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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On March 16, 1893 the Saugerties Weekly Post recounted a freshet on Rondout Creek. Freshets are spring flash floods caused by quick melting of snowpack in the mountains. Usually, the quick thaw comes while there is still ice on the larger creeks and rivers, causing ice dams. The meltwater builds up behind the ice, until the ice finally breaks, and a wall of water with huge chunks of ice rushes down the creek.
Rondout Creek has an enormous watershed, draining most of the eastern Catskill mountains. Lower Rondout Creek also contains the entire watershed of the Wallkill River, which flows north from northern New Jersey, through Orange County up into Ulster County. Because of this, lower Rondout Creek was frequently plagued by floods.
Freshets were common in the 19th century, and caused much damage. In the 20th century, many tributaries and creeks were dammed for hydroelectric power. The upper ends of Rondout Creek are curtailed by the Rondout Reservoir, part of the Catskills Aqueduct system, as well as smaller dams left over from industrial mills, such as the Eddyville Dam near Lock 1 of the D&H Canal.
Two dams located near the confluence of the Wallkill River and the Rondout Creek greatly curtail the amount of water that flows naturally into the Rondout. Sturgeon Pool hydroelectric dam sits at the confluence of the two bodies of water. Just northwest of Sturgeon Pool, the Dashville Hydroelectric station was installed at the naturally-occurring Dashville Falls. Both hydroelectric stations are some of the earliest in the region, completed in the 1920s.
Combined with climate change, which has limited the buildup of snowpack in the Catskills, these dams have helped mitigate catastrophic flooding in the modern era.
The Freshet of 1893 was a doozy, like other freshets in 1878 and more famously in 1936. Captain William O. Benson also recalled both the 1893 and 1936 freshets in his 1978 article. Catherine Murdock also recalled the Flood of 1878.
"Freshet in the Rondout"
The following is a verbatim transcription of "Freshet in the Rondout," originally published on March 16, 1893 in the Saugerties Weekly Post. Many thanks to researcher George Thompson for finding and transcribing this article.
The freshet in the Rondout creek Monday did great damage. The great ice gorge below the dam at Eddyville broke about 3:30 p. m. The immense body of water behind it rushed down the creek, carrying thousands of tons of ice with it. This struck the Cornell fleet, which winters there, and swept almost every steamboat and forty or fifty other boats into the river. The ropes which moored the boats between the Delaware and Hudson coal dock and the mainland were snapped like thread, and even heavy anchor chains were broken. In the course down the creek many boats were badly stove, and the Pittston, valued at $10,000, and the Adriatic, at $8,000, are thought to be so badly damaged that they will sink.
The news of the great flood spread over the town, and in a very short time the docks were crowded with people. The screams of the men on the helpless boats and the crunching of the big steamers and canal boats as they were stove, added to the rush of water, caused the most intense excitement. Ropes thrown out to hold the boats availed nothing. The large side wheeler Norwich and the tug C. D. Mills, the only boats with steam up, could not save the drifting boats. They had great difficulty in saving themselves.
Besides about twenty-five steamboats, thirty Northern canal boats loaded with ice and twenty-five Delaware and Hudson boats were swept away. Many of these were crushed and sunk on the way down the creek. Some of these canal boats were occupied by families, and they were rescued with great difficulty. The sight of the women wringing their hands, and the frantic men, was witnessed with horror by the people on shore. Those in the boats either jumped ashore as the craft swung in or escaped over the immense cakes of floating ice.
The ice dam below Eddyville formed Saturday. The heavy rain that night caused the water to raise fully eight feet. A large part of Eddyville was inundated and families have had to leave their houses for higher ground. The damage there will amount to many thousand dollars. The Lawrence Cement Company had 18.000 barrels of cement, valued at $22,000, stored in their Eddyville mill. This is a total loss.
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Editor's Note: This account is from the February 23, 1879 New York Times. The tone of the article reflects the time period in which it was written.
