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In Our Waters - The Last Launch of the Linseed King

August 24, 2017

With his glove covered hand he knocked on the door at 416 West 146th Street. There was no answer. He shifted the box in his arms and waited. A few moments later he knocked on the door a second time. Suddenly he heard the lock on the door being released. A young woman, maybe in her twenties, answered. “M

 

rs. Mathias,” the gentleman asked as she opened the door slightly to see her caller. “Yes,” she softly replied, “I’m Mrs. Matthias.” He paused and then shifted the box once again in his hands. “I am from Spencer Kellogg & Sons…” his voice trailed off. “I have,” he stammered, the awkwardness of the situation striking his soul like the cold wind of winter upon his face, “something for you and your children.” She opened the door a little wider, fearful of allowing any additional cold weather into her small modest residence. He handed her the box. He then stepped back on the stoop, grabbed the tip of his hat and bowed his head. “My sincerest condolences Mrs. Mathias.”He turned and began walking down the steps to the sidewalk. He stopped and looked up at her as she stood in the doorway with the box. “Merry,” he paused again, not sure if he should finish. “Merry Christmas.” He then turned, pulled the collar of his jacket up to protect his neck from the wintry blast of the wind that swirled down the barren street. Mrs. Mathias turned around, closed the door and walked slowly into her small kitchen. She placed the box of food and small presents on the kitchen table and then sat down. She cast her eye into the living room where her twin sons, Kenneth and Vincent were playing in their crib. A tear slid down her cheek. All she had wanted for Christmas was her husband. Not for herself but for her children. Mrs. Mathias pushed the box forward on the kitchen table and away from her. She couldn’t look at it or the box aside it left earlier by members of Monarch Lodge of the Colored Elks. Her husband Adolphus would not walk through the front door ever again…the Linseed King had taken him away…forever.
 Five days earlier on December 20th, Adolphus Mathias, aged thirty, stood along the dock at West Ninety-Sixth Street awaiting an across Hudson River lift to the Spencer Kellogg & Sons linseed oil plant located in Edgewater, New Jersey. Mathias was not alone. A gaggle of over a hundred men had gathered in the early morning hours for a chance at work and payment. Christmas was only a few days away and work was scarce in the city. Stomping their feet, rubbing their glove covered hands together, and singing to try and forget the wicked cold, the men’s spirit warmed as they spotted the Linseed King, a launch, come into view through the darkness of the morning. Some of the men on the dock already were employed at the plant. Others had arrived on the dock answering a newspaper advertisement for work opportunities. The launch, they all realized, was the last step before a new job. Many of the men yelled out shouts of
joy at the launch’s arrival.
Manning the helm of the launch was John Rohweder of Jersey City, New Jersey. The launch, cedar planked, was forty-eight feet in length with a beam of ten feet. As he maneuvered the small launch along the pier, he yelled up from the open window of the pilot house. “Hurry up. I’m late now and I’ve got to get back and get the rest of this crowd over.” The anxious men began to board the small launch. Many of the first onboard rushed into the enclosed cabin. They quickly realized that it was much warmer inside than standing out on the short deck or on the pier. The men squeezed into the cabin until there was no more room. They stood, laughing and excited at the prospects of employment and they all relished in the comparative warmth of the cabin. The bulk of the men had found a place inside the cabin. Three men left out in the cold on the aft deck cursed their luck of not getting onboard quicker. They chalked up their loss as they rubbed their hands, adjusted their hats, and tried to maintain some body heat. Rohweder had taken on as many as he could. He engaged the engine and began to pull away from the dock. Thirty or forty more men had missed the boat. Three though were determined to get aboard the first trip. As the Linseed King was shifting clear of the dock, they decided to make a jump for it. The men leapt and landed on the aft deck. Nearly missing the aft deck, the men had been able to grip the icy rail of the stern. The three men on the aft deck helped them aboard. The men joked to one another at their risky attempt. They were thankful to be aboard, especially considering they would reach the plant and work before those left on the pier.
Rohweder thread his small launch through the darkness of the early morning and cautiously maneuvered through the large ice floes that dotted the waters near the pier. He engaged more power from the motor to get into position to make his turn downstream. The crunching of ice could be heard throughout the launch as he motored further from the pier and toward open water. One of the men in the cabin turned to the man next to him, “We ain’t goin’ to get to the other side, no, sir.” The man next to him chimed in to appease his foreboding fear, “forget it.” The launch slid into a chunk of ice and the men heard it scratch along the wooden keel. The men quieted at the eerie sound. Suddenly the men felt a hard blow against the hull. The launched shifted on her keel. The men in the cabin shifted to the other side of the cabin, pressing one another against the wooden bulkhead. The opposite gunwale was awash. The icy water of the Hudson River poured into the cabin and aft deck.
