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In Our Waters - The Last Voyage of the Alva

December 27, 2017

 As he led his housekeeper down to the boathouse at the foot of West Thirty-Fourth Street, Nicholas Michels reflected on what a wonderful day it was for getting some fresh air on the waters of the North River. He could afford an hour of relaxation from the daily grind of his liquor business, he remarked to his guest as he looked quickly at his pocket watch and then pushed it back into the pocket of his vest. After an exchange of funds with the rowboat’s owner, Mr. Joseph May, and a request to leave his jacket at the dock, Michels assisted Mary Simonen into the wooden craft and then he gingerly boarded. He sat down, removed his hat and handed it to Mary. She took it into her hands and straightened out its brim before she placed it on her knees. Nicholas unbuttoned the cuffs of his long-sleeve shirt and then rolled them up. He did not want to waste time any time from their planned hour on the water. His thick hands grabbed at the oars and then he pushed off into the bustling waterway. The Hudson, he commented to Mary, was perfect for a break from the hustle and bustle of their normal daily routine. Little did Michels and Simonen realize that their time in the waters of the North River aboard the tiny rowboat named Maggie May would be their last.1 Also cruising in the waters of the river that day was the two hundred and eighty-five foot long Queen of the New York Yacht Club’s fleet, the Alva. The two watercraft were on a collision course.
 The Alva was a three-masted bark-rigged screw steamer with a sleek steel hull. She had a beam of thirty-two feet, a draft of seventeen feet and a gross tonnage of 1,151.27. Designed by St. Clare J. Byrne of Liverpool, she was built by Harlan & Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, Delaware. She was schooner rigged and her propulsion was augmented by a three-cylinder compound direct acting engine equipped with a solid cast manganese bronze four-bladed screw to assist in the yacht achieving her top speed of fifteen knots. On deck, there were three steel-plated cabins, “the forward one communicating with the main saloon” and the owner’s “own apartments” which included “eight separate rooms.”2 Additional compartments included a library, a smoking room, and seven guest staterooms “decorated most sumptuously in white enamel and gold.” To help ensure safety, the yacht had four water-tight bulkhead compartments and various “safety appliances” to assist in challenging disaster.
No details were too small and no expense too great for the opulent yacht’s construction and furnishing.3 As noted in contemporary reports at the time of her launching, “her builders have had carte blanche in the matter of construction and were instructed to eclipse any previous attempts at marine construction in the world, regardless of expense. Built expressly for W.K. Vanderbilt, the yacht was named after his wife, Alva Belmont.
Captain Henry Morrison, the former master of the American Line steamship Ohio was appointed as commanding officer of the yacht that many in the press referred to as the “Queen of the Pleasure Navy.” His Chief Officer was J.L. Cushing and his Chief Engineer was James Hand, a former special U.S. Inspector of Steam Vessels. Fifty-two additional men served aboard the yacht, in various capacities to ensure that Mr. Vanderbilt and his guests were free from any worry or work-related toiling. As noted in contemporary reports, “no finer, stauncher, or saucier ship ever sailed the seas than the gorgeous pleasure craft.”4 Launched in February of 1887, she would prove to be a vessel of great expense and sadly, very poor in her luck.
The steel bow of the Alva sliced through the waters of the Hudson on her course downriver. Captain Morrison scanned the waterway before him with a keen eye. Bound for Newport, Rhode Island, via the Long Island Sound, he would be happy when he was clear of the hustle and bustle of the busy river and waters that surrounded the metropolis. There were several vessels in tow, in the center of the river, two ferryboats engaged in their normal duties, and to the westward, several tugboats. He scanned the busy river and spotted the U.S.S. Atlanta. He would pass, he decided, to the east of the two tows and near the cruiser. The U.S.S. Atlanta was off Alva’s bow, near Twenty-Seventh Street, and Captain Morrison ordered the helm over to avoid the cruiser. When the Alva was within four to five hundred yards of the cruiser, he spotted a rowboat near the cruiser. He looked at the rowboat intently. The man in the rowboat, he noticed diligently, was not manning the oars, and the rowboat was near, but within a safe distance from the Alva. Captain Morrison continued on his course.