"A Winter Ramble Over The Surface of the Hudson – Fishing Through The Ice – A Trap for Ice-Yachts – Trying Speed With Thought – Looking Down Upon A Winter Scene
Walking on the surface of the deep is no miracle in our climate. But the experience is quite rare enough to make a vivid impression, especially on those who tread habitually the dull sidewalks of a city. For the mind is haunted by at least a feeling of the miraculous as you walk over a great lake or river. The elements seem to have forgotten their laws, and the whole face of nature is weird when her gleaming eyes turn glassy. This unusual view of nature drew me to visit the Winter scenes on the Hudson. I purposed on this Winter walk to go from Poughkeepsie to Newburg on the ice, through the region renowned for ice-boating; where they hold tournaments for lady skaters; where they trot horses when they cannot row regattas; and where Winter life on the ice may seen in its perfection. I started by skating, and I rested from this by sailing, and walking part of the time, for I have a friend on the way who is a famous iceboat skipper; and we skipped about the river with the speed of the wind. I can scarcely call the trip a walk; for I traveled neither all by water nor by land, nor yet as the fowls of the air. But, however I went, the excursion was delightful with scenes and experiences characteristic of the Winter life of the Hudson.
As I left the dock at Poughkeepsie and skated out over the river, a thrill – almost a shiver – ran through me as I thought of the depths. But a few inches below my feet. Of course, one is not afraid on ice nearly a foot thick, but this unusual relation to deep wide water is unavoidably startling. You say to yourself there is no danger, but you feel to yourself, this is all very queer. The first minutes of my trip were therefore a little chaotic, with the confidence born of other people’s opinions, yet, with my own secret questioning about the ice all the way down my long route. But the exhilaration of the keen Winter morning soon bore away every other feeling. The thermometer marked only 15 degrees; a light west wind blew down over the hills of Ulster County, and the clear air and sunlight made the most distant scenes appear like faultless miniatures. I looked down the river 20 miles, over my whole route. The river near by was a narrow level valley between high banks of bare trees. The hills over-topping the banks were also brown and bare, excepting here and there a patch of snow or a knoll crowned with cedars that added deep shadows to the sober face of nature. The level valley of ice ran straight away to the distance between dark wooded headlands projecting one behind another, and marking in clear perspective the long vista of the river. The valley seemed to end at the foot of the Highlands, which over-topped the whole scene with their majestic heads, now gray with snow under a bare forest. This long level of ice was generally smooth, excepting here and there, a low wandering ridge of projecting edges and cakes at cracks; and the shores were marked by a tide.
Groups of men and boys were seen down the valley, even far off, and a few ice-boats were moving about at Milton, four miles below, and at New-Hamburg, 10 miles off. The mirage was very strong this clear morning, so the boats appeared double, as if one ran on the ice and other under it. The new ice was a curious record of nature in a warm and lenient hour. Jack Frost seemed a tell-tale of his freaks. He had pressed her white flowers; he had preserved her little landscapes modeled in the ice of rivulet, gorge, and bluff; he had caught the wind playing with the ripples and locked them fast, and he had painted the clouds and scattered crystals for the stars.
I soon reached Blue Point, where some fishermen were taking up their nets, and a few boys were grouped about them. Two men at each end of a narrow trench cut through the ice, and hauled up a line. These lines at last brought up a net 12 feet square, with a pole across the bottom, weighted with a stone at each end. The nets are lowered her about 50 feet, or half way to the bottom, and 10 to 20 of them are put down in a row across the current, over a reef or rocky point. The upper ends of the lines are tied to sticks that lie across the open trench, or stand up in the ice. The nets swing off under the ice, by the pressure of the current, and fill out like open bags. Catfish run into them, and are kept there by the current until slack water enables them to leave; but perch and bass are caught by the gills in the two-and-a-quarter-inch meshes. When the nets had all been lifted and put down again, the men picked up the few perch and young sturgeons, frozen as stiff as sticks, and walked to the shore. There they had a flat-boat decked over for a house. Bunks, stove, and various fishing-tackle filled the little cabin with a chaotic mass. They will launch their boat when the ice leaves, and float up or down then river as inclination may direct. In good seasons this ice-fishing yields often 50 pounds of fish at a lift, the men make about $10 per day with 20 nets. This year the fishing here is very poor, for the great freshet of the Fall carried the bass down to Haverstraw Bay.
