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 June 23, 1974.
Of all the steamboats operated by the Hudson River Day Line during its long history, only one was lost by accident while in scheduled service. The accident unfortunately involved the largest and grandest Day Liner of them all — the “Washington Irving."
The accident occurred In New York harbor on June 1, 1926 just as the “Washington Irving” was leaving her New York pier on a routine trip to Albany. She was in collision with an oil barge which tore a gash in her hull and led to her sinking a short time later off the end of a pier at Jersey City.
The accident took place at a time when the Day Line was at the peak of its operational history. Only the year before, during the season of 1925, the Day Line had carried 1,968,744 passengers, the most ever. The company had seven steamers in operation and had embarked upon the 1926 season with high hopes and considerable promotion for what it called its “Centennial Season."As a result, the loss of the “Washington Irving,” virtually at the season’s start, was a severe blow.
The “Washington Irving," which the Day Line used to call “the flagship of its fleet,” had opened the season of 1926 on May 12 with a special trip on the river with invited guests of the company. On May 14 she opened the regular season to Albany. On Saturday, May 29, Sunday, May 30 and Monday, May 31 — the Memorial Day weekend — the “Irving” had made three special round trips from New York to Kingston Point.
In those days of long ago, the Day Line had three New York landings, one at the foot of Desbrosses Street in downtown New York, one at West 42nd Street, and an uptown landing at West 129th Street. While their steamers were underway in the crowded waters of New York harbor, it was also the customary practice of the Day Line to have the captain and second pilot at the main deck gangway to make the appropriate bell pull signals while making or leaving a landing.
On that fateful hazy morning of June 1, 1926, as the “Washington Irving" lay at her Desbrosses Street pier she was the picture of everything that characterized the Hudson River Day Line in its heyday. Gleaming white on the exterior, spotless interior, and with her orchestra playing and flags flying, there was scant evidence of the fate that would soon befall the huge steamboat. Promptly at her departure hour of 9 a.m., the “Irving’s” first pilot, Harry Kellerman of Kingston pulled the main deck gangway bell pull three times to signify to the pilot house that the gang plank was ashore, all mooring lines except the bow line and a stem line were cast off and the steamer was ready to get underway.
As the “Washington Irving” began to move ahead out of the slip. Captain David H. Deming blew the customary long blast on the whistle to warn river traffic she was underway. Out in the river, the tide was ebbing strongly and the tugboat “Thomas E. Moran” was coming up stream with an oil barge lashed to each side to refuel a trans-Atlantic liner.
Because of the ebb tide, the tugboat was in close to the ends of the piers to escape the full brunt of the tide, effectively hiding her from view while the “Irving” was still at her pier.
On leaving the slip, the paths, of the “Washington Irving” and the “Thomas E. Moran” with her two oil barges rapidly converged. If it were not for the strong ebb tide, probably all would have been well. The “Irving” — just getting up to speed — was caught broadside by the tide and was borne down towards the tow. Captain Deming threw his wheel hard over in an effort to throw the “Irving’s” stern away from the oil barges. The maneuver, however, failed and the corner of the starboard oil barge cut a hole in the hull of the “Washington Irving’s” after boiler room. The “Irving” moving ahead caused a gash about 20 feet long which also ripped through a water tight bulkhead into the steamer’s galley. It was a mortal blow.
The “Washington Irving” was equipped with six transverse water tight bulkheads. If the hole had been in but one compartment, she probably would have survived. However, with two water tight compartments ruptured, the blow was too much.
Captain Deming made a quick survey of his predicament and headed his wounded steamboat towards the New Jersey shore. In that crowded part of New York harbor there was no place to beach her. Crossing the river, with her whistle blowing the distress signal, harbor craft sped to her aid. The “Irving’s” passage was accompanied by a thunderous roar as her engineers opened her steam escape valves to “blow her off” and reduce the pressure on the steamer’s boilers.
The “Irving” was expertly maneuver by her captain to the end of Pier 9, Jersey City. He neatly placed her forward guard over some piles to help keep her on an even keel so the passengers could get ashore. There she sank to the bottom in a matter of minutes with the water reaching the third deck.
The “Washington Irving" sank right on top of the Holland Tunnel which was then under construction. The tunnel, however, was far enough beneath the surface so that no damage resulted.
When the “Washington Irving” was sunk, she was only 13 years old — the prime of life as far as steamboats go. She bad been built in 1913 by the New York shipbuilding Company, Camden, N.J. and was a steamboat of superlatives. She was the largest of the Day Liners, the most luxuriously furnished and reportedly the fastest. She was licensed by the federal government to carry 6,000 passengers, at the time the most for any inland steamer.
Steamboats, like people, have their faults. Yet, possibly because absence makes the heart grow fonder, I have never heard a boatman who was associated with her ever say a bad word about the “Washington Irving." Despite her size, former pilots used to sing her praises as to her ease of handling and maneuverability, particularly at landings.
Fortunately, at the time of her sinking, the “Washington Irving” had aboard only about 200 passengers and her crew of 110. All but two passengers and one crew member were saved. The crew member, a mess-boy, at the time of the accident was asleep in a berthing compartment in the after part of the hull.
The two passengers — reportedly the only passengers lost by accident in the Day line’s history — were a young mother and her three year old daughter who allegedly refused to leave the second deck until she had found her other two children, aged 5 and 7, who already had safely been taken off by a tugboat.
A fourth indirect victim of the sinking was said to have been the “Washington Irving's" captain, David H. Deming, the only master the steamer ever had. Although he survived the actual sinking and the following season commanded the Day liner “Hendrick Hudson," the accident was said to have preyed heavily upon him and he died at his home in Albany in 1927.
The salvage of the sunken steamer proved to be extremely difficult and almost another year had passed before the “Irving’s” hull was again afloat and the hole in her hull patched. Before being raised almost her entire superstructure had to be removed. What was left of the once proud steamboat remained tied up to a New York pier for years. Finally, in 1933 she was towed away for scrapping. Ironically, the tugboat that towed the “Washington Irving” away on her final voyage was reported to be the “Thomas E. Moran" — the same tugboat that was towing the oil barge that holed her seven years before.
Today, nearly 50 years have passed since the “Washington Irving" was lost. Few remain of those who played leading roles in the events that took place on that June morning of long ago. As far as I know, two are Thomas Kraljic, the “Irving’s” second mate now living in New York, and Perry H. Banks, who was the Chief Engineer of the “Washington Irving," and now nearly 90, lives at Catskill.
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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