Suddenly, Michels, aboard the rowboat with Simonen, sprang into action. He quickly grabbed at the oars and began to pull toward the Alva. Captain Morrison quickly blew the yacht’s whistle to warn the man who the captain thought must be attempting, errantly, to try and get a closer inspection of the yacht. The whistle blows stalled the rowboat’s progress and though he was closer than he wanted, Captain Morrison felt that the distance was safe enough to not require him to alter his speed. Captain Morrison maintained his course.
Suddenly, when the yacht was within one boat length of the rowboat, Michels again began to pull the oars through the water and careen closer and closer to the downriver bound yacht. Captain Morrison scanned the strange and dangerous situation and altered his course closer to the U.S.S. Atlanta. It would be close, he realized, as his charge surged closer and closer to the cruiser to avoid the Maggie May.
As the Alva passed within ten feet of the U.S.S. Atlanta, Michels and Simonen and their small wooden rowboat were in the direct path of the surging steel hull of the yacht. Captain Morrison ordered a reduction in speed to try and provide some time for the rowboat to escape her path. It was too little too late. Despite Michels’ efforts to avoid disaster, the calamity of the impending collision could not be avoided by any of the fateful participants. Michel’s leapt up from his wooden seat and outstretched his hands to try and grab at the bobstays of the yacht. The chains were just out of reach and he fell into the water. With a horrendous splintering and crashing of wood against steel coupled with the shriek of the housekeeper’s scream, the Alva sliced into the rowboat and sliced it “cleanly in two as a saw could have done the work.”
Michels and Simonen were sucked into the dark waters of the North River in an instant. Though they thrashed wildly for the surface, both failed to inhale another breath. Almost immediately, sailors aboard the U.S.S. Atlanta, all of whom had been called to the situation by the shrill pipes of the yacht’s whistle, lowered small boats to the water’s edge. Within moments, the small boats of merciful mariners rowed toward the scene of the collision. Captain Morrison ordered for lookouts to scan the stern to see what was going on in the yacht’s wake. Two small boats and a tugboat, the lookouts reported, were responding to the stricken souls involved in the collision. Captain Morrison ordered his vessel’s helm returned to its downriver course. Satisfied that enough relief boats had responded to the scene, he did not feel it necessary or prudent to return to the scene of the dreadful accident.5 Despite the efforts of the good Samaritans to assist Michels and Simonen, only the wreckage of the rowboat Maggie May was located. The tugboat New York Central No. 12, ironically owned by Vanderbilt, arrived on scene and took the wreckage in tow. They returned the wreckage to the boat’s owner, Mr. May, who then remembered that the man had left his jacket in his boat house. Mr. May notified the police and when an officer arrived at his boathouse, they inspected the unknown man’s jacket. A quick check found a business card stuffed into one of the pockets. The jacket’s owner, Mr. Nicholas Michels was subsequently identified. Neither his nor his housekeeper’s bodies were ever recovered.  The Alva had yet again been involved in a horrible circumstance of luck. More would follow even though her first few years traversing the World’s waters had been perfectly normal.
On February 7, 1887, the Alva set out from Staten Island on her first set of sea trials. The voyage would be through the West Indies. During the voyage, the Alva visited a host of ports including Havana, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Port Royal, Guantanamo, Port Au Prince, Nassau and finally Brunswick, Georgia. While in the waters off of Santiago de Cuba, several crew of the Alva sprang to action when they witnessed a small sailboat, launched from a nearby Spanish gunboat, capsize in a sudden squall. The crewmen from the Alva launched a small boat and saved the men from drowning. When the yacht arrived in Georgia, Mrs. Vanderbilt and the children decided to return to New York via the safety of the rails. A storm, it had been learned, was forming off of Cape Hatteras. The Alva, with Vanderbilt and his men uniformed in oilskins, sailed into the pending blow.