I left the fishermen of Blue Point, and skated down the opposite shore. The bluffs along the railroad cuts were hung with great icicles, some of them 8 or 10 feet long. Every projecting ledge of some cliffs, from top to bottom, was decked with these splendid crystals, flashing in the sunlight. And at their feet, the twigs and rocks were covered with round forms of quaint shapes. While I stood there the rails began to ring faintly, but clearly as a bell, in the frosty air. The sounds beat in quick pulsations, grew to a rumbling, then to an increasing roar, and in a moment an express train came around the point at a thundering pace. All the stillness and peace of the morning vanished as before the blast of war. It passed in an instant; the roaring fled; the rails rang again with a clear, pure music, softer, and fainter still, and then the Winter silence came once more over the valley of ice. The solemn repose of the great river was then unbroken. For even its mutterings were solemn, when the ice cracked under my feet with a loud report, and the sound darted away in quick, erratic angles to the bluff, and still rumbled on in persistent gloom. The falls at the Pin Factor were a scene of prettier details. The rocks were covered with pillowy masses of whitish ice, and the clear water came down in zig-zag courses, now over these pillows, now under ice caverns built over rocks. The steep descent of the stream was guarded by rustic balustrades of roots and branches, all covered with ice, and the whole was partly veiled by some bare elms, bushes, and dark cedars. A nearer view of the ice showed it to be a bank of crystal flowers, gleaming faintly with prismatic hues in the sunshine. The water ran all over it in little rivulets perfectly free from earthly stain. The dim caves were the most poetic objects; they had neither a ray of sunshine nor a line of shadow within them; yet their sculptured walls were exquisitely shaded with the softest, clearest lights, and the arch in front was hung with crystals of brilliant colors. The whole fall was full of magic, the faint Winter music of the stream, the exquisite delicacy of forms petrified as in death, and the strangeness of objects that transmit light instead of casting shadows. The only witness of the scene is an old mill with a crumbling wheel that once turned round to the music of the brook. Now when the moonlight shines on his tottering form on the falls in the magic of Winter, and on the wide river groaning in his bed, the scene must be still more weird, if not more beautiful.
I went on to Milton, and there found my friend and his ice-boat ready for a cruise further down the river. I put on a few suits of clothes, woolen socks, arctics and mittens; then we embarked, and glided away toward New Hamburg. Other boats were skimming over the ice, and we exchanged many social greetings, if that term can be applied to salutations that begin and end at opposite points of the horizon. I dream of flying when I hold the tiller of an ice-boat, and find myself flitting about the earth, and reaching a place almost as soon as my thought of it. We flew about the Hudson for an hour or more, here turning to visit this point or that, there pausing in our flight to enjoy the excitement of another start, or to touch the social scenes and incidents of this Winter life. At a place near Milton we were admiring a large boat coming from the distance at great speed. Suddenly she stopped. As something was evidently the matter, we ran down there, and found her fast in a hollow that had been filled with water and then skimmed with thin ice. These hollows form by the expansion of the ice. The expansion across the river drives the ice up the shore, so that no cracks form up and down the stream. But the still greater expansion of the long stretches of ice up and down the river find no such room as the shores. The ice, therefore, doubles up, or buckles. It thus either throws up a low ridge, or else forms a hollow, on each side of the cracks running across the stream. The ridge does not interfere much with travel until one side of it drops down and makes a step or fault. But the hollow fills with water, sometimes several feet deep; and at last the tide catches one side of the inclined cakes or sides of the hollow, doubles it under, and carries it away. These clear, open cracks, from 10 to 20 feet wide, are slow to freeze, and generally offer the most dangerous places on the ice. They may form at any time, even in cold weather; so that constant attention and good light are required in raveling up or down the river. But, to return to the stranded ice-boat. She had a good breeze, and had come to this hollow too suddenly to avoid it. If the new ice had been a little stronger, or else narrower, it might have held her up till her forward runners had reached the old ice on the further side of the hollow, and the high wind, with her momentum, would have drive her through. This she would have “jumped a crack,” as the phrase goes; instead of this she “broke through,” as another phrase goes, and her passengers and crew were there surrounded by broken thin ice over a hollow of water in a depression of old ice. Now, we were interested chiefly in the passengers, for they were two very pretty girls, who explained with much animation and distinctness that they would like to get out of that situation. They appeared very well in the midst of rich furs and robes, but for once this advantage was ignored. So we had all the pleasure of their unnecessary distress, and finally landed them, still warm and dry, on the old ice. Then the boat was rescued, and amid many thanks on one side and some merry advice on the other, both parties darted away on the wind. We were afterward favored with pretty salutations from them, too literally en passant, yet too long drawn out for any comfort. Afterward, the same hollow entrapped a second boat; but this had only men aboard and we let them scramble out by themselves. A third boat came up to see what was the matter, and also ran into the trap. Then a fourth came up with a gust of wind, and ran her port runner and the rudder in before she could be rounded to. The water flew, the ice rattled; and it came so suddenly that the whole crew jumped off in a fright. But the whole crew was only one man, and the helmsman stuck to his tiller and brought her out to clear sailing again.
