On July 30th, 1856 the 140-feet long John Jay (built in 1850) was delayed at Ticonderoga’s Baldwin Dock waiting on the stagecoach from Lake Champlain, where the large number of passengers required several trips to get everyone to the boat.
It wasn’t until 7 pm that the Jay, now loaded with 70 people, pulled away from the dock. About an hour later they were ten miles down the lake. Below, the fireman stoked the boilers as they made top speed – then the worst happened.
“Owing to that old bonnet on the smoke stack,” the Engineer was reported to have told one of the passengers, “it stopped the draft, and forced the flame out of the furnace doors.”
The flues had filled with soot, filling the boiler room with smoke and driving the fireman above, before he could get the firebox doors shut. The sparks ignited the woodwork over the firebox.
“I saw a dense mass of smoke puff out, then another,” one passenger later recalled “and there was an instantaneous and indiscriminate… scramble for places of safety.” Captain Gale, on hearing the alarm, ran to the wheelhouse and ordered the pilot to steer at top speed for shore a half mile away as he yelled to try and calm the passengers. The rest of the crew began fighting the fire.
In the meantime the passengers at the rear of the steamer in the path of the smoke tried to make their way forward. Some of the men tried to inflate the life preservers but found them inoperable. Another man, T. C. Thwing, of Boston, tried to lower the one lifeboat that hung amidships, but the flames were already spreading to prevent it.
The passengers crowded into the steamer’s bow “men, women and children, not knowing but the next moment would be their last… mothers clinging to their children, and children holding fast to parents. Fathers, with pale faces and compressed lips, watching the progress of the flames, and looking about for the means of escape when the boat should reach the shore, – women, young and fair, gathered around their protectors and asking piteously: Is there no way to be saved?” a passenger later wrote.
As they approached the shore the boat struck a rock hard and nearly keeled over. It was then that some of the panicked passengers, five in all, including Thwing’s wife Annie and his-sister-in law, jumped or were thrown overboard.
Some leapt into the water with deck chairs and anything they could find that would float as the flames spread, cutting the tiller lines and making the boat impossible to steer. Some made it ashore, but five were drowned and the rest of those on board were saved.
At the water’s edge those still on board leapt for their lives as the John Jay burned to the waterline. “We had scarcely reached shore,” on man reported, “when the baggage which had been rescued from the wreck was seized upon by a gang of harpies, who took articles of apparel which happened to suit their fancy, and appropriated them without ceremony to their own uses.”
The crew and passengers made their way to the nearby home of a man named Garfield who supplied them with whatever they needed as the dead were brought in and laid out.
A survivor later wrote bitterly: “In my judgment, the cause of the disaster is to be attributed to the miserable inefficiency of persons in charge of the steamer, and the loss of life is chargeable to the neglect of the owners of the line, in failing to provide the appliances which accidents may render indispensable to the salvation of life.”
The following week someone wrote to the New York Times from Lake George to say that “the number of visitors here is not great. The travel in this direction has fallen off some seventy or eighty percent, since the burning of the steamer John Jay.”
The remains of the John Jay lay underwater near Hague. In the summer of 2021 the Lake George Steamboat Company investigated the wreck with an underwater drone. You can see the video here.
Illustration: The John Jay at Cook’s Landing; and a newspaper account of the tragedy.