Henry Clay (steamboat)

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United States
Name: Henry Clay
Namesake: Henry Clay
Owner: Thomas Collyer, William Radford, & John Tallman
Route: New York City – Albany
Builder: Thomas Collyer, New York City
Launched: August 1851
Fate: Caught fire and destroyed, July 28, 1852
General characteristics
Type: Side-wheel paddle steamer
Length: 198 ft (60 m)
Propulsion: Walking beam steam engine
Capacity: 500 passengers

Henry Clay was an American side paddle wheel steamboat that was involved in the Hudson River's worst steam disaster, near Riverdale, in The Bronx, New York, on July 28, 1852.[1] The Henry Clay launched in August 1851, was in service between Albany, New York and New York City in competition with other steamships and the Hudson River Railroad which had been completed along the east shore of the Hudson River to East Albany by 1851.

On July 28, 1852, she was sailing on the Hudson River from the river port of Albany, New York, to New York City. As she neared Riverdale, New York, a fire broke out aboard. Reports indicated that upwards of five hundred people were on board with only two lifeboats, which proved useless. Many of the victims came from prestigious families which made the disaster more newsworthy. Among the known victims was Stephen Allen, a former mayor of New York City.[2] Congress, previously reluctant to pursue further steamboat legislation, was forced by the public to push through new regulations.

Ownership, specifications, route

The Henry Clay was built by Thomas Collyer in 1851. Not much is known about the specifications of the steamboat but its length was 198 feet and it used a walking beam engine. Its promenade deck ran the entire length of the boat. Collyer, the builder, owned a five-eighths interest in the Henry Clay. He shared ownership with William Radford, Esq. who owned a two-eighth interest. Captain John Tallman, the captain of the Henry Clay for this particular day's run, owned a one-eighth interest. The Henry Clay ran on routes up and down the Hudson River at various points of departure and varying distances between Albany, New York and New York City.

The steamships Henry Clay and Armenia left Albany on July 28, 1852. Thomas Collyer, who built both ships, was in command of the Clay, while the Armenia was owned and piloted by Captain Isaac Smith. According to Allynne Lange, curator of the Hudson River Maritime Museum, steamboat racing was common between captains. “[T]he idea was the fastest boat would attract the most passengers.”[3]


Shortly before 3:00 pm as the Henry Clay traveled mid-river passing Yonkers, New York, the call of fire onboard was heard. Fire roared up from the engine room and quickly engulfed the midsection. The pilot, Edward Hubbard, an experienced forty-three-year-old seaman, quickly turned the burning ship eastward to travel the mile distance to reach shore. Hubbard crashed the boat bow first onto the sands at Riverdale, New York, hoping to save his passengers. Those near the bow were easily able to jump to shore. However, the passengers at the aft of the boat which was still in deep water were blocked by the fire at the midsection. Many could not swim and drowned either due to their heavy clothing or as others pulled them under water trying to save their lives. People that remained on the boat were burned to death.

Notable victims

The disaster gained notoriety due to the supposed racing and the number of prestigious people on board – politicians, attorneys, professors, wealthy. Among them were:

  • A. J. Downing – a landscape architect from Newburgh, New York, and editor of The Horticulturist, who set in motion the emergence of parks in cities. His home architecture brought people closer to nature. He was designing the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution at the time of his death.
  • Caroline DeWint – the granddaughter of the second President of the United States, John Adams, and the mother-in-law of A. J. Downing.
  • Maria Hawthorne – youngest sister of author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • Professor Jacob Whitman Bailey survived the tragedy. His wife, Maria Slaughter-Bailey (b. Culpeper, Virginia) did not survive, their daughter (also named Maria) perished. Their 9 year old named William Whitman Bailey, survived into adulthood and became a prominent professor.
  • Harriet and Eliza Kinsley – the daughters of former West Point graduate and professor Z. J. D. Kinsley who predeceased them by three years. Their mother and his wife died suddenly a few months later.
  • Mrs. John L. Thompson – the wife of District Attorney of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Their children Mary and Eugene also perished.
  • J. J. Speed, Esq. – a noted attorney from Philadelphia.
  • Stephen Allen – a former Mayor of New York City.

Inquest and trial

The inquest took place largely in Yonkers, New York. However, because several of the bodies were discovered in other towns, additional inquests were held in Manhattanville, Fort Lee and Hoboken, New Jersey. Survivors, relatives and family members were called to identify the dead and detail whatever they may have known about the disaster. As the days passed and details emerged about the dreadful occurrence unrest among citizens, politicians, fueled by newspaper editorials, called for justice. The Inquest Panel charged the officers of the Henry Clay and Thomas Collyer (the owner who had been onboard) with murder.

More than a year later a trial commenced at the Circuit Court in New York City. Through political maneuvering the federal government took over the trial, deeming the federal government alone had jurisdiction over national waterways. Since there was no proof of premeditation on the part of the officers, the original charge of murder was reduced to manslaughter.

For two weeks the newspapers covered the trial testimony. Various circumstances were discussed and certain facts came to light such as who may have been in charge on the steamboat, that there were only two lifeboats on board, there may not have been enough water buckets on board in case of a fire, was the boat been overcrowded, had there been previous fires on the Henry Clay, the possibility that the boiler safety valves were tied down to allow for faster speed. The trial determined while there had been racing that the race had occurred much farther upriver from the scene of the fire.

Also in question was the pilot Hubbard's action of running the steamboat bow first rather than coming in parallel to shore. At the trial witnesses testified that Hubbard's action was correct and as a result lives were spared.

All officers and the owner were acquitted of the charges against them. The New York State Legislature soon thereafter passed the law prohibiting steamship racing on the Hudson.

Congressional legislation

The outcries across the country caused Congress to act. A month after the disaster Congress passed the Steamboat Act of 1852. It provided for stricter rules for steamboat operation and steamboat inspection and required licensing for pilots and engineers by the Steamboat Inspection Service whose responsibilities would eventually become that of the U.S. Coast Guard.


  1. ^ Hansen, Kris. "Death Passage on the Hudson, The Wreck of the Henry Clay", Purple Mountain Press, 2004 ISBN 1-930098-56-1
  2. ^ The Henry Clay Catastrophe. – Forty-seven Bodies Recovered Several Passengers Missing. Additional Particulars From the Wreck. Meeting of Survivors at Astor House ..
  3. ^ Levine, David. "A History of Steamboat Racing — and Shipwrecks — in the Hudson River", Hudson ValleyMagazine



  • Currier & Ives engraving of the disaster {reference only}
  • 1852 newspaper accounts of the disaster accessed July 30, 2018
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