Sunday, October 2, 2005

Lake George Cruise Boat Ethan Allen Tragedy

Ethan AllenThe 40-foot tour boat Ethan Allen has capsized on Lake George. It happened at 3 pm; 49 passengers were on board.

Update: The Associated Press is reporting 20 were killed, making it the deadliest such tragedy in the history of Lake George and the Adirondack Region. We’ve been told that the emergency room at Glens Falls Hospital was overwhelmed and forced to send patients to Saratoga Hospital. The AlbanyEye is reporting on the reporting.

The Ethan Allen was one of the first boats operated by Shoreline Cruises when they began in the mid-1970s. At the time their berth was at King Neptune’s Pub in Lake George Village, it is now located beside it, within view of the camera Capital News 9’s cuts to when they go out to commercials and during the weather reports.

Similar accidents  have occurred on Lake George.

On July 30, 1856 the 140-feet long John Jay (built in 1850) was delayed at Ticonderoga’s Baldwin Dock waiting on passengers coming by stagecoach from Lake Champlain, where the large number of passengers required several trips to get everyone to the boat. It wasn’t until 7 pm that the John Jay, now loaded with 70 passengers backed away from the dock. About an hour later they were ten miles down the lake. Below, the fireman stoked the boilers with inferior pitch pine as they made top speed – then the worst happened. “Owing to that old bonnet on the smoke stack,” the Engineer was reported to have told one of the passengers, “it stopped the draft, and forced the flame out of the furnace doors.” The flues had filled with soot, filling the boiler room with smoke and driving the fireman above, but not before he could get the firebox doors shut. The sparks ignited the woodwork over the firebox. “I saw a dense mass of smoke puff out-then another,” one passenger later recalled “and there was an instantaneous and indiscriminate… scramble for places of safety.” Captain Gale, on hearing the alarm, ran to the wheelhouse and ordered the pilot to steer at top speed for shore a half mile away as he yelled to try and calm the passengers. The rest of the crew began fighting the fire.

In the meantime the passengers at the rear of the steamer in the path of the smoke tried to make their way forward. Some of the men tried to inflate the life preservers but found them inoperable. Another man, T. C. Thwing, of Boston, tried to lower the one lifeboat that hung amidships but the flames were already spreading to prevent it. The passengers crowded into the steamer’s bow “men, women and children, not knowing but the next moment would be their last… mothers clinging to their children, and children holding fast to parents. Fathers, with pale faces and compressed lips, watching the progress of the flames, and looking about for the means of escape when the boat should reach the shore, – women, young and fair, gathered around their protectors and asking piteously: Is there no way to be saved?” a passenger later wrote.

As they approached the shore the boat struck a rock hard and nearly keeled over. It was then that some of the panicked passengers, five in all, including Thwing’s wife Annie and his-sister-in law, jumped or were thrown overboard. Some leapt into the water with deck chairs and anything they could find that would float as the flames spread cutting the tiller lines and making the boat impossible to steer. Some made it shore but five were drowned, and the rest of those on board were saved when the steamer reached the shore. There those still on board leapt for their lives, the John Jay burned to the waterline. “We had scarcely reached shore,” on man reported, “when the baggage which had been rescued from the wreck was seized upon by a gang of harpies, who took articles of apparel which happened to suit their fancy, and appropriated them without ceremony to their own uses.” The crew and passengers made their way to the nearby home of a man named Garfield who supplied them with whatever they needed as the dead were brought in and laid out. A survivor wrote bitterly later, “In my judgment, the cause of the disaster is to be attributed to the miserable inefficiency of persons in charge of the steamer, and the loss of life is chargeable to the neglect of the owners of the line, in failing to provide the appliances which accidents may render indispensable to the salvation of life.”

The following week someone wrote to the New York Times from Lake George to say that “the number of visitors here is not great. The travel in this direction has fallen off some seventy or eighty percent, since the burning of the steamer John Jay.”

Until today, the lamentable distinction of the greatest tragedy on Lake George (and the Adirondacks in general) belonged to a similar sized steam powered boat, the Rachel.

On the night of August 3, 1893 the steamer Rachel was chartered by more than twenty guests of the Fourteen Mile Island Hotel to take them to a dance at the Hundred Island House. The Rachel was owned by the Pearl Point Hotel but the usual captain, a man named Barber fell ill and went home early leaving the boat in the hands of a less experienced pilot, Claude Granger. The boat arrived safely at Fourteen Mile Island Hotel and with the passengers loaded, twenty-nine in all, left the dock at 9 pm. There was little or no moon as the boat neared Hundred Island House. The passengers on the deck were laughing and some ladies singing as Granger steered unknowingly out of the channel and struck an old dock south of the hotel tearing a large hole in the side of the boat below the water line. Some of the passengers were caught on the shade deck and died quickly as the boat listed and almost immediately sank. With only her smokestack left above water, a number of men from shore had rowed boats from the two nearby hotels to the scene to rescue the survivors. A young man named Benedict, an excellent swimmer, dove for his sister but couldn’t find her. Nineteen-year-old Frank Mitchell, of Burlington, drowned while trying to save his mother who also drowned. Eight other women (some from Warrensburg, Troy, Hoboken, and Brooklyn) drowned.

That night, nine bodies were recovered, three more were found later. The New York Times reported that “one result of this accident is to show how necessary is the legislation which was attempted a few winters ago by gentlemen interested in Lake George navigation, who attempted to have a law passed that would prohibit pilots or engineers from having charge of steamboats on Lake George unless they could pass an examination before a board of experts; also to have boilers tested regularly.”

While the record of the most deaths on Lake George in a single incident belongs to the Rachel, the Sagamore holds another record. At 224 feet and able to carry 1,500 passengers, the Sagamore was largest of the steamboats plying the lake for the Champlain Transportation Company – it also has the dubious record for groundings and collisions. The Sagamore story starts oddly enough, in a rescue attempt. On October 23, 1909 the steamer Mohican ran aground at Hulett’s Landing, on the west side of Lake George north of Black Mountain point. It was late in the season, in fact the Mohican was the only boat running the lake, so the Sagamore was brought from her winter quarters and manned by a crew from the shipyards at Burlington. She arrived at the scene at mid day and lines were strung to the Mohican, but just as the steam was put on and the line went taunt, the ropes snapped and the Sagamore was driven aground too. The Horicon was then needed to drag both boats from the shoal. Three years later it was the Horicon again who came to the rescue when the Sagamore was run aground in the sands of Hague Bar during the night of August 11, 1912. The passengers got off safely by small boats, but Horicon broke its hawser lines and anchor chains trying to pull the Sagamore free the next day.

The Sagamore next got into trouble on July 6, 1920. Maude and Florence Leavey of Hudson Falls were in a row boat in Kaatskill Bay with two friends Mrs. Alexander Duflow and Mrs. Edward Mullowney, both of Brooklyn. Somehow they found themselves in the path of the Sagamore and with the Leaveys at the oars, rowed for their lives, just barely missing being hit by the ship’s bow. They didn’t get past the paddlewheel however, and it smashed the boat to bits and threw the women into the water. Duflow and Mullownewy couldn’t swim and drowned almost immediately. The Leavey sisters kept themselves afloat and were rescued, frightened and exhausted, by several men in rowboats who had seen the accident from the shore at Cleverdale.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

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