Graphic pen sketch of a Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia, photo of the Observation.


The brick pedestal for Rikers Island bell mounted near the Telcom Building could serve as a suitable site for a memorial plaque recalling the 1932 steamboat disaster.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.
Labor holiday
72 killed while
en route to
Rikers Island
site in 1932

Amid the barbecues, sports events and other celebrations this Labor Day weekend, consider taking a moment to remember 72 who were killed when a steamboat that was transporting workers to the construction site of the Rikers Island Penitentiary complex literally blew apart in the East River moments after leaving a dock near 136th St. on the Bronx mainland.


North Brother Island's former lighthouse fog bell has a place of honor as part of the P.O. Kenneth M. Hansen Memorial at the NYPD Harbor Unit's Harbor George base in College Point.
Courtesy ret. Lt. Carol Grace-Walker & Bent Wheel Club, the unit's retirement club website.

One of the worst industrial steamboat disasters in the NYC history, it happened the Friday after Labor Day 1932.

The steamer Observation -- with more than 100 men aboard, mostly iron workers -- exploded at 8:03 a.m. Sept. 9, hurling bodies and body parts into the air, some landing on nearby boat decks and even house roofs hundreds of yards away.

Others who did not go down with the ship, that sank seemingly only seconds after the devastating blast, were thrown into the river. Debris from the demolished vessel at least provided floating objects to which the dazed wounded desperately clung.

Rikers Island sentenced inmates board the Greenwich Village


In its 1954 annual report, the Correctional Association of NY quoted a New York Times article that the then new NYC DOC Commissioner, Anna M. Kross, "relieved congestion among sentenced prisoners on Rikers Island by persauding the Department of Welfare to transfer Hart Island to the Department of Correction."

The State Commission of Correction, in its 1954 report, noted "The branch penitentiary on Hart Island, use of which was discontinued by the Department of Correction on Sept. 14, 1950, was re-assigned to the Department on August 20, 1954.

"On that date 500 inmats were transferred from the Rikers Island Penitentiary."

Above is an image derived from a photo of some of those inmates boarding the municipal ferry Greenwich Village docked at the Rikers Island ferry slip for that trip to Hart Island.

Below are two close-up details extracted from the photo that was the basis for the above image:

  • one from the photo's upper left corner showing the ferry's name, Greenwich Village.
  • the other, from the right side, showing Commissioner Kross and aides watching the inmates board the ferry, the same municipal transport that had rescued some penitentiary workers in the 1932 steamboat disaster.
Also helping to reduce the drowning death toll somewhat was the fact that the steamer had not yet left the dock's immediate vicinity. Thus a few vessels were close enough to rush to the rescue. But many of the injured pulled from the water died later of the wounds sustained when boat blew up.

Among those boats whose crews rendered what assistance they could was the 245-ton ferry Greenwich Village that regularly served as the municipal transport between Rikers Island and mainland Bronx. Its docking slip was situated at 134th Street. The ferry was in its layup slip when the accident happened.

The penitentiary's construction laborers were not supposed the use that city ferry which, in effect, was reserved for passengers having other business on Rikers such as attending its inmates, who were housed in barracks and worked on the island farm and landfills.

For the construction workers, the P. J. Carlin Construction Company had arranged their transit with veteran NY waters skipper, Captain George Forsyth of Staten Island. The 66-year-old boatman had begun his career at age 14 as a cabinboy aboard steamers that plied the Hudson River.

Close-up from photo of Rikers inmates boarding Greenwich Village


The name of the municipsl ferry Greenwich Village is more clearly visible in this close-up detail extracted from the photo on which the Rikers Island inmates boarding image is based.
Eventually, at the peak of his long career, he ran a fleet of tugs.

About 1930 he acquired the wooden-hulled steamer Observation that had been built in Brooklyn circa 1888 and began its journeys as yacht named "Jean" but later became a sightseeing vessel with a name appropriate to that vocation.

The two-deck steamer, painted white, was 92 feet in length with a rated occupancy of 260 people, counting a crew of 10.

Earlier that year Forsyth had put it to use as a moonlight cruise craft. But its main mission, as per arrangements with Carlin Company, was to make six Rikers Island runs daily -- three morning trips for prison building crews going to work and three evening trips for the crews returning. The agreement Carlin had with Forsyth read:

"You (Forsyth) are hereby licensed to operate a ferry service for the transportation of the men engaged upon the construction of the Rikers Island Penitentiary Building. . . . You are to be compensated therefor by collecting fares from the men at the rate of 10 cents a round trip. In the event that your fares do not reach the sum of $60 U. S. currency upon any given day, we (Carlin) shall reimburse you for the difference. Where your fares exceed $60 a day, you will pay the excess to us up to a point where we are reimbursed for any monies paid to you by us under this license. . . . We understand that your boat is warranted to be in first class condition, with all necessary permits to operate in this service."

Close-up from photo of Rikers inmates boarding Greenwich Village


DOC Commissioner Anna M. Kross and her aides watch the Aug. 20, 1954 transfter of prisoners to Hart Island are more clearly visible in this close-up detail extracted from the photo on which the Rikers Island inmates boarding image is based.
Robert Turnier, the relief captain of the Greenwich Village, had just come aboard and taken command for the municipal ferry's schedule of morning and afternoon runs. The Greenwich Village would have a long association with Rikers Island -- serving it for decades.

From the Observation's position near the dock north of the ferry, Captain Forsyth's boat had been "backing up" in a direction toward the Greenwich Village but stopped moving in reverse and was preparing to move forward to turn toward Rikers Island when the explosion occurred.

