The glittering steam ferry Pilgrim lights up a tranquil evening on Long Island Sound in William Muller’s oil-on-canvas On Board Fall River Line Steamer Priscilla. Priscilla, the 440-foot queen of the line, was the grandest of the “floating palaces” running up and down the sound, connecting New York and Boston during the steamers’ 19th century heyday.
Muller’s passion for these grand vessels comes from growing up in northern Manhattan in the 1940s, with the Hudson River right at hand. The great age of the steamer was over, but the remaining harbor vessels captured the young artist’s imagination. “I used to ride the Staten Island Ferry when it was still steam-powered,” says Muller, who is 83. “On foggy days I would be up on the foredeck, listening to the symphony of whistles, the sounds of the harbor.”
Later, Muller worked as quartermaster on the excursion boat Alexander Hamilton, the last sidewheeler serving under the flag of the Hudson River Day Line. “I remember being on the Hamilton, facing bow-out to the river, getting the logbooks out for the day, warming up the steam steering gears,” Muller says.
His experience lends reality to his work. “I like to get it right,” he says.
Seen from Pilgrim as she passed, Priscilla must have been an imposing sight. She boasted electric lights in the passenger lounges and her 360 staterooms. The two-story grand saloon, with its tinted-glass chandelier and clerestory dome, was declared “one of the most elegantly appointed public rooms anywhere.”
The folks on Priscilla’s deck are enjoying an experience that we can only imagine. “It was a time of majesty afloat, and that’s what floats my boat,” Muller says. “I’ve had a lifelong passion for these wonderful ships, and I live in that age in my head. … I still hear the whistles.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.