With near hurricane conditions, the Alva surged on through the maelstrom. The storm was so violent that “the cringles, sheets, and outhauls of the three trysails parted like a volley of pistol shots, and the sails would have blown to rags but for their newness.” Captain Morrison had the remaining sails furled and ordered that the yacht proceed through the surging swells and howling wind under steam power. It was a difficult and trying voyage but the Alva weathered the storm admirably. Upon her arrival at her berth at Sixtieth Street, the crew removed items of some furniture broken during the heavy seas and cleaned the salt spray that had crept through some of the yacht’s hatches and portholes. Vanderbilt was overall very pleased with the yacht’s performance and new voyages were planned to points in Europe in the coming summer months.6
Her first “extended cruise” had taken place in July 1887. Mr. Vanderbilt and his family had sailed and steamed across the Atlantic Ocean and had visited points throughout the Mediterranean and the Nile. Upon her return across the wide expanse of the Atlantic, she had visited both the Canary Islands and Nassau, Bahamas. Two years later, in the fall of 1889, the Alva once again set out to sea. Again across the Atlantic she sailed and steamed and Mr. Vanderbilt and his guests visited several European ports of call, spent the winter in Nice, France, and took in the sights of the West India Islands upon her return voyage. The Alva proved to be an efficient and eloquent way to bask in the fruits of fortune for Mr. Vanderbilt, his family, and his guests. But all good things come to an end.
The shift to bad luck occurred in 1891. Upon her return to New York from several points and ports foreign, she was spotted entering into New York waters with a yellow flag flying from her mainmast. Beneath the mast stood the yacht’s owner and his bevy of distinguished guests. Despite the palace-rivaling parlors and sultan-envious staterooms, all wanted off of the yacht as soon as possible as if they had been doomed crewmen aboard a voyage of the damned. A member of the crew, government officials soon learned, had contracted malignant smallpox during the voyage. Mr. Vanderbilt and his guests, afraid of contracting the illness, stood by ready to be dispatched via launch to the relative safety of shore. While the officers and crew, numbering at fifty-seven remained at Quarantine, Mr. Vanderbilt and his guests were whisked to safety. This was Alva’s first spate of bad luck. More was waiting on the horizon.
Following the rowboat collision that left Michels and Simonen drowned, the Alva remained clear of New York waters to enjoy the yachting scene of Newport, Rhode Island. On July 23, 1892, the Alva, under the command of Captain Morrison, weighed her anchor and headed out of Bar Harbor bound for Newport, Rhode Island. It was thirty minutes past six in the morning when the Alva cruised clearly around Monomoy Point but conditions began to deteriorate. Morrison and his officers were staring at a thick envelope of fog on the horizon. There was little to do but wait out the fog for clear passage. Captain Morrison ordered the steam whistle sounded and for his crew to set the anchor. Fifteen minutes later, the anchor splashed into the water. Though Captain Morrison’s actions were sound and based on ensuring the safety of his charge and passengers, he had made a fateful error amidst the fog. He had miscalculated his position and though he had planned to wait out the fog in an anchorage area, he had inadvertently anchored the Alva in the Pollock Rip Channel.
While the Alva was setting out from Bar Harbor on the 23rd of July, Captain A.B. Coleman was ordering the lines cast off from the bridge of his vessel, the freight steamer H.F. Dimock, along the dock in New York Harbor. Heavily laden with cargo and a handful of passengers, the H.F. Dimock’s engine built up steam and commenced her voyage to Boston, Massachusetts via the waters of the Long Island Sound.
