A History of Steamboat Racing — and Shipwrecks — in the Hudson River

Schooners, sloops, barges, and steamships rest in peace at the bottom of the Hudson, as depicted by the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s “Troubled Waters” exhibit



Lithographs by Currier and Ives detail the 19th-century maritime disasters on the Hudson River involving the steamships Clay (above) and Swallow (below)

Photographs courtesy of Hudson River Maritime Museum

Above the waterline, the Hudson River is a gorgeous thing to behold. Below the surface, it’s a wreck. Literally.

As long as humans have been riding floating objects on water, those objects have invariably sunk. Vessels that sailed on the Hudson are no exception. From colonial sloops and sailboats to war boats and steamships, somewhere north of 300 known wrecks rest on the river bottom. Countless others no doubt have met the same briny fate. Don’t get any ideas about diving down to check them out for yourself, though: New York State doesn’t disclose their exact locations and prohibits recreational diving to wrecks for fear of disturbing them.

To shine a light on the darker depths of the river and its ghostly remains, the Hudson River Maritime Museum has mounted an exhibit called “Troubled Waters: Wrecked and Sunken Ships of the Hudson River.” The exhibit, created in 2013 — this is its second mounting — runs through the end of October. It features relics, sonar images, and information on shipwrecks that span much of the river’s maritime history.

What is thought to be a 19th-century sloop was found at the bottom of Haverstraw Bay, and Revolutionary War gunboats may lie near the Bear Mountain Bridge. Many of the wrecks are probably canal boats and barges, such as the 10 or so that joined Davy Jones’s locker in 1902.

Allynne Lange, curator of the museum and its interim director, is particularly fond of this exhibit. “Steamboats are my particular specialty, and there were many bad accidents because of racing,” she says. “They were impromptu races; the idea was the fastest boat would attract the most passengers.” Two racing-related wrecks, however, were worse than bad. They were epically catastrophic.

the swallow ship

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale...

Some boats sank in storms, others collided or ran aground in the decades and centuries before modern navigation equipment. Many were scuttled after being damaged beyond repair. More than a few burned while in winter lay up. But the most famous Hudson River shipwrecks are the steamboats the Swallow and the Henry Clay.

Built in New York City and put in service in 1836 for the nighttime run between New York City and Albany, the Swallow had a wooden hull nearly as long as a football field and weighed 426 tons. And it was fast.

So was a similar vessel called the Rochester. They were known as “Hudson River Flyers” and often raced one another, a common practice of the day. On April 7, 1845, a race was on. The Swallow, with Captain A.H. Squires at the helm, left Albany at 6 p.m. on a scheduled run to New York City. The Rochester, under a Captain Crittenden’s command, and another side-wheeler called the Express, soon followed. All were loaded with passengers, including about 350 on the Swallow, many unaware that racing would be involved in their journey.

<> April in upstate New York being what it is, they sailed in a heavy gale peppered with snow squalls. As the Swallow neared Athens, the pilot lost his bearings, and the boat smashed onto a rocky outcropping near shore. The crash was reportedly heard more than a mile away. The hull broke apart, the boilers flooded, and the ship burst into flames. The Swallow quickly sank.

A few of the passengers escaped to the bow and dropped to the ground. Many jumped into the river but were unable, in the dark, to find the shore. The city of Athens quickly responded, as church bells tolled and hundreds of people came forward, building fires to provide light and rescuing as many people as they could.

The other boats soon came upon the scene and joined in the rescue, picking up about 200 people; about 100 were rescued in rowboats by the townspeople. But at least 15 others — exact numbers are unknown because passenger records weren’t kept — perished.

Although steamboat racing remained legal, one important change was enacted in the wake of the tragedy: Riverboat travel was held off until May.  

...A tale of a fateful trip

Warmer weather, however, didn’t prevent another tragedy from occurring just five years later.

On July 28, 1852, the steamships Henry Clay and Armenia left Albany on a similar passenger trip-slash-race. Thomas Collyer, who built both ships, was in command of the Clay, while the Armenia was owned and piloted by Captain Isaac Smith. The Armenia reportedly skipped past one landing and left passengers stranded. The Clay powered full steam ahead in pursuit, to the growing fear of some of its riders. According to articles that ran in the Greene County Examiner-Recorder in 1959, “Sparks shot from her stacks and blew skyward, soot settled on the decks, and the increased tempo of her throbbing engines set the whole vessel to shuddering and shaking.” “They were burning woodwork and furniture because they had run out of fuel,” says Lange.  

Near Kingston, the Clay’s pilot, Jim Elmendorf, “guided by some maniacal impulse,” according to the Examiner-Recorder, cut directly into the Armenia’s path, splintering the hull and foredeck. The Armenia slowed down; the Clay did not. Near Riverdale, the boiler exploded in flames. Elmendorf turned the Clay toward the east bank, which it hit at full speed and ran 25 feet up and into a railroad embankment.

Those lucky enough to be at the bow, including Elmendorf and his wife, were thrown ashore. But most of the passengers were in the back, cut off from escape by the roaring fire amidships. They jumped into the water, but many couldn’t swim; others were weighed down by the fancy dress of the era.

The Examiner-Recorder described the grim scene: “In 20 minutes there was nothing left of the Clay but a slow burning section of her bow. All along the shore lay the bodies of the recovered corpses; and stumbled the dazed, stunned survivors searching for the bodies of family and friends. The Armenia hovered on the scene, picking up survivors. Under a full moon, passengers dragged the river all night long.

“Eighty were dead.”

Among them were some famous and prestigious people of the time, including former New York City Mayor Stephen Allen; a sister of writer Nathanial Hawthorne; and, perhaps best-known, Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape architect from Newburgh who was at the forefront of the emerging movement to build parks in cities and who designed the grounds of Washington’s Smithsonian Institution and the Capitol Building. The wreck made all the papers — the New York Times called it a “melancholy disaster” — and although the owners and officers of the Henry Clay were acquitted on charges of manslaughter, the New York State Legislature soon thereafter passed the law prohibiting steamship racing on the Hudson.

The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed

The law didn’t end shipwrecks, of course. The museum chronicles a sunken John H. Cordts tugboat from 1908, as well as the wreck of the New Yorker, which burned and sank in 1937, Lange says. Along with ship parts, anchors, and other flotsam and jetsam, the exhibit features Currier and Ives lithographs of the Swallow and Clay fires. There is also a diorama of an underwater scene, with boat and anchor submerged, which was put together — as was the rest of the exhibit — by a retired designer from the Museum of Natural History.  

Kids really like the diorama, Lange says — but adults are intrigued as well. “People are interested in disasters. It’s a popular topic, and there is always an audience for it.”

If you go...

What: “Troubled Waters: Wrecked and Sunken Ships of the Hudson River”
When: Through October 2014
Where: Hudson River Maritime Museum, 50 Rondout Landing, Kingston
Details: 845-338-0071; www.hrmm.org/explore/exhibits

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