Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, October 07, 2016

The Steamship Belle Wrecked in Pelham Waters During a Gale in 1841

During the week beginning Sunday, December 12, 1841, the weather in Pelham was unseasonably warm and beautiful.  At the time, about 790 people lived in Pelham, with most living on City Island and the adjacent mainland.  For nearly five days, Pelham residents basked in the lovely warm weather – that is, until Thursday, December 16.  That day, temperatures in the region began to plunge and a gale began to blow.  

As the gale grew in force, one of the regular steamships that ran between New York City and New Haven, the Belle, loaded passengers in New York Harbor.  The Belle was a new steamship purchased (and perhaps built) during the spring of 1841.  It was among a group of steamships operating along the corridor between New York City and Providence, Rhode Island, seeking to apply competitive pressure to the relentless railroads that were expanding along the same route on the mainland.  

These steamships included not only the Belle, but also Gladiator, Telegraph, and New Haven.  Fares on the ships ranged from $1 to $4.  See History of Steam Navigation Between New York & Providence Compiled by Chas. H. Dow, Providence Journal, Under the Direction of D. S. Babcock, Esq., President of the Providence & Stonington Steamship Co. – 1877, p. 18 (NY, NY: Wm. Turner & Co., 1877).  Captain Peck owned and operated the Belle which was said to have been purchased for $50,000 and was not insured.

Despite the gale, the Belle departed New York City at 4:00 p.m. and made its way up the East River past Hell Gate into Long Island Sound.  As the steamship chugged along near Throgg’s Neck, the storm raged with such violence that Captain Peck decided that the ship needed to find a safer location and anchor.  

Captain Peck maneuvered the steamship between City Island and Hart Island, then part of Pelham.  He hoped the ship would be somewhat protected on the lee side of Hart Island.  At about 6:00 p.m., Captain Peck dropped anchor there to wait out the storm.  At about this time, the gale intensified and a brutal snowstorm began to pelt Pelham and the surrounding region. 

Over the next few hours, the rough waters pounded the Belle.  At about 10:00 p.m. it was discovered that the waters were so rough that the anchor had begun to drag and the steamship was no longer secure.  Captain Peck and his crew raised anchor and recast it, but the waters were so rough that the anchor cable snapped.  The crew quickly dropped a second anchor, but its cable soon snapped as well.  Now in full crisis mode, the Captain and crew fired up the steam engine to maneuver the steamship under power.  Within minutes, however, all was lost.  According to an eyewitness account attributed to a passenger on the Belle that night:  “owing to the violence of the wind and the roughness of the sea, the tiller ropes gave way, and the boat was driven at the mercy of the winds, & went ashore at half past ten. She continued to withstand the most furious sea I ever witnessed until half past one, when she sprung a leak, and soon filled with water.” 

To their credit, Captain Peck and his crew kept their cool and successfully evacuated all passengers from the steamship. They also offloaded freight on the ship.  The passengers passed the night on City Island where, according to a number of accounts, they were most uncomfortable.  The following day, the ship American Eagle picked up the passengers on City Island and returned them to New York City with few happy memories of the time they spent on that treacherous night in our little Town of Pelham. 

Steamship Wreck Much Like the One that Happened
on City Island in Pelham on December 16, 1841.  Though
Research Has Not Revealed an Image of the Steamship
Belle, This Currier and Ives Print Depicts a Similar Wreck
of the Steamship Arctic that Occurred in 1854.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge. 

*          *          *          *          *

Below is the text of a number of articles published in 1841 about the wreck of the steamship Belle in Peham waters.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source. 

“The Storm. – We mentioned yesterday that the Steamboat Belle, bound to New Haven, had been driven ashore during the severe storm on Thursday night.  When the boat was near Throg’s Point [sic], the storm raged with such violence that her commander deemed it prudent to anchor.  –  The storm, however, increased, and the boat dragged her anchors, and finally went ashore on City Island, and soon filled with water.  The passengers were landed in safety, and returned to this city in the American Eagle, which was despatched [sic] to their relief.  The Belle is owned by Captain Peck and some citizens of New York, and was purchased last spring for $50,000, and, it is said, she is not insured. 

The following is communicated by a passenger:  --  We left New York at four and came to anchor under the lee of Hart’s Island about six, on account of the violence of the storm.  About ten it was discovered that the anchor dragged, and it was raised to cast in a new place.  The cable soon parted, as did that of the second anchor.  The machinery was then set in motion, but owing to the violence of the wind and the roughness of the sea, the tiller ropes gave way, and the boat was driven at the mercy of the winds, & went ashore at half past ten.  She continued to withstand the most furious sea I ever witnessed until half past one, when she sprung a leak, and soon filled with water. 

During the whole time the Captain acted with great coolness and discretion, and the crew with promptitude and vigor.  –  N. Y. Com. Adv. 18th inst.” 

