The loss of the Henry Clay, off Riverdale N.Y. on July 28, 1852 was, in its day, one of the most notorious shipping disasters to take place in U.S. waters, and remains surprisingly well known regionally 'though little remembered elsewhere.
The Henry Clay was a 198 foot long sidewheeler, and a "day boat" which operated between NYC and Albany. Launched in 1851, she was a new boat on the river and in less than a year had developed a reputation for speed and, if post disaster acccounts are to be believed, as a racer. On her final day, she departed Albany in conjunction with her principal rival, the Armenia, both bound for NYC. Although the trip started calmly enough, it soon became evident that the close-to-eight-hour journey was becoming a race. At least one irate passenger aboard the Henry Clay saw his stop, at a minor landing, passed in order to maintain maximum speed for as long as possible- he opted to remain with the ship 'through' to NYC so that he could bring suit. Passengers were concerned enough with what they considered risky and negligent navigating that some sort of confrontation developed between them and the captain and/or pilot. It was remarked by the officers that they wished the passengers would 'mind their own business.' One passenger was later quoted as saying that another irate passenger wished to throw the captain overboard. At Kingston NY, the Henry Clay veered around the Armenia to be the first ship to enter the dock, and the two vessels collided with minor damage ensuing. At least one party of socially prominent passsengers left the Clay at that point to complete the journey by rail, and the captain of the slightly damaged Armenia (wisely) chose to abort the race. Passengers boarded at Kingston and Poughkeepsie, bringing the total onboard to a possible 500 as the Henry Clay began the final leg of her passage. High speed was maintained, and some were alarmed by the sparks and cinders which rained down from the funnel onto the shade awnings along the after decks - in some places they burned through. After the main meal of the day was served, and with about an hour left of the less-than-relaxing journey, the Henry Clay was found to be afire, amidship, just south of Yonkers and about a mile offshore. A few of the passengers managed to make it to the bow section, but most ran to the stern, at first under orders and, as the fire progressed, as their only option. The voyage from midstream to the shore, took several minutes and the Clay, with a draft of only 5 feet, struck the shallows at speed high enough to allow her to run, sled style, up the beach and into a railway embankment, her bow stopping just short of the tracks. Those few who ran forward were able to drop safely onto land. The hundreds who were driven to the stern found themselves in deep water, figuratively as well as literally, as they were still perhaps 140 feet from shore. As aboard the General Slocum few knew how to swim, but the arrival of the Armenia, minutes into the disaster, kept the fatalities from hitting the 75% figure that the Slocum's did. Still, at least 80 were lost, including Stephen Allan, the ex-mayor of New York City, and Maria Hawthorne, the sister of Nathaniel.
This view, from Gleason's Pictorial, is the best known contemporary view of the wreck and can easily be found at paper shows and flea markets. There is a second view, a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, which differs from this view in many ways (note that the bow of the Armenia can be seen just off the Henry Clay's stern, while in the painting the Armenia is placed, more scenically, in mid-river) but agrees, with amazing fidelity, to the distance between the wreck and the railway overpass. That made it easy, 153 years later, to determine just where the wreck lay, and may still lie.