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July 1, 2012

The John Jay Disaster

             The steamboat John Jay was built at a cost of $26,000 for John Jay Harris of Harrisena in Queensbury.  Built by H.R. Dunham & Company at Ticonderoga Creek, the boat was launched on Lake George in 1850.  In 1854, the Lake George Steamboat Company purchased the boat for $18,000.  The John Jay was 145 feet long, drafted 8 feet and was 20 feet wide across her beam.  The ship’s hull was made of oak and displaced 250 tons of water.  The 75 horsepower wood-burning steam engine allowed the John Jay to move at 13 miles per hour.

            On July 29, 1856, the John Jay left Cook’s Island at Ticonderoga.  Because the stagecoaches were delayed on that day, the departure time of 4:30 was missed and it was 6 pm before the ship could leave.  There was a full load of fuel (wood) aboard and the furnace was stoked full with the hopes of making up some of the lost time.

            About an hour down the lake, the John Jay ran into a strong gale.  The wind struck the top of the smoke stack’s bonnet and stopped the draught.  The resulting pressure forced the flames out of the furnace.  The furnace doors blew open and spewed red-hot coals below deck.  The stacked fuel and oak ceiling immediately burst into flame.  The intense heat and smoke caught the fireman off guard and he ran for his life raising the alarm, “FIRE!!”  Passengers could see the billowing smoke and panic ensued.  Several passengers jumped overboard.

            Pilot E. S. Harris tried to steer the boat toward shore but found the fire so intense that it had already burned the tiller ropes below deck.  Amid the smoke and flames Harris made his way to the rear steerage and, and using the emergency tiller, manually headed the John Jay toward shore.  The steamer missed the intended shore and struck a large rock, later named “Calamity Rock,” which careened the steamer away from the shore.  The paddle wheels were still turning and those passengers who jumped overboard were pushed further away from shore by the wheels’ current.

            In the August 2, 1856, New York Times it was reported that, “some of the male passengers tried to inflate the life-jackets but found them defective.”  The only lifeboat on board was never launched and burned where it hung.  Steamer trunks, tables and other items, that would float were thrown into the water so the passengers who had jumped overboard would have something to cling to.  It was said that “Old Dick the Rattlesnake Man” (Richard Shear) tossed a box of his snakes to a young girl to keep her from drowning.  There were 70 passengers aboard the John Jay that day, plus the captain and crew.  Six passengers, 5 women and 1 man, perished.

            Two weeks after the disaster, the directors of the Lake George Steamboat Company authorized construction of a new steamboat.  The John Jay’s engine, boilers and machinery were salvaged and used in the 140 foot Minne-Ha-Ha I, which was launched and christened on May 12, 1857.  The wooden remains of the John Jay still lay at the bottom of the lake near Calamity Rock, near Hague.

The John Jay steamboat caught fire on July 26, 1856 and six people perished.


© July 1 2012, Warren County Historical Society.

© Photo courtesy of William Preston Gates

Article prepared for the Warren County Historical Society by Judy Melkonian.



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