At Marlboro we found a crowd of skaters and sliders, collected to witness a horse-race on the ice. They all seemed to be animated with red, red noses. For the wind was keen, and they had to keep in constant motion. Some rosy girls and boys, with scarlet mittens and comforters, were skating hand in hand along the retired nooks of the shores. And some of the farmers from the hills were speeding their horses up and down the straight track on the ice. The village looked down on the scene from the head of its picturesque ravine. Northward, the river stretched away between its bold banks to Poughkeepsie, throwing up a cloud of thin smoke on the Western wind. Southward, the valley of ice ran between still bolder heads of dark cedars, along the sweeps of Low Point, past Newburg, and down to the foot of the Highlands. The gray heads of the mountains were nearer and grander now than when I first saw them from up the river. As the afternoon was passing away, we had to turn our backs on the swarms of boys and men at the horse-race, wave a last farewell to our pretty acquaintances on the ice-boat, and stand away southward. We flew along with a stiff breeze past New-Hamburg, the bold hills at Hampton, and on to other picturesque points. Cracks in the ice here and there made us turn in and out, and flit about with the quick motions of a bird. At last I had to give up the tiller, at the Dantz Kammer Point, shed my various suits down to a walking load, and bid the skipper good by as he flew away up the river.
But, after all, give me the sober earth for better or for worse. I enjoyed again the firmness of a good hard road, and the steadfast reality of a good walk down to Newburg. The road gradually mounts the high bank of the river among an army of cedars storming the height, and some farm-houses and orchards in their Winter reserve. At the top of the hill, near Balmville, you look back up the river and over the plains of Dutchess County. Southward the view includes the rolling hills about Newburg and Fishkill, the spires of these pretty towns, and the broad bay between them. The valley of ice contracts there to enter the magnificent gorge of the Highlands, and then disappears behind the shoulders of the mountains. These majestic spirits of the Winter scene are now still grander as you near their feet and gaze at their hoary, silent crowns. The suburbs of Newburg were quite cheerful. Carriages, with spirited horses, and with rosy faces above rich robes, dashed along the roads, and here and there a cozy home-scene shone out of window among evergreens. The town, too, was alive with teams and people from the surrounding country. Winter vigor and high spirits pervaded both man and beast. And I was kin enough to each to share in their joy for the keen Winter day. C.H. F."
Thank you to Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer George Thompson, retired New York University reference librarian, for sharing these glimpses into early life in the Hudson Valley. And to the dedicated museum volunteers who transcribe these articles.
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Editor's Note: These accounts are from the June 9, 1831 issue of The Evening Post (NY) and the National Gazette (Philadelphia, PA). The tone of the articles reflect the time period in which they were written.
June 9, 1831 The Evening Post (NY) General Jackson Boiler explosion – Lives Lost and Saved
The morning papers contain a few further particulars concerning the late steamboat disaster on the North River. Two other deaths in consequence of the explosion are to the added to the list which we gave yesterday. The name of one of the unfortunate victims is Mr. Marshall, a passenger, and the other was Mr. Brady, of this city, a carpenter, and a man of much talent and ingenuity. He was exceedingly skillful as an architectural, machine, and ornamental iron work draughtsman.
