The denizens of the Potters Hollow Tavern in Greene County, New York probably scarcely noticed the crudely painted river scene at their feet. Set into a panel about seven feet long, and mounted under the bar at the tavern, was a painting of the Hudson River complete with steamboats, mountains, grazing animals, and even a train in the foreground. If any of them chose to bend down and look closely at the painting, they might have realized that this was no ordinary day on the Hudson. They might even have seen that the work seemed unfinished, with odd pencil outlines behind the boat at the left.
This panel painting (now in the Fenimore Art Museum collection and seen here in our storage facility) is meant to depict a well-known local story about a collision on the Hudson River that occurred between the steamboats Charlotte Vanderbilt (seen here at the right in the photo above, and in the detail below) and the Yosemite (depicted on the left in the photo above and at the lower left of this post) on the night of July 14, 1882. Looking at the picture, anyone can see that there is no collision happening. That’s the point: the artist chose to depict a collision ABOUT to happen, for a very particular reason.
On the evening in question, the Charlotte Vanderbilt left Catskill Point and headed downstream for New York. She carried only the captain and his family along with the pilot. At a point on the river near Rhinebeck (55 miles south of Albany), the captain saw the lights of another vessel. The steam yacht Yosemite was running upriver at maximum speed. The Yosemite, however, was an ocean-going yacht and carried different running lights than the river boats. The captain of the Charlotte Vanderbilt misread the lights, thinking that the Yosemite was a steamer hauling two barges. At the last moment, he swerved to avoid the phantom barges, crossing right into the path of the Yosemite. The Charlotte Vanderbilt was sliced in half and sunk, but no lives were lost.
Why did the artist not depict the collision? Those pencil outlines on the left give the answer. They are, in fact, the phantom barges that caused the collision in the first place. The artist has used a novel way to show the regulars at the Potter’s Hollow Inn that those barges are not present; except in the mind of the captain of the Charlotte Vanderbilt. The case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court, and was eventually decided in favor of the owner of the Charlotte Vanderbilt. With no loss of life, the cause of the crash was obviously a better drinking story than the effect.