Source: The Storm, Edgefield Advertiser [Edgefied, SC], Dec. 29, 1841, p. 2, col. 4

“THE STORM – THE MAILS. ALBANY, Dec. 20. – The snow storm of Thursday and Friday last, seems to have been one of the most severe and extensive storms on record.  In all directions the usual avenues of communication have been blocked up, and for several days we have suffered in this city from an almost universal dearth of news.  Thus, up to seven o’clock this morning, we had nothing later from New York than the papers of the Wednesday evening previous – while from the west our latest Buffalo dates were only up to Tuesday, and Rochester of Wednesday.  The eastern mails, however, fared rather better: those from Boston having been delayed but a few hours, while the Hartford papers brought us our earliest advices from the south. 

The steamer De Witt Clinton, which left New York with passengers and the mails on Thursday evening, met the storm in Newburgh bay, and was compelled by its violence to anchor and remain there during the night of Thursday, and the greater part of the following day.  

The land mail from Hudson which left that city on Saturday morning, and was due here the same evening, did not reach here until the afternoon of Sunday; the snowdrifts along the road rendering them almost impassable. 

On the west side of the river similar obstacles delayed the Catskill mail until late at night, the driver being compelled to dig a road through the snow. 

The steamboat North America, which left New York on Saturday afternoon, got up to Catskill yesterday.  We are indebted to Mr. ALFRED DOUGLASS, who came up in the N. A., for a copy of the New York American of Saturday, in advance of the mail. 

The steamboat BELLE, which left New York for New Haven on Thursday afternoon, went ashore at about 10 o’clock at night on City Island, about 15 miles from New York, and having sprung a leak, soon filled with water.  The passengers, crew, &c., were all safely landed on the island, where they passed the night not very comfortably, and returned next day to New York.  

At Boston the storm commenced about 10 o’clock on Thursday night, and raged with tremendous violence throughout that night and the next day. The steamer Acadia, which sailed for Liverpool on Thursday afternoon, doubtless encountered the full fury of the gale when off the coast the same night.  The ship Mohawk went ashore in the midst of the storm on Friday at Point Alderton.  It is supposed that she will be a total loss.  Two large schooners are reported ashore on Thompson’sIsland.  The next mails will doubtless bring us some sad tidings of disasters on the coast. – Daily Adv.” 

Source: THE STORM – THE MAILS, Burlington Free Press [Burlington, VT], Dec. 24, 1841, p. 3, col. 2.  


A severe blow was experienced here on Thursday night, which continued throughout yesterday and was still blowing very fresh last evening.  It is to be feared that some disasters have occurred on the coast. 

Steamer Charter Oak arrived yester-morning, reports the steamer Belle is ashore on City Island.  From appearances it was supposed that she had dragged her anchors, and gone ashore in the gale. The B. left here on Thursday afternoon for New-Haven. 

Ships Echo, Vicksburg, and Clarissa Andrews, a brig and a topsail schooner, all bound out, were anchored off the Quarantine; during the night they all dragged their anchors.  The Vicksburg, at noon yesterday, was close in with the beach, with both anchors out ahead.” 

Source:  GALE IN THIS PORT, Shipping and Commercial List, Dec. 18, 1841, Vol. XXVII, No. 100, p. 3, col. 8.  

“MISFORTUNE OF THE STEAMBOAT BELLE. – The steamboat Belle left this city on Friday evening for New Haven, but encountering tempestuous weather, the commander, Captain Peck, anchored at a place in the Sound, under the lee of Hart’s Island, intending to ride out the storm, but its violence increasing, the boat dragged anchor.  The machinery was then set in motion, but the tiller ropes gave way, and the boat being at the mercy of the wind and sea, was driven aground at City Island, where she sprung a leak.  The passengers were safely landed, as well as the crew, and the freight was saved.” 

Source: MISFORTUNE OF THE STEAMBOAT BELLE, The Evening Post [NY, NY], Dec. 18, 1841, No. 12104, p. 2, col. 1. See also MISFORTUNE OF THE STEAMBOAT BELLE, Albany Argus [Albany, NY], Dec. 20, 1841, p. 2, col. 3 (same text).  

“WINTER WEATHER. – We have it now. After four or five days of mild, beautiful, but unseasonable weather, we yesterday experienced a touch of real winter weather.  Our city is again covered with snow.  

As a precursor to the above, the wind blew through the previous night, as if the wind of the whole world had been bottled up to be used for the exclusive benefit of this city.  What damage has been done on our coast, we have not yet heard. 

We understand that the steamers Massachusetts and New Haven, hence each went ashore on Hog island, and the Belle on City Island.  Her passengers were taken off by the American Eagle, and brought to that city.  Several vessels in the harbor dragged their anchors.  Among the number were steamships Echo, Vicksburg, and Clarissa Andrews.  

No steamers left the city yesterday for Albany.” 

Source:  WINTER WEATHER, The New York Herald, Dec. 18, 1841, Vol. VII, No. 275, p. 2, col. 1

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