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.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.