Yonkers, NY Steamer HENRY CLAY Disaster, Aug 1852
Our city was startled on Wednesday afternoon with the report that the North River steamer Henry Clay had blown up and been burned, and that hundreds of lives had been lost. The story was at first supposed to be a hoax, similar to that last season concerning the Reindeer; but by the successive arrival of the Hudson River Railroad trains, the story was confirmed, and an immense excitement immediately followed.
The Henry Clay had been totally destroyed by fire, at a place a short distance below Yonkers, and a great number of persons had lost their lives by fire or drowning.
Our reporters left in the 6 p. m. train and remained on the ground until half-past 9 o'clock, during which time twenty-two or twenty-three bodies had been recovered, and the work of grappling was still going on.
The particulars and incidents of this terrible catastrophe are briefly detailed below.
The Henry Clay left Albany at 7 o'clock yesterday morning, having on board, as near as could be ascertained, some 300 passengers.
The Armenia left the same place a few minutes afterward. On the passage down the river there was, as witnesses testify, a continuous strife or race between the two boats. At one time the Clay crowded the Armenia almost upon the western shore, and forced her to drop astern, &c.
The passengers on board the H. C. finally became greatly alarmed on account of the racing and some time before the fire a number of ladies were crying and running about the cabin, as if sensible that some catastrophe was impending. Some of the officers of the boat went among them, assured them that there was no danger, and tried to pacify them.
We are assured that the race had been so hotly contested that the boats had purposely missed some of their landings. The runners of the boats at the various landings appear to have been aware of the racing, since they were freely offering bets upon their favorites.
However, no accident or outrage occurred until a few minutes after the Henry Clay passed Yonkers, when it was discovered that the wood work near the boilers and flues was on fire.
The alarm spread, but the officers of the boat (judiciously, without doubt) told the passengers that there was no danger.
The pilot, however, saw that no time was to be lost, and headed the boat for the eastern shore. The river here is nearly two miles wide, and the boat in her regular course would have been a mile and a half from the east bank.
Before reaching the shore, the flames had spread so as almost to prevent communication between the fore and aft parts of the boat.
At about three or quarter past three o'clock, the boat came ashore, lying at right angles with the river, and the bow driving up some twenty-five feet on dry land, and plunging with tremendous force into the railroad embankment which is there some six or eight feet high.
The shock overthrew the smoke pipe, displaced everything movable, and added not a little to the spreading of the flames. While the bow was high and dry, the greater portion of the boat, and unfortunately that which held nearly all the passengers, was in deep water.
The passengers immediately began to jump overboard. Those on the bow got off safely, and began to help the others. A board fence nearby was instantly stripped, and the boards thrown into the water. By great exertion, a great majority of of[sic] the passengers got ashore, some scorched, nearly all with loss of clothes, trunks, &c.
But the rapid spread of the fire, which forced the passengers at the stern overboard, was the cause of the loss of a large number of lives.
The scene was one of the most terrible character. Mothers with their clothes in flames, trying to save some dear child; children struggling in the waves without a hand to help them; husbands and wives drowning together rather than separate, and the remorseless fire rapidly destroying the last standing place of the helpless victims.
There were very few houses in the neighborhood, and very little help could be had from the shore. But all who know of it hastened to lend their aid.
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