conceive of two temperaments more completely opposite. The iron-willed Vanderbilt, with a tenuous grasp of written English and no patience for book learning, went on to forge a vast empire of steam and steel to the ruination of many who stood in his way, while Whitehead, fifteen years his junior, happily sketched, read and wrote about the vestiges of Perth Amboy’s past, which he considered “mementos … of the instability of earthly enterprises, and the feebleness of man’s exertions.”3

In the 1850s fortune would briefly unite these very different men, when Whitehead accepted employment with a beleaguered railroad just as Vanderbilt was moving to take control of it. We have from Whitehead a later, unfavorable assessment of the Commodore but no comment on his sojourns in Perth Amboy, where both probably frequented the same waterfront but neither presumably had much interest in the affairs of the other.

Copyright © 2017-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] William A. Whitehead, “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” part of a memoir of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida. Page 14 recalls the trip across the North (now Hudson) River.

[2] Wharf records also show Vanderbilt’s steamships Bellona and Thistle moored at Perth Amboy: the Bellona for much of December 1822, the Thistle for two nights in January 1825. New Jersey Historical Society, Manuscript Group 455, Perth Amboy Wharf, Perth Amboy, N.J.

[3] William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy and Adjoining Country (New York 1856) 1-2.

Image: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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