Among the persons severely, but it is hoped not fatally scalded, are Mr. John Glads, of Haverstraw, the bar-keeper of the boat, and Mr. Rathbone, of this city. Mr. Rathbone is a young gentleman of wealth, who was returning to New York from his country seat, on the North River, opposite Grassy Point. At the time of the disastrous explosion he was in the act of stepping on board the steamboat from his own boat. One of his arms was broken, and his leg dreadfully torn and shattered, so much so that amputation has, we learn, since been resorted to.
The Journal of Commerce relates the following instance of fortunate escape.
A singular circumstance is related to us of another gentleman, well known to the public as a zealous promoter of every good object, who had intended to come down in the same boat [General Jackson]. It appears that he was waiting, either at Peekskill or one of the landing-places lower down, when the Captain of a sloop, which was just getting under way, solicited him very earnestly to take a passage with him. No, he replied; he was waiting for the steamboat. The Captain still pressed the invitation, and withal manifested so much good nature, that the gentleman finally consented. [Money of course was no object with him, being independently rich.] The winds afterwards became less favorable, and he did not arrive in the city till after midnight. He then told his companion that he had been silly enough to go on board a sloop instead of taking the steamboat, and had got well paid for his folly, by being detained till that hour. What was his surprise when he learned that to this circumstance, under Providence, he was probably indebted for the preservation of his life.
June 9, 1831 The National Gazette (Philadelphia PA) Steamboat General Jackson’s Boiler Explodes near Grassy Point Dock on June 7, 1831 [From the N. Y. Com. Advertiser of Wednesday.]
Steamboat Explosion - The startling intelligence was received last evening, and spread rapidly over the city, that the Steamboat Gen. Jackson had exploded yesterday afternoon, some where in the neighborhood of Sing Sing, and that many lives had been lost. The accounts of this disaster given in the morning papers, are in substantial agreement, and we have selected that of the Mercantile, which is as follows:
Another Steamboat Explosion. – The steamboat General Jackson, Capt. Vanderbilt, that has plied daily between this city [New York] and Peekskill, on her passage down burst her boiler with a terrible explosion. The accident occurred about 4 o'clock, while she was lying near Grassy Point Dock, a new landing in Haverstraw bay, about two miles below Stoney Point Light House, and thirty-five miles from the city. Captain Vanderbilt was on shore at the time, assisting in the landing of passengers and merchandize. Such was the force of the explosion that the boiler was blown entirely from its place, and fell in the river between the boat and the dock; a great part of the forward deck was demolished - the bows blown out, and in about 20 minutes, the boat sank, the stern only being visible above the surface of the water. When the accident happened, the steam boat Albany, Capt. Jenkins, on her passage down, was only a few miles from the scene of this terrible catastrophe, and in half an hour thereafter, Captain Jenkins was near enough to send his yawl onshore, to the assistance of the sufferers. Capt. Vanderbilt and six passengers returned to the city in the Albany last evening, and from their report we regret to state, that a man and a boy were killed, and when the Albany left the scene, a black man was on the point of death; about 15 others were wounded, some of them, including the engineer, so seriously that their lives were despaired of. The Gen. Jackson had on board about 40 passengers, but the short period that elapsed between the accident and the departure of the Albany, together with the confusion of the scene, render the particulars thus far received, rather imperfect. Whether any passengers were missing or not, was unascertained; nor did we learn that any cause could be assigned for the fatal explosion.
Since the above was prepared, one of the passengers in the Gen. Jackson has called to inform us, that the following persons are already dead; viz: - John Van Tine, Engineer; Oliver Mott, Fireman; - Morris, Waiter; Captain Van Wart, the Pilot; a colored man by the name of Smith, (the Cook;) and one of the hands, also a colored man, who died this morning. This is the second narrow escape of our informant, who was a passenger on board of the Washington, at the time of her late disaster. There was a countryman on board of the Gen. Jackson, who was blown to a considerable height, and fell into the river, where he was picked up with but little injury. He was ascending the gang-way from the cabin, at the time of the explosion; but he says he heard nothing of it, and while supposing himself just stepping on the deck, he was surprised to find people pulling him out of the water. The boat went down in ten minutes from the time of the accident.
