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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Early February, 1886, When the Waters Off Pelham Froze Over and Trapped Ships

The cold that winter more than 130 years ago was so brutal that extreme efforts had to be taken to prevent prisoners held on Hart Island in the Town of Pelham from simply walking away from the prison across the ice of Long Island Sound.  Every day during that brutal cold spell in early February, 1886 the powerful steamboat Fidelity chugged along dutifully and plowed away the thick ice around the entire circumference of the island so Hart Island prisoners could not escape.  Winter was pounding poor Pelham once again.

Pelham, it seems, had grown accustomed to the terrible cold of a merciless winter.  Only four years before during another ferocious winter, the Long Island Sound around City Island and Hart Island off the shores of Pelham froze over and trapped hundreds of craft including schooners and myriad sailing vessels.  Indeed, so many ships were trapped in the ice on that occasion that, according to one account, at night the area "looked like a big town" due to the many lights that could be seen within the many trapped vessels waiting for the ice to thaw and break up.  

Three years before that, in 1879 during another brutal cold spell, much of the Sound and even rivers including portions of the Hudson froze over in a similar fashion.  Steamers were used to break up the ice to try to keep maritime navigation flowing.  Though shipping continued sporadically in the New York City region, the ice-choked waters slowed traffic tremendously for many, many days.

Early February, 1886 was no different.  On February 9, 1886, the New York Herald reported that around City Island and Hart Island "the ice was a complete field."  Pelham Bay "was an unbroken sheet of ice."  Ice on the rivers surrounding New York City was between four and six inches thick.  Schooners, tows, and tugs were stuck in the ice around the islands.  Indeed, on February 8, 1886 there were seven schooners and twenty one canal boats stuck in the ice near City Island and Hart Island.  Additionally, thirteen coal barges that were bound for Bridgeport were stuck in the area.  The New York Herald reported that the ice was solid from the waters around City Island all the way up to Saybrook, Connecticut.

In an effort to keep maritime commerce flowing to and from City Island, a steamship tug was used to cut a channel through the ice leading to the City Island dock one morning.  By the afternoon, however, the tiny little channel was virtually impassable.  It was "choked with broken cakes of ice."  

Sailors on board the trapped vessels made the most of their situation.  For example, Captain Flannery of the M. Vandercook (the vessel towing the thirteen ice-bound coal barges) was accompanied by his wife.  On the evening of Saturday, February 6, Captain Flannery's "buxom, hospitable" wife hosted a grand party for sailors including Captain Fillman, Captain John Walker "Peter" Carlin, and Captain Michael Daly.  Each captain was accompanied by his wife.  One of the crew members provided music with a concertina.  The ladies and gentlemen, according to the New York Herald, enjoyed "an elegant time . . . that evening on the frozen Sound."

It was days before the ice "rotted" from warm weather and ships could travel safely again.  For a time, however, the crews of many ships were ice-bound in a little place called Pelham, New York. . . .   

The Jeannette, Shown Ice-Bound in 1881.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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The severity of the weather last week was especially remarkable up the Sound.  Around City Island and Hart Island the ice was a complete field, and from four to six inches in the rivers.  Schooners, tows and tugs were caught in Hart Island Roads and were ice bound for days.  Yesterday morning there were fixed there seven schooners and twenty-one canal boats.  The schooner John Douglass, Captain Jordan, with a crew of five, with coal, bound for Boston, ran in there on Wednesday night, and next day was unable to break through the ice, so heavy had been the frost within a few hours.  The other schooners caught in the same trap were the Helen Thompson, the Speedwell, the Charles W. Simmons, the E. Flower, the Randolph (Captain Ward), for Providence, the Gray Parrot (British, Captain Mulbury), for St. John, N. B., and the James English (Captain Perkins), for Newport.

