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 January 21, 1973.
Back around 1908, there was a stone quarry at Rockland Lake south of Haverstraw and the Cornell Steamboat Company towed the quarry's scows to New York from early spring until hindered by ice the following winter. At the same time, the steamers "Homer Ramsdell" and "Newburgh" of the Central Hudson Line were carrying milk on a year round basis between Newburgh and New York.
In early January of that long ago time, the Cornell tugboats "Hercules" and "Ira M. Hedges" were sent up river to the quarry to bring down five loaded scows of stone. Ice had been forming in the river and, as any man who has worked on the river soon finds out, the river sometimes closes over night. He also discovers that at times salt water ice is harder to get through than fresh water ice.
When the tugs arrived at Rockland Lake, the river was covered with ice from shore to shore and making more ice rapidly. It was now about 5 p.m., very dark with a northeast wind, and it looked as if a storm was brewing. Captain Mel Hamilton of the "Hercules" telephoned Cornell's New York office and suggested they stay there overnight. He knew by waiting until daylight to start down, he could better find open spots in the floating ice and that the "Ramsdell" and "Newburgh" on their milk runs would be breaking up ice and perhaps keep it moving. The Cornell office, however, would not listen to Captain Hamilton's suggestion and told him they wanted him to start out immediately and get the tow to New York as soon as possible.
Trouble at Tarrytown
On leaving Rockland Lake with five wooden scows, the "Hercules" was in charge of the tow and the "Hedges" was supposed to go ahead and break ice since she had an iron hull. The ebb tide was about half done and everything went all right until they were about two miles north of the Tarrytown lighthouse.
The "Hedges” wasn’t too good as an ice breaker and she would get fast in the ice herself. The "Hercules" with the tow would creep alongside and break her out. After this happened a few times, both tugs tried pulling on the tow. Finally, the tide began to flood, jamming the ice from shore to shore, and the two tugs couldn't move the tow at all through the ice.
The only thing to do was to lay to until the tide changed. After about an hour it started to snow from the northeast and the wind increased to about 20 m.p.h. Captain Hamilton of the "Hercules" told Captain Herb Dumont of the "Hedges” to go back to the tail end of the tow and keep an eye out for the "Newburgh" he knew would be coming down. The "Hercules" lay along the head of the tow on watch for the ‘"Ramsdell" on her way up river.
Both tugs started to blow fog and snow signals on their whistles, as they lay in the channel and knew the Central Hudson steamers would be going through the ice and swirling snow on compass courses at full speed in order to maintain their schedule and not expecting to find an ice bound tow in their path. Neither tugboat captain relished the thought of his tug or the tow being cut in half by the "Ramsdell" or "Newburgh."
“Newburgh” Heard First
The first of the two Central Hudson steamers to be heard was the "Newburgh” by the crew of the "Hedges." Coming down river with the wind behind her, the men on the tug could hear the "Newburgh" pounding and crunching through the ice and her big base whistle sounding above the storm. Both the "Hercules" and "Hedges" were blowing their whistles to let the "Newburgh" know they were fast in the ice and not moving. The snow storm had now become a blizzard.
On the "Hedges" at the tail end of the tow, her crew was relieved when they could hear the crunching of the ice seem to ease off, indicating the "Newburgh" had probably heard their whistle and was slowing down.
In a few moments, the bow of the "Newburgh" loomed up out of the blowing snow headed almost directly for the "Hedges." Above the storm, the men on the tugboat could hear the bow lookout on the "Newburgh" yell to the pilot house, "There's a Cornell tug dead ahead."
The "Newburgh'' eased off to starboard and crept up along side of the tow. When abreast of the "Hercules," the captain, Jim Monahan, hollered through a megaphone to the "Hercules" captain, asking if he wanted "Newburgh” to circle around the tow and try and break them out of the ice’s grip. Boatmen always tried to help one another out, even though they might have been working for different companies.
Moved and Stopped
The "Newburgh" cut around the tow twice before continuing on her way to New York and disappearing into the swirling snow of the winter's night. The "Hercules" was able to move the tow about one tow’s length and was then again stopped.
In about half an hour, the crew of the "Hercules” could hear the whistle of the "Homer Ramsdell" blowing at minute intervals as she was cutting through the ice on her way to Newburgh. On the "Herc," they were sounding her high shrill whistle to let the "Ramsdell" know they were in the channel. In those days, long before the radio telephones of today, the steam whistle signals were the boatman's only means of communication.
The "Ramsdell" came up bow to bow with the "Hercules," backing down hard, the bow lookout yelling to the pilot house a tow was ahead. Coming to a stop with only a few feet separating the two vessels, Captain Fred Miller of the "Ramsdell" tramped out on his bow and yelled down to Captain Hamilton, asking if he could be of any help. When told the tow was fast in the ice, Captain Miller said he was ahead of time and would try and free the tow.
Captain Miller took the "Ramsdell" around the tow twice and then continued on his way up river. This time, the "Hercules" was able to move the tow about two tow lengths and again came to a dead stop. All they could do now was wait for the tide to change. However, at least they knew no other steamers were moving on the river and they were relatively safe.
When the crew of the "Hercules" was sitting in the galley and having a cup of hot coffee, one of the scow captains hollered over and waving a lantern, said his scow was leaking and his pumps were frozen. Men from the "Hercules" then had to climb over the snow covered scow and try to find and stop the leak. One of the deckhands found the leak in the dark and patched it up. After about two hours, the same thing happened to another scow, the oakum having been pulled out of the seams at the water line by the ice.
Finally, the tide began to ebb again and they were able to once again move the tow. Shortly after daylight the snow storm abated and the wind moderated. As the "'Hercules" and the "Hedges" moved further down river, the ice became more floes than solid ice. However, before arriving in New York, they were overtaken by the "Ramsdell" again the following night off Manhattanville.
After the crews’ long battle with ice and snow and on arriving in New York, their reward was to have their tugs tied up and to be layed off for the winter. In those days their pay was extremely modest. As a matter of fact, the pay of deckhands and firemen was a bunk, food and a dollar a day, — for a twelve hour day, seven days a week. As the boatmen used to say. "Thirty days and thirty dollars."
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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