Last Voyage of the Thomas Cornell
Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published April 2, 1972.
For nineteen years prior to 1882, there were two very elegant, fast sidewheel steamboats operating between Rondout and New York City. Both steamers were owned by different companies, but operated on the same route on the same schedule on alternate nights, giving a daily service for passengers and freight to New York. One steamboat named “Thomas Cornell” was owned by the Cornell Steamboat Company. The other, slightly smaller, was named “James W. Baldwin” and owned by the Romer and Tremper Steamboat Company.
On March 27, 1882 — 90 years ago tomorrow — the "Thomas Cornell” was to leave Rondout on the final, fateful trip of her career. On her last voyage she had a fairly large load of freight on her main deck forward, the principal item of which was Delaware and Ulster County butter for the New York market, and for that time of year quite a few passengers, approximately 90.
One of the passengers was the late Mrs. Edith Schryver of Port Ewen. She was a young girl on that March night and lived beyond the age of 90. I talked to her several times about the “Thomas Cornell’s” last sailing.
A Rainy Day
The afternoon of March 27, 1882 was hazy with intermittent rain. Promptly at 6 p.m., her regular departure time, the “Thomas Cornell" cast off her mooring lines, backed down on her stern line to swing her bow out into the creek, and blew one long whistle to let go. Small patches of snow could still be seen in the hills of Sleightsburgh.
As the “Cornell” slowly paddled down Rondout Creek, she passed several Cornell sidewheel towboats tied up at the lower Cornell repair shops and a number of ice barges and D. and H. canal boats waiting for repairs at the Morgan Everson shipyard at Sleightsburgh.
As the steamer passed out of the mouth of the creek and past the Rondout Lighthouse, which then stood on the south bank of the creek, Mrs. Murdock (the keeper) came out to wave to Mrs. Schryver. Mrs. Murdock was a relative of Mrs. Schryver and knew she would be a passenger on the “Thomas Cornell” that evening.
As the "Cornell" headed down on the lower ice house at Port Ewen, they could dimly see through the rain and fog banks several schooners and Hudson River sloops anchored in the bad weather and waiting for the tide.
A Thick Fog
Down off Esopus Island, the fog set in very thick. At that point occurs what rivermen call a fog hole, because it comes from both sides of the river. Beaver Creek on the east shore and Black Creek on the west shore. Off Hyde Park, they overtook the towboat "Silas O. Pierce" with a schooner alongside and passed at a nice distance.
The regular landings were made at Poughkeepsie, Milton and Marlborough. As the “Thomas Cornell” left the dock at Marlborough at 8:10 p.m., she grazed the bowsprit of a schooner and broke some slats in her gangway railing.
A few minutes earlier, while still at the Marlborough landing, the "Cornell’s" captain, William H. Cornell, had expressed the opinion it might be wise to lie there until the weather improved. First Pilot Henry W. Briggs, however, assured the captain there was no danger and the steamer got underway.
From Poughkeepsie to Danskammer Point, about 2 ½ miles below Marlborough, the river is relatively straight. On around Danskammer Point, a pilot would alter course and head straight for Smith’s Bluff above Newburgh. Danskammer Point itself is a headland that projects out from the west bank and on its northern side sweeps around in a curve which ends in a narrow formation of rocks bearing north and rises about twelve feet above the water.
After the "Thomas Cornell" left Marlborough the fog seemed to lay on the water, like the rain was trying to push it back in the river. Both First Pilot Briggs and Second Pilot Louis Shultis were in the pilot house. They could just see the top of Hampton Bluff, a large hill about half way between Marlborough and Roseton. The visibility got worse, but pilot Briggs, known as an ace pilot, was confident that his course would take him past Danskammer and into upper Newburgh Bay.
Something, however, went wrong. Perhaps the pilots misjudged the strength of the tide. Perhaps some metal object had drawn the compass off a couple of points. In any event, Captain Cornell entered the pilot house and shortly afterward Second Pilot Shultis shouted, “Heave! Heave!” and rang to stop. At that instant, the “Thomas Cornell” ran right up on Danskammer Point.
If she had been but 25 or 30 feet to the east, she would have just missed, but this was not the case.
