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 Carl and Joan Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published February 18, 1973.
"THE STEAMBOAT “RENSSELAER” PASSES ALBANY on Jan. 29, 1913, the date of her mid-winter excursion. Although her flags and pennants are flying in mid-summer fashion, the floating ice in the Hudson and the very few people in deck testify to the frigid temperatures." Image originally published with article, February 18, 1973.
In days gone by, steamboat excursions were commonplace. Almost without exception, they were offered during the summer and occasionally in the late spring or early autumn. One highly unusual excursion - probably the only one of its type - took place in the dead of winter on Sunday, Jan. 29, 1913.
On that winter’s Sunday, the steamboat “Rensselaer” of the Hudson Navigation Company was chartered for an excursion by the Troy Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, No. 141. From Troy down the river to Hudson and return. The story of that long ago excursion was related to me by the late Francis “Dick” Chapman of New Baltimore, one of the pilots of the “Rensselaer” the day of that wintry sail on the river.
Dick said the sky was overcast, and it was a day when the cold “would penetrate right to your bones.” About 10 a.m. it started to snow and the river was full of floating cakes of ice. They were scheduled to leave Troy at 12:30 p.m.
On the way down river, they were held up briefly at the first railroad drawbridge by a crossing freight train. When the bridge opened and the “Rensselaer” got in the draw, she lay there until the Maiden Lane Bridge, downstream, opened. She eventually passed the Night Line dock at Albany at 1:45 p.m.
Down at Van Wies Point, below Albany, the river was covered with ice from shore to shore and the “Rensselaer” had to make a new channel. As she was going through the ice her paddle wheels would throw the ice up against the steel lining of her wheel batteries.
It sounded like crashing thunder. One could hear the noise all through the streamer.
Although they were originally scheduled to go down river as far as Hudson, Dick told me the visibility was so poor and the ice so heavy, they decided to go only as far as Castleton. There, they turned around and went back up river to Troy. They steamed slowly on the return so as to give the Elks their full time afloat. Since the visibility left much to be desired, it was somewhat questionable if the excursionists would have been able to see any more of the river if they had gone all the way on to Hudson.
A few years later, the Night Line decided to try and operate year round service. The “Rensselaer” and her sister steamer “Trojan” were chosen for the operation. On one of the “Rensselaer’s” trips down river, she was passing a Cornell tow fast in the ice off Germantown. When the “Rensselaer” tried to pull out of the tracker and break into the solid ice to pass the tow, she sheared off right into the tow. The Cornell helper tug “George W. Pratt” - laying alongside the tow - couldn’t get out of the way and the guard of the “Rensselaer,” before they could get her stopped, went over the rail of the “Pratt” and shifted and damaged her deck house.
With damages like that to the “Pratt,” and - after every trip - having to make repairs to the paddle wheel buckets and required to put new bushings in the arms of the feathering paddle wheels, the Night Line soon found the project to be too costly. Side wheel steamboats were just impractical for operation in the ice.
During that short period when the “Rensselaer” and “Trojan” attempted to operate during the winter, old boatmen told me on a clear, cold night they could hear the “Rensselaer” or “Trojan” at Port Ewen when the steamers were up around Barrytown or on the up trip, as far away as Esopus Island. They would hear their paddle wheel pounding and breaking the ice and crashing the broken ice cakes against the steel paddle wheel housings.
The captains and pilots of the night steamers on the river deserved a tremendous amount of credit for their skill in operating those old side wheelers in all kinds of weather. Unlike the captains and pilots of the day steamers that usually operated during the daylight in the best months of the year, the night boats would run from early spring to late fall and encounter lots of fog, snow or whatever came their way.
The upper end of the Hudson in particular is very narrow, and the night boat men always had tows, yachts, and floating derricks and dredges to content with. Regardless of the weather, almost always they would bring their big steamboats into Albany on time. Those captains and pilots were, as they say, “right on the button.”
The “Rensselaer” and the “Trojan” were cases in point. From the time they entered service in 1909 until the end of their service in the latter 1930’s, they rarely had a mishap. Probably the most serious mishap to the “Rensselaer” occurred on Sept. 27, 1833 when she was in a collision with an ocean freighter off Poughkeepsie. This incident will be the subject of a later article.
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.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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