By ANDREW AMELINCKX
She was one of the fastest steamboats on the Hudson River, but that night, April 7, 1845, you wouldn’t have known it. The Swallow, under command of Captain A. H. Squires, on its overnight trip from Albany to New York City was moving nowhere near her usual speed heading south towards Manhattan through a gale-force wind and intermittent bouts of snow and sleet being dumped from a black and angry sky. One passenger described the wind as “moaning with a terrible splendour” that brought to mind a Charles Dickens’ story, “Chimes,” in which the wind is personified as a malevolent spirit.
The more than 250 passengers huddled inside, out of the intemperate weather, in the ship’s various saloons or retired to to their rooms since there was nothing in the way of scenery to look at on a night like this. At about 8:10 p.m., as gentlemen chatted over drinks or merely took quiet solace in being near others during the storm, there was an unearthly noise like a large animal crashing through the woods along with a bone-jarring impact that shook the entire ship and sent passengers tumbling. The Swallow had struck a small island near the village of Athens, splintering the ship’s timbers, and sending the bow up at a 30 degree angle, splitting the ship nearly in half. The stern began to quickly sink, sending icy water pouring through the women’s cabins and hitting the boilers sending clouds of scalding steam and flames into the air.
Captain Squires came onto the main deck where a large and frightened crowd had gathered. “Ladies and gentlemen, be quiet, all is safe,” Squires shouted to try to calm the panicked passengers. The captain left to do the same for the rest of the people on board. He soon returned carrying a lamp and beckoned the crowd onto the forward deck. The mass of bodies rushed blindly ahead only to be pushed back when a shout of “Go back! Go back!” was heard. The fire from the boilers suddenly flared briefly illuminating the blackness and stopping the crowd from moving. No one was yet aware of exactly what had happened and the initial report was that they had struck a raft, not land. The only thing they knew for certain was that it was very dark—except for the occasional flare of the boiler fire that was quickly being extinguished by the water—and very cold. There was another mad rush towards the front of the ship by the mass of frightened passengers who made it to the bow where they were able to climb down onto the 30-by-50-foot bit of grass-covered land jutting out of the river known by various names, including Doper’s Island and Noah’s Brig.
New York State Senator Gideon Hard had been sitting in the ladies’ cabin, towards the rear of the ship, chatting with friends when the crash occurred. He ran onto the upper deck, noticed that the bow of the ship didn’t appear to be sinking, and yelled for everyone to move forward. He and about sixty others made it to the front and descended onto Doper’s Island. He was one of the lucky ones. Senator Hard saw several women jump overboard, but it was too dark for him to even see them in the water, much less help them.
At the stern it was much worse. Charles Mann, a Utica resident, was escorting three women and a six-year-old boy, who were friends of his family, to New York City. They had taken two state rooms for the overnight trip—one for him and the other for the women and child—and were conversing in the state room saloon when the ship struck the island and they were all thrown from their seats. Mann stepped onto the promenade deck to see what was going on and quickly realized the ship was sinking. He returned inside and attempted to calm the women, but when someone shouted that there was a fire he went back outside. He returned to the saloon a second time when he realized how quickly the ship was going down, only to find Mrs. Secord, one of the ladies under his charge, in a state of terror as the icy water poured in and was quickly rising. With the help of others who had gotten out of the saloon, he managed to push her and several other women through a skylight. As the water kept rising, Mann managed to make it through another window, slashing his hand on broken glass in the process, but made it onto the part of the ship still above water. He called out to his women friends. While two of the women, and the young boy were saved, Mrs. Parker drowned. Mann stayed on the wreck for about a half hour and was able to save an elderly lady from drowning, before he was finally rescued.
Nine-year-old Nelson McKnight, who would later make his life plying the river as a boat captain, was in Athens at a school election that evening when the sound of the crash could be clearly heard from the river. Everyone rushed out and soon the peeling of church bells from both sides of the Hudson gave the alarm that a ship was in trouble. What McKnight saw that night haunted him for the rest of his life. As he stood on the shore his senses were assailed by the sight of flames leaping upwards from the Swallow, steam covering everything, and men and women jumping into the river only to be caught by the swift current and swept to their deaths. Added to this were the sounds of screaming and pitiful cries for help. Rowboats set out from Athens and other nearby towns on both sides of the river. The lighting of bonfires on shore helped provide a modicum of light for the numerous vessels of all shapes and sizes that moved towards the wreck, plucking out any survivors from the freezing water they came across.