P. S. Just as we were putting this paper to press, the following list of persons dead, or injured by the explosion, was handed to us, from which it appears that the pilot and engineer of the boat are not dead.
Captain Vanwart, pilot, badly scalded; John Vantine, engineer, a fireman, (a colored man) and a deck hand, all very badly scalded; Mr. Marshall, a passenger, dead; John Glass, of Haverstraw, very badly scalded; Miss Dow, dead; Rufus (a waiter) missing; the bar keeper had his legs badly scalded; Mr. Bradley, (architect) of this city, very much mangled, and not expected to recover.
The Journal of Commerce says: - The only additional fact which we have learned with certainty in respect to the explosion on board the steam boat Gen. Jackson, is, that among the sufferers is Mr. Rathbone of this city, a gentleman of wealth, whose country seat is nearly opposite Grassy Point, where the accident happened. His leg is dreadfully torn, the cords being all separated above the knee, and one of his arms broken.
June 10, 1831 The National Gazette (Philadelphia PA); Further Details about the Explosion on the General Jackson
New York, June 9 Further particulars of the late Steamboat Disaster.
By the North America steamer last evening, the following additional particulars of the late melancholy disaster of the General Jackson, were received by the morning papers, from which it will be seen that the dead and wounded are more numerous than we had hoped, or than was first reported.
"In the [steamer] North America, (says the Mercantile,) the dead bodies of John Vantine, Engineer, Josiah R. Brady, architect, and Miss Dow, were brought to this city. John Glass, Esq. calico printer from Glasgow, who settled in Haverstraw a few years ago, and Mr. Mitchell, of Peekskill, are dead; and two it is said died while they were being conveyed to Poughkeepsie. Rufus, a waiter, is missing - as well as three or four others. Fourteen are badly bruised or scalded, of whom not more than three are expected to recover - among them are Mr. Edward B. Rathbone, merchant, of this city, whose arm was broken, and whose left leg was terribly shattered. Dr. Proudfoot, who was on tho spot, set the former immediately, and yesterday, amputated the latter, but Mr. Rathbone is in a very precarious situation. Smith, the cook; capt. Van Wart, the pilot; the barkeeper, the fireman, a colored man, and a deck hand, are severely scalded and not expected to survive - these are all the names that have come to our knowledge. The General Jackson is a complete wreck; save the deck, scarcely one plank remaining to another."
The remains of Mr. Vantine have been taken to New Brunswick for interment. Mr. Van Wart was not dead last evening, but was not expected to live through the night. Mr. Glass was found after the explosion, suspended by his neck-handkerchief - dead. Dr. Proudfoot was conversing with Brady, at the time the latter was injured, and was himself unharmed.
The number of the dead is thus summed up: Five died at Grassy Point; two died on their way to Poughkeepsie; two no doubt were carried down in the vessel, as they were distinctly heard halloing for help, and how many more is not known. [Final death toll turned out to be 14 people.]
Thank you to Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer Carl Mayer for sharing and transcribing these articles and for the glimpse into nineteenth century life in the Hudson Valley.
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Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 15, 1897 in the New York Times. The tone of the article reflects the time period in which it was written.
COLLISION IN MIDSTREAM
Steamboat Catskill Sunk by the Steamboat St. Johns in the North River.
THREE PASSENGERS MISSING
Capt. Cooper of the Catskill Explains How He Signaled the St. Johns and How the Collision Occurred.
The steamer Catskill, Capt. Joel Cooper, bound for Catskill and way points with forty-seven passengers and freight, was run down and sunk in the North River at 7 o'clock P. M. yesterday by the excursion steamer St. Johns, Capt. Jacob Braisted, of the Sandy Hook Line.
Bertie Timmerman, the six-year-old son of Moses Timmerman, of Leeds, N. Y., was seen to jump from the Catskill, and is reported as being drowned. Mrs. Maria McDonald and Mrs. Susan Morris of Guttenberg, N. J. were unaccounted for last night after the rest of the passengers had been taken from the sinking vessel. Leonard R. Miller of 343 Garden Street, Hoboken, had his leg broken and was thrown overboard in the collision, but was picked up by a tug.
Met in Mid Stream.
