Other Ferry Tales

Captain William Tompkins

I love it when things come full circle. One of the last ferry men, William E. Tomkins, was the chief engineer of the Poughkeepsie Highland Ferry Company. Captain Tompkins was the grandfather of local resident Linda Smith. Linda and her husband, Matt Smith, have been instrumental in reclaiming the land that once was an abandoned oil depot known as Star Terminal, and helped drive the effort to turn it into The Bob Shepard Highland Landing Park. That land is not far from the ferry terminal for the Brinckerhoff.


Chief engineer on the Brinckerhoff ferry for 17 years, Bill Tompkins, standing inside the ferry. Photo courtesy of Town of Lloyd Historian Liz Alphonso.


Captain Tomkins was a well-loved and colorful presence on the Hudson River. According to the headline of the Poughkeepsie Evening Star, February 6, 1933, “For Nearly 50 Years Bill Tompkins Has Been Sailing Craft on the Hudson.”  The author interviewed the Captain in the “spotless” engine room of the Brinckerhoff, and chronicles the exploits of his subject. “Five-foot-seven, about 180 pounds of congeniality, sincerity and modesty is Bill Tompkins.”

Bill was born at “the Oaks” on August 14, 1870. Oaks Road runs under both the Mid Hudson and the Walkway bridges in Highland.

“When I was a youngster the Oakes was a thriving waterfront village,” Tomkins recalled. “Some difference from what it is today. There were five cooper shops, couple of boatbuilding shops, and a grocery store.”

At 17 he became a deckhand and a cook on a tug working on the building of the railroad bridge. Tomkins then became a rigger on that construction project. When the bridge was completed, he worked as a night watchman. Then back to the boats he went. He was always a fine fisherman, but modest about his prowess with a rod.

Bill died in 1935 at 65 years old. He is buried in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. Born in Highland, buried in Poughkeepsie seems just right for a man who ran between the two shores so often on the Brinckerhoff.



Brinckerhoff Scandal

As interesting as the Brinckerhoff Ferry history is, the very colorful and public divorce of the Brinckerhoffs is quite telling about the era in which they lived. Details and allegations were even carried in The New York Times, June 23 and June 24, 1886: Mrs. Louise Cunningham Brinckerhoff left Captain John H. Brinckerhoff. and then sued for divorce. Among her accusations were the Captain was a philanderer (co-respondent Ms. Ida Crum was named), The Captain had insisted Mrs. Brinckerhoff have an abortion, that he was worth $400,000 and was giving her no money, and that he visited houses of “disrepute.”

Many witnesses were called to testify to the veracity of Mrs. Brinckerhoff’s accusations and on behalf of the accused. One report stated the couple had only lived together for less than a year.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Brinckerhoff, the divorce complaint was dismissed and was reported in The New York Times on July 29, 1886.

In Captain Brinckerhoff’s Obituary, one of the named survivors is his “adopted daughter,”  none other than Ida Crum, with whom he lived for many years. Ida had previously been named in the divorce suit.



Old Brinckerhoff Escapes Being Sold Down the River

Mystic News by James McKenna, August 6, 1960,

The ancient, side-wheeled, walking-beam engined ferry Brinckerhoff, last of a once populous line, has escaped the scrap-heap at Mystic Seaport marine museum, but it was a near miss.

A year ago the seaport announced plans to scrap the doughty old ferry boat because there was no hope of raising $60,000 to restore her.

The Steamship Historical Society of America, who got the Brinckerhoff to Mystic in 1950, and steamboat buffs throughout the country heard the news with dismay.

But a year passed and that bulky old tub squatted at her dock at the seaport, closed to visitors and mantled with silence. Behind the scenes, wheels were turning.

At the Seaports 31st annual meeting this week, a plan was disclosed to embed the ferry’s hull in the sand and preserve the unique Fletcher walking-beam engine, although the superstructure itself will be demolished.

The Ferry is now located at the south end of the marine museum’s 17 and a half acre grounds on the east bank of the Mystic River.

In her heyday, the Brinckerhoff plows across the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie and Highland, N.Y. From 1942 to 1950, the City of Bridgeport owned her and ran back and forth on the Pleasure Beach Shuttle to the Seaport at the Steamship Society’s urgings.

But that was not to be the end of the story. The Brinckerhoff eventually burned. Today, nothing but her whistle remains, an aural memory to those she carried across the Hudson.