Since the “Cornell” was just in too close, her bow plowed up on the rocks and knocked down scrub pines and alders. Her deck beams and planking must have made a terrific cracking and splintering sound on that quiet rainy night as she climbed up that rocky arm protruding out in the Hudson.
Life Boats Over
Her stern began to settle in the water and in a few moments life boats were put over and ladders placed from the bow to the ground. Some passengers and crew went down the ladders directly to terra firma. In 20 minutes all of the passengers and their baggage were ashore.
Over 50 years later, I was told by a man who worked at the brickyard below Danskammer Point that he had lived in the area and was about 14 years old the night of the accident. He told me how he had heard a loud crash like trees crashing in a high wind. When he started up to where the noise came from, he could hear loud talking and a bell ringing, like the sound of a distant church bell. The bell had actually been the bell of the “Thomas Cornell” being tolled by her officers to attract attention.
The man told me that when he got to the scene through the fog and rain over the rocks, there were all these people and that great white steamer with her bow standing high out of the water among the rocks and trees. He said he was so frightened he couldn’t say a word. Everybody else seemed to be talking at once.
The tolling of the "Cornell’s” bell attracted the attention of the passing steamer “John L. Hasbrouck," the Poughkeepsie to New York night boat. The “Hasbrouck”’ took aboard most of the passengers and part of the crew. At Newburgh, the crew members and 30 passengers, who had had enough steamboating for one night, went ashore and spent the night. The remaining passengers continued on to New York.
The Salvage Job
Preparations were immediately undertaken to salvage the wrecked steamboat and the Coast Wrecking Company with a bid of $17,500 was given the job. Under the direction of Wrecking Master Merritt, the "Thomas Cornell” was pulled off Danskammer Point on May 5, floated and towed to Port Ewen. She had suffered so severely in the accident, however, a decision was made to abandon her and build a new boat to replace her. The hull was later made into two barges.
Pilot Briggs was deeply affected by the accident. Some second guessers blamed him for running in the fog. Others approved his action, pointing out that the steamboat owners took a dim view of employees who lost valuable freight and passengers by tying their boats up at docks along the river. It would appear the second group were sounder in their thinking, at least at that time, as all other boats the night of the accident were reported by Poughkeepsie on time.
The accident led indirectly to several other later incidents. For the balance of the season of 1882, the steamboat “City of Catskill” was chartered from the Catskill Line to run in the place of the lost “Thomas Cornell.”
Next winter, the Cornell office on Ferry Street in Rondout caught fire and was destroyed. The fire spread to the steamer “City of Catskill” which was layed up in the ice behind the Cornell office and totally destroyed the steamboat.
The next year, the new steamboat the “City of Kingston,” which was built to replace the “Thomas Cornell,” appeared on the river. In 1889, she was sold and went all the way from Rondout around Cape Horn to Puget Sound, where she was later sunk in a collision. This, however, will be the subject of a later article.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
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Twenty years ago, four friends with an abiding love of the Hudson River and its history stepped away from their families and their work to travel up the river in a homemade strip-planked canoe to experience the river on its most intimate terms. The team set off from Liberty State Park in New Jersey and completed the adventure nine days later just below Albany where one of the paddlers lived. They began with no itinerary and no pre-arranged lodging or shore support. There were no cell phones. The journey deepened their appreciation for the river and its many moods, the people who live and work beside the river and the importance of friendship in sustaining our lives.
Please join us vicariously on this excellent adventure. We'll be posting every Friday for the next several weeks, so stay tuned! Follow the adventure here.
I woke up to heavy dew at 4:30 AM, cleaned up and began packing. The others rose from their fitful rest at 5:00. We were anxious to catch the flood tide. We fixed some oatmeal, broke camp and were paddling north before sunrise. We hailed the canal cruise ship Niagara Princess and rounded Danskammer Point, named by early Dutch travelers who are said to have witnessed council fires and native dancing on the promontory. Moments later, we witnessed the sun rise above the concrete silos and steel conveyors of the stone crusher on the east shore. Shifting tugs were already arranging barges at the plant and the sun’s long rays were described in sharp focus by the omnipresent clouds of dust. The crusher plant here and the power plant at Danskammer Point are two of the most obnoxious blights on the river between the Highlands and Catskill.