The steamers met in midstream, when the sun was yet hardly below the horizon, and every craft afloat on the river was visible from either shore. The prow of the St. Johns crashed into the starboard side of the Catskill near the bow, cutting its way several feet into her and sending all of the deck structures amidships down to the decks. As the water rushed into the Catskill the wildest panic prevailed among her passengers, as they struggled and fought for life preservers. Four of the passengers, including the boy Timmerman, jumped overboard, and one was thrown over by the force of the shock. Many were dashed to the deck and stunned or bruised.
The collision occurred at a point in the river between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth Streets, and was witnessed by many people on both shores. Within a minute after the collision there was a swarm of all kinds of craft heading from all directions to aid in the rescue of the passengers. The Catskill remained afloat about five minutes, and in that time she was cleared of her passengers and towed a short distance toward the Jersey shore, where she went down with her smokestack marking the place where she rested.
Statements of Passengers.
From the statements of rescued passengers it appears that the collision was the result of a misunderstanding of the signals passed between the pilots of the vessels. The only alternative is that one of the engineers misunderstood his orders from the pilot.
The St. Johns was returning to her pier, at the foot of Rector Street, with a party of excursionists. The Catskill left her pier, at the foot of Christopher Street, at 6:30 P. M. with a large freight load. The former is an iron sidewheel steamer, and was built at Wilmington, Del., in 1873. She is of 1,098 gross tonnage and is 250 feet in length and 30 feet beam. The Catskill is owned in Albany, and was built in Mystic Bridge, Conn., in 1863. She is a wooden sidewheel Steamer of 816 gross tons, and is 226 feet long, with a beam of 28 feet 6 inches.
The St. Johns was apparently not greatly injured by the collision, and her Captain held her in the stream near by until the tugs and small boats that answered the call from his whistles had done all that could be done in the way of rescue. Her passengers were as wildly excited as those aboard the Catskill. They were landed on the New Jersey side within a few minutes after the Catskill foundered.
The Missing Boy.
The boy, Timmerman, who is supposed to have been drowned, was in charge of Miss Nellie McCree of 451 Union Street and George Cook of 52 First Street, Brooklyn. Miss McCree was landed with Cook at Fifty-ninth Street last night. They went to the West Forty-seventh Street Police Station to await there any news that might be heard of the boy. Miss McCree said last night to a reporter that she was sitting on the fore deck with Cook and the boy at the time of the crash. She was thrown to the deck, and the boy was lost in the excitement that followed. She and Cook searched for him quickly, and then got life preservers from their state rooms. They were rescued by one of the tugs.
Cook said that no one had any intimation of danger until the shock of the collision was felt. He and Miss McCree heard the Catskill’s whistles, but did not remember hearing the St. John’s. They saw the big excursion steamer coming toward them, but had no fear of being run down, as she had been sighted when far up the river, and the courses of both vessels were seemingly clear.
Swam with a Broken Leg.
Leonard R. Miller, whose leg was broken, was landed at Fifty-ninth Street and sent to Roosevelt Hospital. He said: “I was standing by the railing on the port side when the collision occurred. I was thrown over the failing, breaking my leg and landing in the river. I kept my senses and was swimming in a crippled way alongside when I saw a boy about six years old jump into the water near me. He came to the surface for few moments and then went down. I watched for him, but did not see him come up again. I think that he was drowned." Miller is a retired engineer, and was on his way to visit relatives in Germantown.
D. G. Beers of Catskill saw Miller go overboard, and got aboard the first tug to get alongside of the Catskill. He threw Miller a rope and pulled him out of the water. He said last night that he was eating supper when the steamers ran into each other. The passengers ran from place to place on the boat, screaming and fighting for the life preservers. Every one was panic stricken, and there was no semblance of order anywhere.
At the Fifty-ninth Street pier, where several of the passengers of the Catskill were landed, a young woman, who refused to give her name, was in an almost hysterical state. She reported that Mrs. McDonald and Mrs. Morris were drowned. She said that they were her friends, and that she was with them at the time of the collision. Mrs. McDonald, she said, was seventy-five yeas old, and helpless.
The reserves of the West Forty-seventh Street and the West Sixty-eighth Street Stations were called to the pier at Fifty-ninth Street, where the first information of the accident was received. Three ambulances from Bellevue and two from Roosevelt were also called.
