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Story Behind the Story #35:
Abigail Takes the Wheel

St. Nicholas MagazineI’ve long been fascinated by the history of writing for young people. This included an interest in St. Nicholas Magazine. Founded in 1873 and edited by Mary Mapes Dodge (She wrote Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates) it lasted until the 1940s. The magazine was enormously successful as it brought fine children’s literature into American homes as never before. Its list of contributing authors is quite astounding. There are too many to list here. Go to St. Nicholas Magazine for a lot more information about this vital publication. St. Nicholas also fostered writing and art by young people, and it’s captivating to see who was first published there.

When I was collecting old children’s books in used book stores and flea markets, I’d run across issues of the publication. They were always wonderful fun to read. In one such issue—1880’s or thereabout—there was a singular heroic story. It was a news report about a New York City harbor boat captain, who brought in vegetables from New Jersey “The Garden State.” His steamboat came up through New York City’s vast and crowded harbor to Manhattan. On these trips he was often accompanied by his daughter and son.

Abigail Takes the WheelOne day, as they come up the Narrows, they saw two sailing ships collide. One of the ships was disabled. Our captain offers to tow the damaged ship into safe harbor. He goes on board that ship, leaving his boat in the hands of his engineer. As the account related, the engineer suddenly became ill. That meant it was the daughter who had to steer the boat into NYC. A harrowing voyage it is but she does it.

As soon as I read the report, I was sure it would make a good story. I spent a good deal of time trying to verify the details in the New York City newspapers of the day. Alas, there were too many newspapers and the date of the incident was not provided by St. Nicholas.

Regardless, I rewrote the story as an I Can Read chapter book, with the title Abigail Takes the Wheel. It was illustrated by Don Bolognese.

I wrote the book shortly after moving to Colorado. The truth is, however, I still consider myself a New Yorker, and this is one of many books I’ve written about the City.

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