We reached the Pirate Canoe Club a mile south of Poughkeepsie at 7:45 AM just as the current turned against us. After tying up, we walked to the clubhouse and asked the members at the bar if we could stay until the tide turned. They graciously welcomed us and put on a fresh pot of coffee. They served the coffee with donuts and we watched Good Morning America and the Weather Channel on the TV set over the bar. Hurricane Dennis was still stalled off Cape Hatteras.
Our hosts were proud to tell us about the origins of their club. It was established along Poughkeepsie’s central waterfront but was forced to relocate as a result of urban renewal. The new clubhouse was perched on a rock jutting out into the river. The docks were connected to the clubhouse by a series of wooden gangways and stairs and there was an overturned canoe inscribed with the club’s name hanging near the entrance road coming into the club. Although founded as a canoe club, powered craft prevailed along the docks. The club had an old crane for seasonally placing and removing dock sections. Membership was inexpensive by any standard. The drinks here were cheap too. Dan, Steve and Joe decided to walk into town and I stayed behind to organize our gear and to draw and write. A north breeze began to blow and with it, the humidity began to dissipate. An older club member came by in his kayak and visited with me for a while and I asked him about camping on Esopus Island. He thought it would be fine and told me that there was a landing place on the southeast side where we could draw our canoe up onto the island. My partners returned at 11:00 with fresh vegetables for supper and a book for Dan. Joe was elated to have fresh ingredients for tonight’s supper. We had lunch on the hill and caught the beginning of the flood tide at 2:00. Soon, we passed beneath the Wizard of Oz-like Poughkeepsie suspension bridge and the long abandoned railroad bridge keeping close to shore in order to get the most out of the favorable current.
We came abreast of the Culinary Institute of America and bantered with two students enjoying the river. They bragged that they could cook better than any of us and offered to prove it by preparing some fish for dinner if we could only catch some. We hadn’t brought any fishing gear and sadly couldn’t take them up on this offer. We continued north through the Lange Rack and past Crum Elbow and the Hyde Park train station.
Esopus Island was visible straight ahead. We found the landing place on the southeast side amidst dwarfed cedar trees and climbed out at 4:30. After scouting the island we decided to camp here. We unloaded the canoe and then took her out light to explore the island’s shoreline all the way around. Our circumnavigation complete, we set up our camp and more thoroughly explored the island. We found evidence of the island’s history; flint flakes discarded near the river during the process of making tools and weapons, the remnants of a low stone wall perhaps intended to contain sheep, stone foundations for an early aid to navigation and fragments of the sidewheel steamer Point Comfort which failed to see the island and ran up on it early in 1919. There was also plenty of poison ivy and lots of red ants. The island’s vegetation was severely dried out as a result of a hot dry summer and the thin soil covering the island. Many leaves had fallen and those which hadn’t were brown. It was very reminiscent of an Indian summer in October.
We were well north of the leading edge of the salt line and took this opportunity to thoroughly bathe in the river. Once clean, we began dinner. Dan and I sketched the scene in our journals. Dinner was served at sunset and included a massive fresh vegetable salad with radicchio, noodles with spaghetti sauce and fried Spam. We cleaned up at 9:00 and sat around the campfire for a while listening to the din of birds and crickets and sharing our thoughts about the trip. A turkey vulture circled overhead. We reflected upon the subtle unfolding of the river and its surroundings and distant views experienced by travelers in both directions. Joe aptly described our adventure as “a kaleidoscope of marvelous experiences that seemed to glide from one to another.”
Some big birds tramped around our camp with heavy feet at night. In the morning, we found what appeared to be a pterodactyl egg on the bluff east of our campsite. It dawned upon us that we had built our camp at the intersection of a busy network of blue heron paths.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for Day 6 of the trip!
Muddy Paddle’s love of the Hudson River goes back to childhood when he brought dead fish home, boarded foreign freighters to learn how they operated and wandered along the river shore in search of the river’s history. He has traveled the river often, aboard tugboats, sailing vessels large and small and canoes. The account of this trip was kept in a small illustrated journal kept dry within a sealed plastic bag. The illustrations accompanying this account were prepared by the author.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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