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 14, 1974.
Back in the 1930’s when I was a deckhand and pilot on tugboats of the Cornell Steamboat Company, Cornell had a helper tug captain by the name of Edward N. Van Woert from Athens. Captain Ed worked for Cornell for 55 years, most of that time as captain of the tugboat “G. C. Adams.”
Captain Van Woert was a good source of stories of old time steamboating on the Hudson. He once told me of his father’s experience as a little boy at Athens following the wreck of the steamboat “Swallow.” The event had taken place way back in 1845 on the night of April 7, now nearly 130 years ago.
When Captain Ed told me his “Swallow” incident in the 1930’s, he was nearing the end of his boating career. He related how his father in turn had told him how he had been awakened by his mother with the news that there had been a steamboat wreck the night before. As a small boy his father went down to the shore at Athens and remembered seeing the bodies of those who had lost their lives in the disaster lying on the shore and being placed in wagons for removal.
The wreck of the “Swallow” was one of the more spectacular disasters of the era and created a vivid impression all along the river. Occurring as it did before the age of photography, several artists scurried to the scene and soon their impressions of the wreck were immortalized for posterity in lithographs that quickly appeared on the market for sale.
The “Swallow” wreck took place some six years before the railroad was to reach Albany from New York. In the absence of a railroad, virtually all passengers, freight and mail moving between New York and Albany did so by steamboat. It was an era of fierce and unfettered competition. Steamboat racing was a frequent occurrence, the idea being that the first steamer to reach a landing would be the one to get the waiting passengers.
Old time records describe the season of 1845 as a particularly lively one. A total of 18 steamboats were engaged in service between New York and Albany, although not all at the same time due to engine breakdowns, accidents and other mishaps. Frequently, however, there were as many as six departures daily in each direction.
Due to the highly competitive nature of the service, fares for passage would vary widely depending on he extent of the competition. During 1845, the fee for one way passage is said to have ranged from a high of $1.50 to a low of 12 1/2 cents. Presumably, what was lost in passage fares was made up by what was charged for a berth and meals once the passengers were safely aboard and the steamer had left the dock.
On the night of April 7, 1845, the night the ‘‘Swallow” was to meet her end, she was one of three steamboats scheduled to leave Albany at 6 p.m. Later accounts stated the “Swallow” had been racing with the steamboats ‘‘Rochester” and “Express." In any event, as the steamers neared Athens at about 8 p.m., the “Swallow” was in the lead.
The night was dark and overcast. Just above Athens a heavy early spring snow squall set in, obliterating the nearby shorelines. What then took place varies somewhat in the retelling. One account has it that the first pilot, a Mr. Burnett, had been down to supper and coming from the brightly lighted dining area into the darkened pilot house, his eyes had not yet become adjusted to the darkness of the night. Another account has it the first pilot came into the pilot house and immediately said to the second pilot, "Sir, you are off course.”
What no one questions, however, is the fact that shortly thereafter the “Swallow,” proceeding at full speed, piled up on a rock outcropping a short way off the Athens shore — then known variously as Dopers Island and Noah’s Brig. From that moment, onward — and to this very day — the point of impact has been known as Swallow Rocks.
The steamboat was driven some 30 feet upon the rocks and her wooden hull nearly broke in two at the forward gangway. The force of the impact caused the ‘‘Swallow’’ to catch fire and the after part of the steamer immediately began to sink. The “Swallow's” stern section sank rather quickly — which fortunately extinguished the flames — but unfortunately trapped a number of passengers in the berthing section.
The following steamboats “Rochester” and “Express” soon happened upon the scene and were able to rescue about 200 of the"Swallow’s” approximately 300 passengers who were aboard the night of the disaster. One of the rescued was a Robert Thompson of Kingston.
The residents of Athens and Hudson across the river were said to be alerted to the accident by the tolling of church bells ... and a large number of people of both communities soon gathered along the river banks and started large bonfires.
A number of small boats put out from both Athens and Hudson and rescued other survivors who were swimming in the chill[y] waters of the river, clinging to floating debris, or who had climbed over the steamer’s bow onto the rocks the “Swallow” had hit. A number of both passengers and crew were not so fortunate and lost their lives in the disaster. The exact number of those who lost their lives varied in accounts of the time from a low of 15 to a high of 40.
The impact of the wreck of the “Swallow” made an impression in the Hudson Valley that lasted for generations and is one that is always mentioned in any recounting of old time steamboat accidents on the Hudson River. In addition to achieving a lasting fame of sorts in the naming of Swallow Rocks at Athens, the steamer’s name was perpetuated in a dwelling at Valatie, a few miles inland and north of Hudson. The wreck was dismantled and timbers and lumber from the steamer were used to build a two-story house at Valatie which became known locally as the Swallow House. As far as I know it is still standing.
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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