Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Seawanhaka Saga Continues

The Local History Collection recently acquired this circa 1870's postcard handout depicting the steamship Seawanhaka and advertising its schedule.  This item was purchased with money from the Risha Rosner Memorial Fund*, which is made up of contributions donated in recognition of Risha Rosner, a dedicated, longtime Great Neck librarian and local history enthusiast who passed away in March of 2010.

Artist's rendering of the steamship Seawanhaka off Sands' Point.  Note that the maker of this card was Donaldson Brothers of Five Points, New York.  Five Points was a notoriously overcrowded and crime-ridden downtown Manhattan neighborhood.

The Seawanhaka was one of many steamships that shuttled commuters and daytrippers to and from Manhattan, Whitestone, Great Neck, Sand's Point, Glen Cove, Sea Cliff, Glenwood, and Roslyn.  In the days before highways, affordable autos, and commuter railroads like the LIRR,  steamships were a major way for people to travel longer distances.  Recreational grounds like Oriental Grove in Great Neck became popular steamship destinations for weekend travelers looking to escape the city for a day of relaxation, nature, sport, and picnicking.  The waterways of New York City and its surrounding areas were full of steamships, which were full of passengers and cargo.  These waterways became increasingly dangerous, as more and more steamships and other boats competed for limited shipping lanes and rights of way.  Many serious steamship catastrophes, and many more small accidents and near misses, occurred in and around the waters of New York City.  Among these was the Seawanhaka Disaster of June 28, 1880.  These incidents were caused by the aforementioned shipping conditions, lax regulation, corruption, poorly enforced or nonexistent safety rules, improper ship design, use, and upkeep, and the dangerous, often negligent conditions on some ships.

If this schedule was accurate, then the
Seawanhaka was a very fast ship indeed

The Seawanhaka Disaster and Great Neck
       In the late afternoon of June 28, 1880, the steamship Seawanhaka was making its regular trip up the East River from its last Manhattan boarding dock to Long Island, with many commuters aboard.  As the ship sailed into the narrows between Hell Gate and Little Hell Gate, her boiler caught fire.  Flames quickly spread to the ship’s other decks.  With no docks in sight, and heavy boat traffic on both sides, Captain Charles P. Smith piloted his ship to the wetland shore of Randall’s Island.  He ran the Seawanhaka aground in a spot called the sunken meadow.  Half the ship sat on marshland; the other half faced the waters of the East River.  Captain Smith stayed with his ship until he blacked out.  He had been badly burned on the face and hands while steering his ship to the best landing site available.
       Those fleeing the Seawanhaka were forced to choose between a blazing, sinking ship, swampy marshland, and inhospitable waters - many could not swim.  Over forty people perished in the Seawanhaka fire, drowned fleeing the ship, or died from injuries suffered in the disaster, including several Great Neck residents.
       The Seawanhaka Disaster, as it came to be known, had a profound effect on Great Neck.  Some of the Great Neck residents who died in the Seawanhaka Disaster were prominent citizens - businessmen who owned homes and/or businesses in both New York City and Great Neck.  Abram P. Skidmore was a particularly beloved and admired Great Neck resident who died in the disaster.  Other Great Neck residents who died in the disaster include Hilard R. Hulburd, Mordecai Manuel Noah Smith, James H. Skidmore, and Montague Smith.  Still other Great Neck residents, including F. K. Edwards, were rescued after the burning ship ran aground.
       Outraged at the increasing frequency of deadly steamship accidents, of which the Seawanhaka had only been the latest, public and government outcry soon resulted in investigations and prosecutions.  Some practical changes in the oversight of New York’s shipping industry were made.  W. R. Grace, former mayor of New York City, and perhaps Great Neck's most eminent resident, was on the Seawanhaka when it went down.  He knew some of the passengers who died in the disaster.  Grace tried to make certain that those who perished in the Seawanhaka Disaster did not die in vain.  He attempted to ensure that proper investigations were being made, and that suggested changes in shipping regulations were being adopted.
       In Great Neck, townspeople mourned their fellow residents who had perished.  They also praised and memorialized the captain of the ship, helping to collect a large sum of money to present to him, for his bravery, and to help defray the costs of his treatment, recovery, and loss of income.

Illustration from the July 17, 1880 Harper's Weekly, dramatically depicting scenes from the Seawanhaka tragedy.  Before photojournalism became practical and widespread, illustrators often drew stirring images to accompany the news stories of the day.  The Great Neck Library Local History Collection owns a copy of this issue of Harper's Weekly, which also includes an editorial and news article on the Seawanhaka Disaster.

* If you would like to contribute to the Risha Rosner Memorial Fund, please call the Great Neck Library Reference Department at 516-466-8055, ext. 218.  Contributions to this fund are spent on adding items to the library's Local History Collection, and preserving, conserving and providing better access to the collection.

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