A HERALD reporter yesterday went up to City Island to ascertain the state of things.  Pelham Bay was an unbroken sheet of ice and the Hart Island Roads were nearly in the same condition.  The powerful steamer Fidelity had ploughed along the shore of Hart Island every day so as to break the ice and thus prevent a possible means of escape for the prisoners confined on the island.  The ice in the roads was already black and showing signs of rottenness.  A channel from the City Island dock to the vicinity of the schooners had been made by a tug in the morning, but in the afternoon a good part of this channel was choked with broken cakes of ice.  The HERALD reporter pulled through the open water, and then he and his man had to drag the boat over the unbroken portion of the ice to get to another lead to reach the schooners.  The operation was watched with languid interest by the crews, who leaned over the bulwarks calmly smoking.


When the reporter got alongside the Douglass and began to ask questions without introducing himself, Captain Jordan said:  --  

'I suppose you are a reporter?'

'Just so,' was the answer.

'Be you from the HERALD?'

'Why, of course,' was the response.

The skipper thereupon told his visitor that he would be still more delighted if he (the visitor) had brought along a sou'west wind to break up the ice.  The Douglass had spoken the C. B. Sanford, which reported that the ice was solid all the way up to Saybrook.  The crews of the different schooners had not suffered for anything.  Up to Sunday afternoon they were able to walk over the ice to City Island to get all the drink and (if necessary) all the food they wanted.

On Sunday afternoon, however, an accident occurred to one of the men.  A sailor named Jack Deering was in rear of a party, trudging over the ice to the village, when he got on a tender spot and down he went.  He clung to the edge of the broken ice and shouted.  His chums ran back and one of them extended to him a boat hook, which he grasped, and by this means was dragged to a safer place.

The Captain John, the steamer plying between New Rochelle, City Island and New York, got into City Island before Wednesday.  She came down to New York early yesterday morning.  
The Massachusetts was seen to pass down the channel outside the roads seemingly badly listed to port.  Every one thought she had met with a serious accident.


From Wednesday until yesterday morning thirteen coal barges bound for Bridgeport and New Haven lay in the channel at the entrance of Hart Island roads.  They had been towed thus far by the M. Vandercook, but could get no further because of the ice.  The leading boat was bossed by Captain Flannery, whose buxom, hospitable wife determined on Saturday night to give a party.  The skippers who crowded her cabins were Captains Fillman, John Walker 'Peter' Carlin and Michael Daly, and the good ladies their wives accompanied them.  There was no grand piano aboard, but one of the crew had genius and a concertina and furnished the music.  The orchestra was not imbedded [sic] in a bower of roses, as is usual on such occasions, but a hillock of coal hid it from sight, and the proprieties were so far observed.  It was an 'elegant' time those ladies and gentlemen had that evening on the frozen Sound.  Yesterday their palatial floating residences were towed into the roads.

Mr. Furman, a member of the Pelham Yacht Club, said this winter, so far, the ice had not been as great and as unbroken as on some previous winters.  Four years ago there were hundreds of craft frozen in, and at night the roads, from the myriads of lights, looked like a big town.

Just below City Island Dock is Dan Carroll's shipyard, where the yacht Lurline is being repaired.  The Lurline belongs to Mr. James Waterbury, the millionaire.  The yacht is being fitted with a new boiler and a flush deck.  Owing to the cold the work on her has been slow, but it is hoped she will be ready by the 10th of March to go South.

The schooners Minnehaha and Oak Wood, which were disabled in the great storm of three weeks ago, are being repaired at the City Island Dock.  Should the fine weather continue -- indeed, should this morning prove very mild -- the schooners and tow named above will be able to get out by to-morrow morning."

Source:  FROZEN IN ON THE SOUND, N.Y. Herald, Feb. 9, 1886, p. 8, col. 6.  

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Pelham experienced a series of terrible winters during the 1850s, the 1870s, and the 1880s.  I have written before about some of these terrible winters and the major storms they produced. See, e.g.

Thu., Aug. 17, 2017:  More on Brutal Winters in Pelham During the 1850s.

Thu., Jul. 27, 2017:  Terrible Storm of 1856 Wrecks Dozens and Dozens of Ships Including Many on Pelham Shores

Fri., May 26, 2017:  The Significance of the Wreck of the Steamer Plymouth Rock in Pelham in 1855.

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