A Collision off Rondout Lighthouse
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 volunteer Carl Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published May 21, 1972.
On Saturday, May 19, 1928, in the early afternoon of a beautiful spring day, a collision occurred off Rondout Lighthouse between the ferryboat “Transport” and the steamer “Benjamin B. Odell” of the Central Hudson Line.
At the time, I was deckhand on the steamer “Albany” of the Hudson River Day Line, helping to get her ready for the new season after her winter lay up at the Sunflower Dock at Sleightsburgh. On Saturdays, we knocked off work at 11:30 a.m. As I rowed up the creek in my rowboat to go home, the big “Odell” was still at her dock at the foot of Hasbrouck Avenue at Rondout.
At 12:25 p.m. the “Odell” blew the customary three long melodious blasts on her big whistle, high on her stack, as the signal she was ready to depart.
At home, eating lunch, I heard her blow one short blast promptly at 12:30 p.m. as the signal to cast off her stern line.
From the Porch
Following a habit of mine from a young boy, I went out on our front porch to watch her glide down the creek at a very slow pace past the Cornell shops, Donovan’s and Feeney’s boat yards, and the freshly painter [sic] “Albany.” The “Odell” looked to me like a great white bird slowly passing down the creek. At the time, I thought how in less than two weeks we would probably pass her on the “Albany” on the lower Hudson on Decoration Day, both steamers loaded with happy excursionists on the first big holiday of the new season.
As the “Odell” passed Gill’s dock at Ponckhockie, I went back in the house to finish lunch. A few minutes later I heard the “Odell” blow one blast on her whistle, which was answered by the “Transport” on her way over to Rhinecliff, indicating a port to port passing. Hearing steam whistles so often in the long ago day along Rondout Creek was something one took for granted, assuming they would be heard forever. Then I heard the danger signal on the whistle of the “Transport” followed by three short blasts from the “Odell’s” whistle, indicating her engine was going full speed astern. Shortly thereafter, I could hear the “Transport” blowing the five whistle signal of the Cornell Steamboat Company of 2 short, 2 short, 1 short, meaning we need help immediately.
I ran down to my rowboat tied up at the old Baisden shipyard, and looked down the creek. I could see the “Transport” limping in the creek very slowly, her bow down in the water, and her whistle blowing continuously for help. I also noticed several automobiles on her deck.
Looking over the old D. & H. canal boats that were deteriorating on the Sleightsburgh flats, I could see the top of the “Odell” stopped out in the river. After a few minutes, she slowly got underway and proceeded on down the river, her big black stack belching smoke, so I figured she was not hurt.
Decision to Beach
As the “Transport” approached the Cornell coal pocket, her captain, Rol Saulpaugh, decided to beach her on the Sleightsburgh shore. Nelson Sleight, a member of her crew, asked me to run a line over to the dock a the shipyard in the event she started to slide off the bank.
I took the line and ran it from where the “Transport” grounded to the dock. In the meantime, the Cornell tugboat “Rob” came down the creek, from where she had been lying at the rear of the Cornell office at the foot of Broadway, and pushed the ferry a little higher on the bank.
After taking the line ashore, I went back and asked if there was anything else I could do. Captain Saulpaugh asked me if I would row up to the ferry slip and get Joseph Butler, the ferry superintendent, and bring him over to the “Transport,” which I did. On the way over, Butler told me he had already called the Poughkeepsie and Highland Ferry Company to see if he could get one of its ferries to run in the “Transport’s” place. The afternoon about 5 p.m., the Poughkeepsie ferryboat “Brinckerhoff” arrived in the creek and began running on the Rhinecliff route.
When we got back to the “Transport,” mattresses and blankets had been stuffed in the hole the “Odell” had slicked in the over-hanging guard and part of the hull. When she was patched, the “Transport,” with the “Rob’s” help, backed off the mud and entered the Roundout slip stern first - and the cars on deck were backed off. Then, the “Rob” assisted the ferry to make her way up to the C. Hiltebrandt shipyard at Connelley for repairs. There she was placed in drydock, the damage repaired, and in a week she was back in service on her old run.
A Flood Tide
The cause of the mishap at the mouth of the creek was a combination of a strong flood tide, a south wind and a large tow. Out in the river, the big tugboat “Osceola” of the Cornell Steamboat Company was headed down river with a large tow.
She had just come down the East Kingston channel and at that moment was directly off the Rondout Lighthouse. When there is a strong flood tide, there is a very strong eddy at the mouth of the creek. The tide, helped by a south wind, sets up strong and when it hits the south dike, it forms a half moon about 75-100 feet out from the south dike and then starts to set down.
As the “Odell” was leaving the creek and entering the river, the “Transport” was passing ahead of the tow, around the bow of the “Osceola.” The “Transport” probably hit the eddy caused by the flood tide. In any event, she didn’t answer her right rudder and took a dive right into the path of the “Odell.” The “Odell” couldn’t stop in time and cut into the forward end of the ferry about 6 or 8 feet. No one was hurt and there was no confusion on either boat. The “transport” bore the brunt of the bout; the only damage to the “Odell” being some scratched paint on her bow.
I heard later from the Dan McDonald, pilot on the “Osceola,” that there would be the lawsuit as a result of the collision - and he had been served with a subpoena to appear as a witness. He never had to appear, however, as Captain Greenwood of the “Odell” later told me the case was settled out of court.
The next year the Central Hudson Line, because of the inroads made by the automobile, went out of business. The “Benjamin B. Odell”, however, continued to run on the river for another company until February 1937 when she was destroyed by fire in winter lay up at Marlboro. The “Transport” continued running on the Rhinecliff ferry route until September 1938 when she was withdrawn from service. She was later cut down and made into a stake boat for the Cornell Steamship Company for use in New York harbor.
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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