At twenty minutes past eight o’clock in the morning of July 24th, less than two hours after Alva’s anchor had dug fast into the sandy bottom of the Pollock Rip Channel, the entire hull of the luxurious yacht shuddered violently. Captain Morrison immediately rushed forward to inspect the damage to the yacht. Water poured into the yacht. There was no need for the Captain and crew to alert Mr. Vanderbilt and his guests including F.W. Vanderbilt, brother of the owner, George De Forest, Louis Webb, Winfield Scott White and Frank Riggs, of the collision. All raced to the main deck to see what had happened. Captain Morrison passed the word to Mr. Vanderbilt. He had to order that the yacht be abandoned. Captain Morrison supervised as the crew of the Alva quickly worked to lower the yacht’s five lifeboats and steam launch to the water. While the owner and his guests were being ferried to the steamer lying off the sinking yacht, Captain Morrison received word that all crew and passengers had been properly accounted for. He stepped into his lifeboat and ordered that the lifeboat be rowed with haste from the sinking yacht. Unbeknown to Captain Morrison, one of the crew’s firemen had been ordered at the time of the passed order of abandon ship, to go into the engine room to bank the fires. After the fireman had successfully accomplished his tasking, he raced to the main deck to find that the yacht’s officers, passengers, and rest of the crew had already left the sinking yacht. With the stern rising faster and faster and the bow already plunged beneath the surface, the fireman had no other recourse than to dive into the water and make a swim for the steamer lying five hundred feet away. The abandoned fireman was spotted by his retreating crewmen and they returned to pull him from the waters. The Alva settled lower beneath the surface.
After the fireman was saved and a proper accounting of passengers and crew were taken, Captain Morrison had finally ensured that all were now aboard the H.F. Dimock. Mr. Vanderbilt was not pleased with the situation. Thankfully though, no one had been injured or killed in the horrific and sudden collision. Secondly, the tug Rescue of the Merritt Wrecking Company fleet was already dispatched, at Mr. Vanderbilt’s order, to the scene to try and affect the yacht’s recovery. While Mr. Vanderbilt and his guests were transported to Newport, Rhode Island, the tugboat Rescue arrived and began their examination of the yacht.
At first light on the 27th of July, air hoses snaked about on the deck of the tugboat and led over the gunwale in the five fathoms of water over the sunken wreck. The surface-supplied hard hat divers would have to determine if the damage to the yacht could be repaired, temporarily, so that pumps could be utilized to float her to the surface. The diver’s inspection revealed that the yacht had come to a rest on the bottom on the side where she had suffered her mortal wound. Word was passed to Mr. Vanderbilt. The cost of the possible recovery was nearly thirty-thousand dollars. Mr. Vanderbilt authorized the salvage team to proceed with haste.7 Despite the efforts of Captain E. Sharpe, the company’s chief wrecker and diver, he was forced, much like Captain Morrison, to pass on bad news regarding the owner’s precious yacht.
On July 26th, 1892, the three-masted schooner Everett Webster was transiting near the vicinity of the wreckage when suddenly the schooner shook violently and came to a stop. The schooner had struck the submerged wreckage of the Alva. A call of assistance was issued and the tugboat George M. Winslow was dispatched. The tug was later joined by the Josline Lovett and both tugs worked diligently to pull the schooner free. Finally, the Josline Lovett was successful in pulling her from the wreckage. Leaking badly from her unexpected underwater collision, the Everett Webster was towed to Hyannis Harbor where to avoid sinking; she was intentionally beached so that repairs could be affected. On August 4th, 1892, after realizing that the wreckers from Merritt would not be able to affect a successful salvage, the wreck was sold at auction for thirty-five hundred dollars to a Boston, Massachusetts company, Perkins & White.
Wreckers were dispatched to the Alva and several items were saved from the wreck. Mr. Vanderbilt’s’ wardrobe, saloon silverware, tapestry, cabin and bedroom furnishings, an armory of Winchester rifles, cutlasses, pistols, the yacht’s flag chest, and the only copy of the yacht’s plans were recovered. Several other items of the yacht’s guest list were also recovered and returned to their owners. While the wreck continued to be broken up by the shifting sandy bottom and the elements, Mr. Vanderbilt decided that he would order a replacement yacht. The new yacht, it was learned, would “exceed in richness and convenience anything of its kind this side of the Atlantic, and will include search lights, telephonic interior communications with all departments, and a complete electric light service for general use and illumination.” The budget for the newly contracted yacht would be three hundred thousand dollars.