ON BOARD THE ST. JOHNS.
All Information Refused by the Officers and Crew.
At Pier 8 North River it was learned last night that the St. Johns had aboard excursionists from the vicinity of Allentown, Penn. They arrived at Communipaw in in the morning on a three -section train, composed of thirty cars, there being in all about 1,700 [1000 according to most other papers] passengers. They embarked on the St. Johns at Communipaw, and proceeded thence to Newburg.
The St. Johns, after the collision, went to Communipaw, where the excursionists were landed at about 8 P. M., and they immediately boarded trains for home. The St. Johns subsequently went to her berth, on the north side of Pier 8 N. R., foot of Rector Street, where reporters boarded her. Capt. Braisted could not be found, the other officers and deckhands scurried out of sight at the approach of the reporters. No one could be found who would say a word about the collision.
A clerk on the pier said: "I have instructions to send anyone making inquiries to the office in Communipaw." A trip to Communipaw failed to disclose that there were any offices open or that there was anyone there authorized to speak.
The St. Johns did not escape injury. All of the joiner work above the main deck on the port bow was smashed in, windows were shattered, and the rail of the upper deck, with its lattice ropework, hung dangling down to the water. The plates of the hull on either side of the stern were dented and scarred and the paint scratched, but there were no punctures and no injury below the water line.
CAPT. COOPER’S STATEMENT.
The tug Crosby, Capt. James Relyea, of the Cornell Towing Line brought the crew of the Catskill to the company’s dock at the foot of West Tenth Street. Many of them were wet, as they either jumped off or had to swim away when the water reached the upper decks.
Capt. Joel Cooper of the Catskill said that there were forty passengers aboard, and he believed that they had all been saved.
When asked how accident had happened, Capt. Cooper said that the boat usually started at o'clock in the evening. There had been considerable delay last evening, and the Catskill did not start until nearly 6:50 o'clock. When the boat was about off Sixtieth Street he saw the steamer St. Johns bearing down, and blew two whistles to indicate that he was going to starboard. The St. Johns replied with one whistle, indicating that she would go to port. The Catskill turned to starboard, but the St. Johns did not deviate from her course. "When she came close on,” continued Capt. Cooper, “I gave three whistles, indicating danger, and at the same time rang to stop the engines and to back hard. My orders were carried out promptly, but it was already too late, and the St. Johns came crashing into the forward part of the boat on the starboard side, tearing a tremendous hole.’’
"Then the St. Johns backed off and crashed against the wheelhouse of the Catskill, but I do not know how much damage she did there. She, however, came alongside of us and stood by us, and several of our passengers jumped on board of her."
When asked what explanation the Captain of the St. Johns had made to him for running into the Catskill, Capt. Cooper said that he did not see him to speak to him.
Chief Engineer Shufelt of the Catskill said that he and Assistant Engineer Young and two of the hands, Pullman Baker and Chittenden, were in the engine room, and the boat was going at the usual speed when he suddenly got the order to stop and back. He did so, and the boat was already backing when he felt a shock that made the boat shiver all through, and the next second he heard a rush of water. He and his men stood at their posts until the water came pouring into the engine room, and they got the order to go, for the boat was rapidly sinking.
When they reached the upper deck the water was already after them, and they had to swim away. Engineer Shufelt was of the opinion that it did not take more than seven minutes from the time that the Catskill was struck until she was going down, and other members of the crew said it took between seven and ten minutes for her to sink.
Assistant Engineer Young corroborated Chief Engineer Shufelt’s statement. When they reached the upper deck from which they had to swim, three tugs of the New York Central Railroad and another tug of the Cornell Towing Company came hurrying up and picked up the passengers and crew. The St. Johns, they said, did not lower any of her boats to save any lives, but lay by apparently doing nothing.
The electrician of the Catskill said he was on the after deck at the time. The water seemed to overwhelm the boat immediately after the shock. He remained there for a few minutes until the electric lights went out, and then he hurried up stairs.
Thank you to Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer Carl Mayer for sharing and transcribing this article and for the glimpse into nineteenth century life in the Hudson Valley.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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