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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