Rohweder had felt the launch lurch and knew there was no way it would return to an even keel. Instinctively he reached up and tugged twice on the boat’s whistle cord. Two short blasts echoed across the ice-covered river. Water surged into the pilot house. Rohweder jumped through the open window of the pilot house into the water as the launch began to sink faster and faster. The icy cold waters shocked his body as he clamored to hold onto the boat. Aft of him, chaos and a fearful panic had overcome the men in the cabin. Those standing closest to the aft hatch – the one and only way into the cabin - pushed and shoved their way free as water flowed past them into the cabin. Almost immediately, those who escaped found themselves in the dark and icy waters. Some knew how to swim, others did not. They grasped at parts of the launch that were still partially above water. Others attempted to grab onto floes of ice that dotted the frigid waters. The hatch to freedom was blocked. The men inside the cabin, panicked by the influx of water, were fighting for their last breath as they all attempted to squeeze through the small hatch. Their attempts at saving their lives were in vain. After a few moments, the cries and yells for help had silenced. The men in the water and those who were clinging to the side of the boat knew that men who had been breathing beside them only moments before had taken their last breath.
Mariners, by trade, must always be observant. Captain Ralph Timmons, the skipper of the Buffalo, a tug, had just taken on a barge at the Erie Docks when he saw through the darkness men atop a half-sunken boat and others flailing in the water. He immediately ordered his crew to cast off the lines of the barge and be prepared to help those in the water. The powerful bow of the Buffalo slammed through the ice floes to render aid. Further away, Mate Tryjve Andressen and several of his crew from the Tesarius, a Swedish freighter, spotted the situation. They had been waiting for the Linseed King and her men to arrive to assist in unloading their cargo. Mate Andressen immediately called his hands to stations and they launched a lifeboat. Six men including Mate Andressen began pulling on the oars to the scene. Casting aside ice floes with their boat hooks, the men sped as fast as possible to try and help those in the water. It would take nearly a half hour for their lifeboat and for the tugboat Buffalo – which had to cast off the barge - to arrive.
Captain Timmons and his men along with Mate Andressen worked in tandem to pull the half-frozen men clear from the launch and the ice floes that dotted the nearly frozen river. Transferred from the lifeboat to the tugboat, the men could barely use their limbs. They were pulled below decks into the warm engine room where they were provided hot coffee and blankets. The men were in shock from their exposure to the extreme cold temperatures of the water and wind. Other boats joined the flotilla of mercy vessels including the tugboat Cornell and the steamboat William N. Baviar. Once the vessels had pulled all of the men out of the water and off of the half-sunken launch, all raced to the Recreation Pier. As soon as they reached the pier, a call was put out to all of the neighborhood hospitals to be prepared for the injured and frostbitten men. One of the men plucked from the water had been exposed to the cold too long. He died, despite the repeated efforts to save him by the captain and crew aboard the tug Buffalo.
While the rescue fleet transferred the survivors ashore, the half-sunken launch floated aimlessly away. A few hours later, a New York Fire Department boat, the Thomas Willet, and a New York Police Department boat, the Gypsy, arrived at the pier and inquired as to where the launch had gone. No one had minded to keep an eye on it so they set out to find it. A few hours later, they spotted the wreckage near 230th street. The two boats pulled alongside the launch and tied her off with lines. A few officers and firemen went cautiously aboard the half-submerged cabin top. They quickly made a horrifying discovery.
 Up to this point, no one knew how many men were aboard the launch when it heeled over. The officers and firefighters peered into the cabin and saw the outlines of men. They immediately requested axes. The men furiously cut open the cabin top to gain access to the cabin. It was a gruesome and terrible duty. The men in the cabin were squeezed together in a tight mass of humanity. One man had attempted to escape through a porthole that was entirely too small. He was caught halfway between freedom and death. He had not survived. The officers and firefighters realized that none had survived. The boat was towed ashore where the frozen dead were pulled free from the cabin and prepared for transport to the city’s morgue.
While the police and firemen went about their terrible charge of removing the dead from the cabin, anxious relatives had amassed at the Recreation Pier. Women cried out for information as some of their children hung to their mother’s jackets. The policemen tried their best to keep them calm and await information. There would be little good news passed as the day grew longer.
Somehow in the midst of the rescue and recovery operations, the launch’s master had slipped away. Detective Hennessey of the 100th Street Station received orders to locate and question him regarding the accident. The detective quickly learned that Rohweder had hastened to the Spencer Kellogg & Son’s factory in Edgewater. He took a boat and called up on the management to see him and ask him some questions. Detective Hennessey was asked to take a seat in the waiting room of the plant. The detective impatiently paced the room. This was not acceptable. He rang his supervisor and two additional detectives were sent to apply pressure. Finally, after almost two hours, the manager of the plant invited them into his office. Manager C.E. Stover thanked the detectives for their patience. He then informed them that Mr. Rohweder would arrive shortly at the 100th Street Station for questioning. The trio of detectives was not pleased with the news and left Edgewater to return to their station house.