It was roughly parallel with the lighter Gypsum situated at the dock north of the ferry. The lighter was owned by the U.S. Gypsum Corp. Its captain, Leo Brennan, was changing clothes in his pilothousse when the Observation blast took place.

He later said: "I had turned to get a pair of trousers when the explosion came . . . All I could see was dust and smoke. When that cleared away, there was no Observation left, only wreckage."

Greenwich Village ferrying Rikers sentenced inmates to Hart Islsnd.


Click above image to see larger version of Aug.20, 1954 photo showing municipal ferry Greenwich Village transporting Rikers Island sentenced inmates to Hart Island with patrol boat escort. Use your browser's "back" button to return. One can not make out clearly, even in the enlarged photo, whether the short, dark-coated figure in the launch is Commissioner Kross. But given AMK's hands-on approach to running DOC, it's quite likely her.
Five of the bodies hurled into the air by the explosion came to rest on the Gypsum main deck.

The lighter's crew was able to pull about 15 of the injured Observation passenagers from the waters. The Greenwich Village ferry crew hauled up almost as many.

As so often is the case after major mishaps, government which prior thereto had not functioned effectively enough to prevent the disaster became highly exercised and launched multiple probes to fix blame, since it couldn't fix the problem retrospectively.

One avenue pursued focused on supposedly faulty repairs to the boat's reportedly ancient boiler. The welders who made the repairs, the federal inspectors who were supposed to have checked the repairs and the boat's engineer immediately responsible for their operation were all considered candidates for criticism or worse.

Greenwich Village arrives with Hart-bound inmates from Rikers.


The municipal ferry Greenwich Village arrives from Rikers with its Hart Island-bound inmates and sundry furniture such as tables and chairs. Click image to see lifeboat clearly identifying the vessel. Use your browser's "back" button to return.
But since the boiler was never able to be recovered from the bottom of the East River, that avenue proved mostly a dead end. Captain Forsymth's body was recovered from the flattened wheelhouse retrieved from the river. He had been at the wheel when the boat exploded and went down with the ship.

That left as a prosecution target his 23-year-old son, Alexander, who -- although the ship was technically registered in his name -- actually ran the coffee and candy stand on board, functioned mostly as a deckhand and only occasionally relieved his dad at the wheel.

After the youth had recovered from his own injuries in the blast, the Bronx DA Charles B. McLaughlin put him on trial for second degree manslaughter.

After a nine-day trial in March 1933, the jury took only an hour to find young Alexander Forsyth not quilty. Bronx County Judge James M. Barrett's charge to the jurors had taken five minutes longer than that and came close to being a directed verdict of acquittal. The evidence clearly established the father, not the son, was the real owner and operator of the boat.


Then NYPD Commissioner Edward P. Mulrooney, left, is shown seated next to DOC Commissioner Richard C. Patterson at the 1930 NYC Keepers Training School Graduation, its first as an all-DOC operation.

Begun in 1928 on Patterson's initiative, DOC had significant help from Mulrooney's department during the school's first two years.

After visiting the 1932 boat blast site himself, Acting Mayor Joseph V. McKee (Jimmy Walker's successor) let it be known that Mulrooney was his man at the Observation disaster scene and that the NYPD Commissioner's report would guide mayoral decisions in the case.

Mulrooney's public service career included stints as NYS Commissioner of Correction (1936 - 1939) and president of the Prison Association of New York.

Click image to access more on the 1930 NYC Keepers Training School Graduation.

Use you browser's "back" button to return.


James Clark McReynolds, whom President Wilson appointed U.S. Attorney General and later U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice, serving from 1914 to 1941, wrote the majority opinion in the case of P. J. Carlin Construction Co. v. Heaney.

Carlin claimed Edward Heaney and other Rikers Penitentiary construction workers who survived the Observation explosion were not entitled to workmen's compensation because at the time of injury they were not at their jobs working but were on a boat as fare-paying passengers.

Besides, Carlin argued, maritime law should apply, not state labor law,.

McReynolds ruled, in effect, that the New York State Industrial Board had been right in holding

"Heaney stepped into his employment the moment he stepped aboard the said steamboat. . . . Such transportation by means of the steamship Observation was included within and was part of the contract of employment between P. J. Carlin Construction Co., the employer herein, and Edward Heaney, the claimant. . . ,

"The status of the claimant and the employer herein was a matter of local concern, . . . subject to the regulation of the State, and in no way worked prejudice to any characteristic feature of the General Maritime Law. "

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the NY appellate courts' upholding the industrial board granting workmen's compensation to the Observation survivor.

* * *
The Rikers Island ferry slip bell, now mounted on a brick pedestal near the Telcom Building, served many decades to a guide ferries in dense fog and to alert DOC staffers and visitors on the island to the imminent departures of their transport to the Bronx mainland.

Though not involved in the 1932 steamboat disaster itself, the bell is evocative of the island's pre-bridge past so dependent on steam-propelled transport

Given its highly visible location on the island, the bell's brick pedestal may be worth considering for placement of an appropriately-worded plaque recalling the Rikers penitentiary construction workers killed in the steamboat disaster the Friday after Labor Day 1932. It would serve as a historical reminder that steamboat service so crucial to Rikers Island for so long was not without its hazards.

Those 72 working men who lost their lives that day "on the job" would seem worthy of inclusion in any answer to the question of For Whom Did Rikers Island Bell Toll, at least within the meaning of the 17th Century poet John Donne's Meditation XVII:

No man is an island . . . every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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