DEATH PASSAGE ON THE HUDSON
THE WRECK OF THE HENRY CLAY
by Kris A. Hansen
Excerpt from Chapter 3: "Fire at Riverdale"
"On the Henry Clay, John Thompson had completed his walk by the engine room and returned to his wife and two children situated near the ladies' cabin. He had no idea what was happening behind him. The children's nurse was attending the baby in the cabin. As Thompson looked upon his wife and children, the young nurse's eyes caught something in a distance. unexpectedly, she exclaimed, "My God the boat is on fire!"
Confusion, cries, and screams for help replaced the relaxed quiet atmosphere that was present only a few moments before. Passengers and crew alike frantically began moving amid chaos. Since the fire's origin was in the center of the boat people scurried away from the blazes to somewhere safe. Above the sounds of the hectic scene could be heard a loud order directed to the passengers, "Go aft." Listening, hundreds of passengers pushed each other and crowded their way to the stern section of the burning steamboat to where they believed they would be out of harm's way. Among them were John Thompson and his family.
The smoke and ensuing flames roared from the engine room, where the fire hungrily consumed everything that surrounded it. Dry wood burned like tinder while the fires leaped up to reach the canvas canopies over deck. As the flaming fury rose upward, the crew and Captain Tallman grabbed buckets of water and threw them onto the unremitting flames. Lloyd Minturn, who was a man always prepared for adventure soon joined in the line for passing the buckets of water to curb the fire. Too soon the water was gone; the fire's rage won.
Passenger George Conner, who had boarded at Albany with his wife, was on deck and purposely ignored the orders to move to the back of the boat. He had the plan in his mind to search for his wife who was on a lower deck. He found her by a saloon, and as the pair attempted to go forward, they were pushed back by a man ordering them to go aft. Again, Conner disregarded the commands of the crew-member and instead led his wife forward in the opposite direction. The dense smoke had traveled from the engine room and was spreading its heavy gray thickness rapidly over the deck floor toward the sides of the boat, making visibility more difficult. That did not stop Conner. He purposely took his wife directly into the thick black smoke where they vanished from sight.
The fire in the midsection was raging and burning so intensely that no one could pass from one end of the boat to the other without risking injury or even death. There was no means to get word to either end of the threatened steamboat, and those on board had no idea what was happening beyond the wall of fire and smoke between them. People, desperate to find their family members, were trapped on either side of the fire.
Mothers and children sitting in the ladies' saloon were separated from husbands and fathers who, after dinner, had gone to browse around the other parts of the boat. The blaze of flame prevented passengers on the promenade deck from reaching those in the rooms below. Families were separated without knowing the location or fate of their loved ones. They could only see the fierce flames burning up the center of the boat, bellowing a dark, black smoke that quickly crawled its way across the floor of the decks. With the fire came a heat so intense that the already hot summer temperatures were elevated to a point that could be likened only to that of hell.
Thick gray and black smoke blinded passengers from seeing more than a few inches or feet around them. It stifled the air as those desperately trying to breathe gasped and choked. Some attempted to call for "the boats" with that little breath they had left. There may have been one or two safety boats on board. The fire continually intensified as hundreds of helpless passengers became trapped on the stern of the flaming steamboat. They were forced to find a means of escape for themselves and their loved ones."
THE HUDSON RIVER'S WORST STEAMBOAT DISASTER
It was called a race by some while others denied the accusations. Whatever the truth, the steamboat Henry Clay burned on the shore of the Hudson River at Riverdale taking dozens of innocent lives. Death Passage on the Hudson: The Wreck of the Henry Clay chronicles the catastrophic events that occurred on that July day in 1852 along with its devastating aftermath.
In Part One of this two-part, illustrated and documented volume Kris A. Hansen details the final death passage of the steamboat Henry Clay. The author brings to life the personal stories of several victims and survivors set within the tragic circumstances of the disaster. Some passengers of prestigious stature became victims while others, normally ordinary people, became heroes. For one person in particular the praises of bravery would not come until all the facts were determined.
Hudson River Valley families with names such as Downing, DeWint, Schoonmaker, Bailey, and Kinsley were among the many affected by the tragic circumstances. The disaster, reported in the major newspapers of the day, drew national attention. Families, friends, and thousands of New Yorkers shared emotions of grief and disbelief, which were often intertwined with anger and outrage.
Speculation arose that a race with the competing steamboat Armenia was responsible for the disaster. Negligence was suspected and the public demanded retribution. In the second part of the book, the author employs witness testimony and information obtained from legal documents to detail the public's search for truth at the official inquest and subsequent legal wrangling in the courts.
Hansen has included within the text and attached appendices, information about several survivors, the known perished, the missing, and the unrecognized. More than 50 illustrations, including photographs, copies of legal documents, original newspaper articles and a map add to the understanding of the disaster.
Kris A. Hansen has been a writer and reporter for several years. A native of the Hudson Highlands area of New York State, her writing credits include a business column as well as writing, reporting, and editing for business and special interest publications.
208 pages, illustrated, 7 x 10, index.
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