Featured © National Maritime Museum, London
In April 1845, The Rochester and The Swallow embarked on a steamboat race that would leave both much, much worse for the wear.
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The Hudson River has been used for travel for almost 10,000 years, so it’s not surprising that the waterway has become a graveyard of sorts. Countless Native American boats met their fate here. And since European settlement in 1614, there are an estimated 300-plus known vessels—from colonial sloops to steamships—resting on the river bottom.
There are, of course, many reasons why these boats sank. Many capsized in storms. Others ran aground, especially before the invention of modern navigation equipment. Some, driven by steam, burned when boilers misfired, and even caught fire while in winter drydock. Countless shipwrecks are lost to memory. One, however, is not: the 1845 disaster involving two sidewheel steamboats, the Swallow and the Rochester.
The Swallow was built in New York City and began running nighttime passage between the city and Albany in 1836. It had a wooden hull nearly 100 yards long and weighed 426 tons. Most notably, it was fast. The Rochester, another steamboat built around the same time, was speedy too. They were known as “Hudson River Flyers” and, like people tend to do with fast things, they often raced one another—legally, if not always wisely.
On April 7, 1845, a challenge was met. The Swallow, skippered by Captain A. H. Squires, left Albany at 6 p.m. on a scheduled run to New York City. The Rochester, and another sidewheeler called the Express, soon followed. All were loaded with passengers, including about 300 on the Swallow, many unaware that they would be in a competition.
The weather soon turned nasty, with a heavy gale carrying snow squalls into the river valley. Around 8 p.m. near Athens, the Swallow’s pilot, William Burnett, lost his bearings, and the ship (which was going only about five miles per hour) crashed onto a rocky outcropping near shore with a thunderous roar that was reportedly heard more than a mile away. The hull broke apart, the boilers flooded, the ship burst into flames—and the Swallow quickly sank.
A few of the passengers managed to reach the bow and drop to the ground. Many jumped into the river but, in the darkness, were unable to find their way to the shore. The cities of Athens and Hudson, across the river, were called to help by pealing church bells; dozens rushed to the site of the accident, built fires to provide light, and rescued as many as they could. The crews and passengers of the Rochester and the Express also joined in the rescue. Of the approximately 300 people on board, about 200 were saved.
Though steamboat racing remained legal, the legislature made one small change in the wake of the tragedy. Riverboat travel was prohibited until May. (Racing was made illegal seven years later, after the steamships Henry Clay and Armenia crashed near Kingston during a race, killing a reported 80 people.) Nothing of the Swallow remains at the crash site, though some of its materials were repurposed. According to the Hudson River Maritime Museum, lumber from the ship’s debris was used to build a two-story house on Albany Avenue in Valatie; it became known as the Swallow House and still stands, along with a historical marker noting its infamous provenance.