Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The library and a sinking ship

I spent what I felt was a fairly unproductive day in the New York State Library in Albany Monday, but honestly, for me a day in that library, or any other, is a day well spent.

While the day-to-day history of Troy, New York whirled past me on the microfiche machine—an experience that I can only compare to being slightly seasick or doing too many shots back-to-back—an interesting item caught my eye.

In the early morning hours of July 16, 1853 the 1,000-passenger steamboat Empire of Troy was on its way down the Hudson River to New York City from Troy. It was six miles below Poughkeepsie when it was rammed by an 180-ton sloop, the General Livingston. The Empire's boiler and paddle wheel were instantly sheared off, sending a torrent of boiling water and scalding steam onto both ships. Captain Levi Smith of the Empire, who had been sleeping at the time, instantly woke up and ran upstairs to see what had happened. Many of the passengers did the same. Several rushed into the saloon and were instantly burned by the super-heated steam that powered the vessel.Others were burned topside by boiling water. Several crew members from the Gen. Livingston were also injured.

John Morrissey, a passenger on the Empire, had just gone to bed when the accident occurred. He met up with his soon to be father-in-law, Capt. Smith and they aided several people who had been burned. They then rushed aft. "[We] found two men overboard, whom we rescued," remembered Morrissey after the accident.He and Capt. Smith calmed the rest of the passengers and kept them from jumping overboard. A fire started on board, but was put out soon after it began.

Eight people died and 14 were seriously burned that morning, but its possible more would have died by drowning if not for Morrissey and Capt. Smith. An investigation laid the blame of the accident on the captain of the General Livingston, Jacob Hollenbeck of Athens,NY., for allowing Casper Van Heusen to pilot the ship. Van Heusen was a 21-year old, who was also from Athens and had been on board for less than a week. According to Capt. Smith it was a clear night and you could see for about a mile-and-a-half. Van Heusen, in his defense, had never piloted a boat before. He said he saw some lights on the water up ahead but didn't know what they were. The first mate, who was supposed to be watching out from the forward position, may have been drunk or merely sleeping. He was severely burned in the accident.

Morrissey was the last man on the ship, which eventually sank, but not before all the passengers were rescued. The Empire was raised, but the damage was so severe the owners decided to scrap it.

The Empire's short career (it was only in service for 10 years, from 1843 to 1853) was rife with accidents. It crashed into a New York City pier in a pea soup fog in 1845. In 1849 the ship sank after a similar accident to the one in 1853. The owners raised it, refitted it and sent it back to work until the ill-fated morning in 1853.

Capt.Smith wasn't to blame for any of the Empire's misfortunes. He wasn't the captain in 1845 and, when made captain of the Empire, couldn't rightly keep other ships from bashing into his. Morrissey had been a deck hand for the Captain and would marry his daughter Susan Smith a little over a year after the accident.

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