One-hundred fifty years ago traveling by steamboat was the only way to get to and from New York, from Providence and Boston, efficiently because there were no bridges across the rivers along the Connecticut coast. Stonington, Connecticut was a terminus for the steamboats of the New York, Providence, and Boston Railroad. Passengers would take a train or coach from Boston or Providence and board the steamers at Stonington.
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The journey was a pleasant overnight trip. Passengers would board the steamer around 7 p.m., freshen up in their staterooms, then head down to a lavish dining room complete with chandeliers and white table linens. The cuisine served on steamers was on par with the finest hotels. Passengers could drink in bars with gambling tables or lounge on the deck and watch the scenery go by. Retiring to their staterooms they would arrive refreshed in the morning at their destination.
However, as elegant and seaworthy as most steamboats were many were large vessels. The Norwich Line’s last steamer, the City of Lowell, was a steel-hulled, twin-screw propeller ship capable of carrying 2000 passengers. Earlier steamships were constructed of wood and, in the event of a collision, prone to severe damage and possible sinking.
Friday, June 11, 1880, was a completely ordinary day. The usual crowd had gathered at the steamer dock in Stonington to watch 400 passengers climb aboard the steamer Stonington, bound for a weekend in the big city. Captain George F. Nye was in command as the vessel cast off her lines and headed for New York.
About the same time the elegant wooden sidewheeler Narragansett was leaving the pier in New York with 300 passengers on board. She was under the temporary command of Captain William S. Young. She was fully booked, every cabin and berth taken, and many people were forced to sleep on benches and mattresses on the deck. The Narragansett and the Stonington were sister ships built in 1868 each weighing 1,633 tons. Both were well maintained and well captained reflecting the Norwich Line’s motto, “Old Reliable.”
The two ships headed into Long Island Sound and no one could have foreseen the disaster that was about to unfold. No one knew that the sturdily built Narragansett would end up on the bottom of the Sound. After dinner passengers who took a turn on deck would have noticed that their ships were steaming through a thick fog.
As the courses of the two vessels converged, could it have been bad luck or just fate? Around midnight, three miles off Cornfield Point at the mouth of the Connecticut River, the Stonington plowed into her sister ship with a tremendous crash. A huge hole was ripped in the starboard side of the Narragansett which allowed water to rush in and plunge the ship into darkness. A gas meter onboard exploded and started a fire which quickly spread. The Stonington sustained damage with a large section of her bow stove in.
An article in the New York Times on June 14, 1880, detailed the panic caused on board the Narragansett and the horrible deaths of some of the passengers. Much comment was made on the actions of the men on board. “The scene onboard was appalling. A large number of the passengers were women and children, and the sufferings of these, aggravated by the cowardice and brutality of many of the men was simply terrible.”
The Boston Globe reported, “A scene of indescribably wild confusion ensued on both boats. The passengers rushed frantically from their staterooms … One of the officers on board the Narragansett is described as ever pacing up and down deck and assuring the frantic passengers that everything was all right, but a moment proved the worst fears well-founded. In two or three minutes a blaze was seen rising from the hold near the center of the steamer. Like a prairie fire, it spread along the decks, the masts, the rigging, and soon this royal monster of the deep was a mass of flames. Horrors accumulated on horror’s head.”
Another account of the disaster reported, “Volumes of smoke gushed from the hatchway. The stairways were choked with the sickening fumes of escaping gas. The tank had burst, the gas took fire and in a moment almost the whole vessel was in flames. The scene of horror cannot be described as men with their wives or children rushed to the boats or sought some movable object upon which they cast themselves out in the waves, preferring the uncertainty of the dark waters than the horrible death which seemed imminent, as the flames now began to make themselves apparent in flaring tongues through stairways and crevices.”
One passenger, Mr. P.P. Butterfield reported, “Men started to lower a boat and at least fifty people jumped into it. Many women rushed out of their staterooms-half naked and asked what the matter was. The men, to quiet them down, said that they didn’t think there was any danger. I got a trunk and jumped into the water and was in the water two hours. It was so dark I couldn’t get a preserver and climbed upon a raft. I was able to save a lady’s life by keeping her head above water by clinging hold of her waist. I saw a great many in the water and think a good many died in their state-rooms, being either smothered, burned to death or drowned. I think that at least seventy persons were drowned.”
The actions of both captains were deplorable. While the terrified passengers struggled Captain Young, on the Narragansett, did nothing to help them. It was reported that he said, “We’ll have the boats lowered, and everyone must look out for themselves.” He then ordered the crew to board the boats and they rowed away leaving the sinking vessel.
Onboard, the Stonington Captain George Nye and his officers did not know what ship they had collided with until the flames pierced the fog. The Stonington, although damaged, was in no danger of sinking and yet the officers made no effort to launch their lifeboats to help the people they could see struggling in the water. Later Nye never gave an adequate explanation for his cowardice. Fortunately, the steamer, City of New York, arrived on the scene and launched her lifeboats and saved an estimated 200 people that she rescued and took back to New York. Near dawn Captain Nye turned the Stonington, carrying 50 survivors, back to Stonington.
An interesting historical footnote; One of the passengers on the Stonington was Charles J. Guiteau who was on deck at the time of the collision. He was a mentally unstable lawyer who felt he had been slighted by President Garfield. In 1881 a little over a year after the collision Guiteau assassinated President James A. Garfield. Guiteau was sentenced to death for the crime and hanged five months later.
At least 50 Narragansett passengers lost their lives. The exact number was never known because Captain Young had neglected to complete the passenger list for which he was fined $100, but the number was certainly much higher. The two captains both lost their licenses in subsequent hearings.
After the disaster, there was a lot of public indignation about the lack of safety measures onboard the steamers. The Stonington Line began to hold regular lifeboat drills and safety regulations were tightened. But it was too little too late to help many of those who had embarked on that calm June night.