Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteers. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here.
This article was originally published in Tempo on June 25, 1972.
During the early 1920's, when I was a boy growing up in Sleightsburgh, church services used to be held every Sunday afternoon at the little Sleightsburgh chapel on First Street.
The Rev. Mr. Anthony of Rondout would conduct the service and be assisted by Mr. Arthur S. Flemming, who later became the president of Ohio Wesleyan University and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet. Mr. Flemming at that time had graduated from Kingston High School, but he had graduated so young that his father, Judge Harry Flemming, thought he should wait a year before going on to college. During that period, he used to assist Rev. Anthony almost every Sunday, being very active in church work.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon, the bell in the belfry of the chapel would toll shortly before the service was to begin at 3 p.m. My mother would take my sisters and me with her to the service.
Three Long Blasts
At 3:25 p.m., the steamer “Poughkeepsie” of the Central Hudson Line would blow three long blasts on her whistle, announcing her impending departure at 3:30 p.m. from Rondout for New York. Almost always, Rev. Anthony would be giving his sermon at that time. When the "Poughkeepsie" would blow her whistle, Rev. Anthony's sermon would come to a dead stop.
How that whistle would echo through the hills surrounding the Creek! Especially on one of these hot, lazy summer Sunday afternoons when the windows would be open. The "Poughkeepsie” would blow … and I'm afraid I would lose all interest in the sermon. At that time, how I wished I were the lookout on the “Poughkeepsie” and could be aboard her as she started out the creek.
It is my understanding that much the same thing used to take place at Malden during the late 1930's and 1940's. At that time, Ellsworth Sniffen of Malden was a pilot on the “Alexander Hamilton’’ of the Hudson River Day Line. As was the custom on steamboats, most captains and pilots would blow a three blast salute on the whistle to their families as their steamer passed their home ... a steamboatman’s way of saying “hello.”
During the 1930's and ‘40’s, the “Alexander Hamilton” almost always was the up boat to Albany on Saturdays. This, of course, would mean she would be the down boat on Sunday. The schedule at that time called for the down boat to leave Catskill at 11:40 a.m. and Kingston Point at 1 p.m. This would put her past Malden at about 12:15 noon.
A Momentary Halt.
As the “Hamilton” would come down along the west shore of the River off Malden, Pilot Sniffen would blow the customary three blast salute on the whistle. Services would be in progress in the church of the hill. As the “Alexander Hamilton" blew lustily, there would be a momentary halt while the pleasant whistle echoed through the valley.
Now the steamboat whistles are all gone. So are many of the churches, such as the little chapel at Sleightsburgh.
Progress is wonderful, but in its fast-paced course forward so many things of yesteryear are lost in the wake — like the sound of a steamboat whistle on a summer Sunday afternoon.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
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