Mr. Rohweder did arrive at the station house soon after with legal counsel provided by the Spencer Kellogg & Son’s factory management. The detectives questioned him but received little information as his legal counsel limited his responses. Rohweder, who was clearly still suffering from exposure, explained that he was not sure what caused the sinking. He indicated that the launch carried eighty-two life preservers so he was confident that it was safe to accommodate that many souls aboard. He explained that he was licensed and that every morning at four o’clock he left his home in Jersey City to arrive at the factory where he would then transit to the city pier to pick up employees. That was all he was willing to share. The detectives, who had been kept waiting for answers, asked Mr. Rohweder and his legal counsel to give them a few minutes of their own.
The detectives and the assistant district attorney continued questioning some of the survivors. It was clear to them that the boat had been operated negligently. Detectives felt that they had enough to warrant an arrest. Mr. Rohweder was informed that he would be taken to the Knickerbocker Hospital for treatment and that he was under arrest for homicide. As he was being transported, the detectives followed up on the documentation and inspection history of the launch. The United States Steamboat Inspection Service was of little help. The Linseed King, at a length less than sixty-feet, under fifteen tons, and not used as a boat for hire, was not required to be inspected. Upon further inspection of the records, it was determined that Rohweder was not listed as the launch’s master. The fine for not updating the records with the Bureau of Navigation to indicate that Rohweder was the new master was ten dollars. According to the Steamboat Service inspectors, that was all that had been done incorrectly.
 Meanwhile, a slow and sad procession of relatives – mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, wives, and children arrived at the City morgue to try and find their loved ones. One of the dead, Joseph Hamilton, it was learned, was to be married the following week. The death toll would rise as the new dawn rose.
The more questions the detectives asked, the larger the count of the missing rose. A final estimation was provided as to the number of souls aboard when it went down – over 80. Twenty-one men were still missing. Thirty bodies had been recovered. The launch had travelled six miles upstream from when the accident occurred to when it was finally located by the police officers and firefighters. Bodies, the detectives explained, could still be stuck or trapped below the ice covered regions of the river. Detectives wanted to see the hull of the launch and the salvage company of Merritt & Chapman assisted in pulling the water-filled launch free from its half-sunken position. As water poured out of the damaged boat, a gaping hole was identified in the bow of the launch. The hole, the closer inspection identified, was two inches above the steel hull plating. According to the Assistant District Attorney, this helped solidify that the boat was clearly overloaded and riding too low in the water.
Rohweder stood before Magistrate Richard McKiniry and was arraigned on the charge of suspicion of homicide and that he failed “to safeguard the lives of the passengers sailing in the launch” and that because of this negligence, the boat sank with a high loss of human life. Rohweder was free on a $10,000.00 bail provided by his employers. Once the bail had been provided, Rohweder was returned to the Knickerbocker Hospital for treatment for pneumonia.
Despite public outcry, the federal government was not able to push for prosecution. The full responsibility for holding Rohweder and/or the owners of the launch responsible for negligence was up to the City of New York. The federal government, to avoid a public outcry, held a perfunctory hearing at the Customs House where two questions were asked of three survivors. First, they were asked if they were passengers on the boat. Second, they were asked if they paid a fare to go aboard. When they answered yes to the first question and no to the second, the federal government washed its hands of the matter. The sole responsibility for pursuing justice rested on the desk of the Assistant District Attorney, John F. McGowan.
While the attorneys for both sides of the case jockeyed for position, Rohweder was released from the hospital and returned to his home in Jersey City. He was still suffering from the effects of pneumonia and nervousness as a result of the accident. Whether or not he would be held negligent remained looming throughout his thoughts. His wife, based on the stress of the situation, also fell ill. Despite his condition, Rohweder would be in court testifying two weeks later.
Though Rodweder was not found guilty of negligence, fifty-eight claimants sued the owners of the vessel for nearly a total of four million dollars. The company argued that they should only be responsible for the maximum amount required by law under the terms of the New Jersey Workmen’s Compensation Act. Under those provisions, the maximum amount would be no more than two hundred thousand dollars for the fifty-eight claimants. The case dragged through the courts for several years and ultimately, the Spencer Kellogg & Son’s request to limit the payment per claimant to no more than the value of the launch or twenty-five hundred dollars reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices, after deliberations on the matter, rendered a decision that they were prohibited from limiting its liabilities in regards to the accident. Regardless of the funds provided to the families of those lost, no amount of money could bring their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and friends back to shore.
The tragedy of the Linseed King marked the second worst loss of life in New York Harbor’s history, preceded by the horrific loss of one thousand and twenty-one souls who perished on the General Slocum in 1904 near North Brother Island. Fifty-one to fifty-eight men ultimately were lost when the Linseed King, over-filled with those trying to get work, succumbed to hubris and sank due to poor seamanship into the frigid and dark ice-patched Hudson River on December 20, 1926, in our waters. 


 

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