“A dark gloomy day for Pokepsie” – The Destruction of the Henry Clay

You may notice that the word “Poughkeepsie” is misspelled in our title. That is because it was spelled this way in an 1852 diary written by Matthew Vassar Jr., which is located here in our local history collection. He wrote these words to sum up the terrible news that he had just heard on July 31st, that the steamer ship Henry Clay had caught fire and crashed ashore near Yonkers. This year will mark 170 years since the catastrophe, and even though it did not take place near Poughkeepsie, it was certainly felt by many people within the city. 

The Henry Clay was built by Thomas Collyer in 1851 and was known as a side-wheel paddle steamer. Her length was just under 200 feet and she (yes, boats are referred to as she/her) had the capacity to carry over 500 passengers and crew. In the 1840s and 50s, it was quite common for steam ships to race each other from New York City to Albany. Since there were many Steamer companies competing, it certainly looked appealing to paying customers if a ship could make the journey in seven and a half hours instead of eight or even longer. However, it was extremely dangerous, as boilers could overheat and explode. Fires on these boats were common: between January and July of 1852 alone, there were 19 fires and wrecks, resulting in over 350 deaths – all before the destruction of the Henry Clay

On July 28th, the Henry Clay and her rival ship the Armenia both left the port at Albany at 7:00 AM in a race to see who could reach New York City first. Both ships had stops to make in order to pick up and drop off passengers along the way. The Henry Clay stopped in Hudson to pick up passengers but the Armenia went speeding by. One passenger was thoroughly annoyed when the ship did not stop at Bristol Landing (as she was scheduled to) because the Armenia had stopped there, and this would allow her the chance to take the lead in the race. Meanwhile, most of the passengers spent the morning walking the decks, sitting in chairs enjoying the views, or enjoying conversations inside the ship’s fashionable salons. 

When the Henry Clay docked at Poughkeepsie, she picked up another 100 passengers, including Mrs. Emily Bartlett, the wife of Charles Bartlett who was the principal of the school at College Hill. A local shoemaker, George Theilman got on board with his sister Mrs. Margaret Chatillon and her two young daughters, as well as a woman named Charlotte Johnson who was said to be about 25 years old, and one of the few African Americans on board that fateful day. The next stop she would make was in Newburgh, where they picked up a known celebrity of the day, Andrew Jackson Downing, the talented landscape architect and horticulturist. 

By the time the ship had made its way past West Point, the rival Armenia had slowed down and appeared to have given up the chase, but the Henry Clay continued to maintain dangerously high speeds. None of the passengers could stand to be anywhere near the engine room as the heat was extreme, on top of the fact that the outside temperature was reading almost 85 degrees that day. Around 3:00 PM, a fire broke out around midship which sent passengers in opposite directions, either to stern (rear) or bow (front). The ship turned and headed towards the eastern shore and smashed into the beach, stopping just short of the train tracks. Those who had made their way to the bow were able to jump to land, but anyone in the middle or at the stern of the ship had to choose between a death in the flames or a death by drowning. Many female passengers in heavy dresses exhausted themselves in the water and succumbed to the harsh river tides. 

When Matthew Vassar Jr. wrote in his diary, he clearly was disturbed by the event, writing about “the loss of life of 70 to 80 persons by fire + drowning.” Sadly, the exact number appears to be unknown, as several passengers were missing and never properly identified. He also went on to add, “a gloom is cast over this village – the family of Theilman, 4 in number brott (brought) up + buried this day – Mrs. Bartlett wife of Chas Bartlett College Hill – also Charlotte a colored woman all of this Village and many acquaintances aboard sad, sad (illegible) is the case.” He finished the entry by writing, “a dark gloomy day for Pokepsie.” Not long after this disaster, legislation was passed which banned the racing of steamer ships on the Hudson.  

“Death Passage on the Hudson: The wreck of the Henry Clay” by Kris A. Hansen – LH 974.73
New York Times: 30 Jul 1852
Poughkeepsie Journal: 31 Jul 1852, 7 Aug 1852

01 – Portrait of Matthew Vassar Jr. from the Vail Brothers Studios – LH Collection
02 – Photo of the writing in Matthew Vassar Jr.’s diary – LH Collections
03 –
A powerful image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art  – showing the destruction of the Henry Clay
04 –
Another powerful image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art – showing the destruction of the Henry Clay