The Swallow’s main competitor, the Rochester, another sidewheel steamboat belonging to a rival company that had raced the Swallow on more than one occasion, had been close behind when the accident occurred and came to her rescue that night. Another steamboat, the Express, also helped in the rescue efforts. The entire wreck, from the time of the collision to when the back half of the Swallow sank to the bottom, took less than five minutes.
Through the night and into the next day rescuers continued to search for survivors, as well as the dead. But not everyone was there to help. McKnight and his friends managed to get their hands on a rowboat and charged residents of Athens and Hudson 25 cents each to get a closer look at the ghoulish scene. Some of the survivors of the wreck who were taken to Manhattan on the Rochester hastily wrote up a resolution that praised the captain and others' efforts in saving the lives of the passengers. They wrote that the Swallow was moving slowly at the time of the accident and that the weather made it hard for the pilot to see the shore. Among those who signed the document was Senator Hard.
In the aftermath of the tragedy there was a lot of finger pointing and misinformation in the press, from allegations that the Swallow and Rochester had been racing at the time, to the number of dead, which was initially reported as at least 40. A coroner’s jury, convened in Athens a few days later, put the death count at 14, a figure based on the actual number of bodies they found, plus a small child who was missing and presumed drowned, but whose body hadn’t been recovered (it was found a few weeks later). When the ship was able to be searched no bodies were found inside. But six months later, the decomposed body of another passenger washed up two miles south of Athens, making the official tally 15. Still another figure of 23 dead was given by the son of Anthony N. Hoffman, who had designed the ship, in an 1887 interview in The New York Tribune. The confusion seems to stem from the lackluster way in which the steamboat company recorded how many passengers were on board that night, as pointed out by a New York State Senate investigation into the tragedy.
The man who shouldered the blame for the accident was William Burnett, the Swallow’s pilot, who was at the helm when the ship struck the island. According to his testimony during the coroner’s inquest, Burnett came up from having tea and relieved the second pilot about the time the ship was passing New Baltimore. He determined they were going too fast for the inclement weather and ordered the speed cut from 15 to about 8 knots. This would have been about a half hour before the accident. The night was pitch black and the snowfall and wind intense, leading Burnett to go off course, leaving the river’s main channel and somehow ending up close to the shore at Athens.
The Senate investigation found, based on little more than how long it took the Swallow to get from Albany to Athens (which doesn’t necessarily take into account Burnett’s claim that he had slowed down not long before the accident or the resolution written by the survivors), that Burnett had been going at full speed at the time of the crash and that the weather was in no way to blame, but rather it was Burnett’s ineptitude that was the cause. Burnett would later be indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of manslaughter. In April 1846, a year after the wreck, he was brought to trial. The jury spent about an hour deliberating before finding Burnett not guilty. He would later go on to become a federal steamboat inspector in Boston and an inventor.
The Swallow, known as a Hudson River Flyer, was the first clipper steamboat ever built. When Hoffman exhibited the model before the construction it was laughed at and derided. The doubters stopped laughing after she was built in 1835 by William Capes in Brooklyn. She was billed as a wonder of the age for her speed. The Swallow was 233 feet long with 24-foot paddlewheels with a vertical beam engine and two boilers that allowed her to reach unheard-of speeds. A year after her construction, the Swallow was lengthened to 256 feet and had a larger engine cylinder put in that made her even faster. That made her, at least until the appearance of the Rochester, the undisputed champion of the Hudson. Hoffman, the Swallow designer and owner, had worked as secretary for Robert Fulton, the inventor credited with creating the first commercially-viable steamboat, the Clermont, that ushered in the age of steamships. A year before the accident Hoffman sold the Swallow. And her luck finally ran out.
After the accident, she sat for weeks before an attempt was made to raise her, which was just as big a fiasco as the accident itself. The ship the company sent to raise her, the DeWitt Clinton, was itself barely seaworthy. During the salvage operation the Swallow was further damaged and the DeWitt Clinton struck a rock, tearing a hole in her bow and sinking. Eventually, part of the Swallow was able to be salvaged, with the machinery taken out, and the wood sold to a local man who hauled it across the river and used it to construct his home in the village of Valatie. The wood from the lower hull was left to rot and remains on the bottom of the river to this day.
Besides the home constructed from her wood that still stands, there is another lasting tribute to the Swallow. After the tragedy, the little island that caused so much damage and despair became known as Swallow Rock.
Andrew K. Amelinckx is an award-winning crime reporter, a freelance journalist, visual artist and author of "Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires." He is a contributing editor for the magazine Modern Farmer and the former crime and courts reporter for The Berkshire Eagle newspaper. He's currently at work on his second book, "Murder & Mayhem in the Hudson Valley," due out in early 2017.