By October of 1892, all efforts to salvage the wreck were abandoned by the wreckers of Perkins & White. Captain John Stone, one of the divers who worked on the yacht’s attempted salvage offered his insight into the operation which was nearly fruitful had it not been for a shift in weather conditions. “The Alva was sunk in about thirty feet of water. We found her leaning sharply toward her beam ends. To work on her deck we had to drive spikes in order to get a foothold. Our purpose was to raise the vessel intact, and so we got to work to close her up. We had considerable difficulty in doing this, as all the portholes were open and it was impossible to get to many of them. We succeeded in getting them closed, however, from the outside. We had closed the gangways and got her nearly ready, and with two days more of good weather would have attached the pumps to pump her out. It had been a hard job, as where she lies the tide runs very strong, and we could only work between them. Then it commenced to blow, the vessel rocked, and finally went over. She is badly broken and lying fully on her beam ends. The firm has given up all hope of raising the vessel, and is now making arrangement to blow her to pieces with dynamite, and to get what they can in that way.” For his and his firm’s efforts, they were paid handsomely by Mr. Vanderbilt and were able to salvage some items of value from the wreckage.8
Whilst the Alva remains rested on the bottom of the channel, a decision of fault and financial restitution was the source of contention in the courts. From October of 1892 to February of 1893, the case became a tangled web of libelous language, admiralty law, jurisdictional limitations, and procedural conjecture and interpretation that summarily was decided upon by the Supreme Court of the United States. Lawyers for both sides were the only winners in the drawn out debacle of proceedings. At the conclusion of the court room tribulations, the H.F. Dimock continued to ply the waters between New York and Boston in her cargo and passenger trade and Vanderbilt poured over the plans of his new yacht, named the Valiant.9 For some, the loss of a yacht valued at over three hundred thousand dollars would have spelled financial doom. For Vanderbilt, the episode was ultimately an excuse to upgrade to a newer and more opulent floating palace that like the Alva would also grace the region in our waters.

1 Nicholas Michaels was twenty-eight. His housekeeper was ten years his senior.
2  Each of the staterooms had its own private bath tub, concealed for when not in use by a removable deck plate. The bath tubs were supplied with hot and cold water and those using the bathing facilities could choose between fresh water or salt-water.
3 The cost of her hull and mechanical fittings alone cost three hundred thousand dollars.
4  Not all were impressed by the Alva. In one anonymously written account, “those who see the Alva for the first time will undoubtedly be disappointed.”
5  The lack of adhering to the law of the sea – to render aid to those in need – would draw quick criticism both in the press and in the maritime circles. Captain Morrison remained hush to the situation until the 13th of June when he finally provided a formal statement of the incident to the United States Inspector of Steam Vessels. During his concluding remarks, he stated “I desire to add that, although I am ignorant of who the rower in the boat was, the impression conveyed to my mind from his actions was that he was entirely unfamiliar with and unused to the management of boats.”
6  Not everyone was pleased with the sea trials. Many of the yacht’s crew were “dissatisfied” with their treatment and pay. Many of the crew explained that they were paid only forty dollars a day instead of the standard fifty dollars a day paid by most sailing yachts out of the region and that the food provided was substandard and insufficient. As a result of their treatment, “7 of the 9 firemen, 11 of the 18 sailors, and a mess boy” left the yac

 

ht upon its arrival in New York.
7 In August of 1892, it was reported that Mr. Vanderbilt’s push to salvage may have been limited by his pursuit of letting dead dogs lie and collecting the insurance monies from the loss. Though no specific statements were ascertained from Mr. Vanderbilt, associates close to the matter had reported his true pursuits to the management at the Merritt Wrecking Company.
8  Captain Stone related that he had secured the anchor and some of the silver plate from the wreckage. He also mentioned that before they planned on setting the dynamite, he and his fellow divers were going to attempt to remove wine that had been aboard. The value of the stock aboard was between four and five thousand dollars.
9  The H.F. Dimock, like the Alva, continued to work the waters of the region for many years and would be involved in another similar collision in March of 1909. The story of her second collision will be featured in an upcoming installment of “In Our Waters.”


 

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