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 August 18, 1974.
During the 1920's, every Sunday from late May until early September, the steamer “Homer Ramsdell" of the Central Hudson Line offered an excursion from Kingston to New York. Leaving Rondout at 6:30 a.m., she would make landings at Poughkeepsie and Newburgh and arrive in New York at her pier at the foot of Franklin Street at 1 p.m. Returning, she would leave New York at 4:30 p.m. and get back to Kingston at 11 p.m.
In those days of long ago, the Sunday excursions on the “Homer Ramsdell” were very popular with residents of the mid-Hudson valley and many Kingston families made this day long sail on the Hudson an annual event. In July of 1924, as a boy of 15, my father took me on one of these excursions.
To a boy who thought the greatest thing in the world was a steamboat, the excursion was a memorable experience. I made a note of every steamer we passed and in retrospect it is difficult to believe there were once so many steamboats in operation on the Hudson.
After leaving Rondout on that sunny Sunday morning a half a century ago, the first steamer we met was the “Poughkeepsie” of the Central Hudson Line, off Staatsburgh. She was coming up on her way to Kingston, having left New York the night before. Landing at Poughkeepsie, I saw the ferryboat “Gove Winthrop” going into her Poughkeepsie slip and her running mate “Rinckerhoff" [Brinckerhoff?] landing at Highland.
After we left Poughkeepsie, we saw very few boats as it was too early in the morning. At Newburgh, the old ferryboat "City of Newburgh” was just coming over from Beacon and as we passed Cornwall we overtook the "Perseverance” of the Cornell Steamboat Company going down with the down tow of about forty loaded scows and barges. The Cornell tugs “Victoria” and ‘‘Hercules” were helping on the tow. When passing West Point, the ferry “Garrison” was going over the river to her namesake landing.
Down off Grassy Point, the graceful “Hendrick Hudson” of the Day Line went by on her way to Albany and looked as if she were almost loaded to her passenger capacity of 5,500. Off Croton Point, the brand new “Alexander Hamilton” went past on her way to Kingston Point — and just below Hook Mountain the “DeWitt Clinton” was going up river bound for Poughkeepsie. Not too far behind her was the “Albany,” probably going to Indian Point. In slightly over an hour we had passed four Day Liners. Then came the Bear Mountain steamer “Clermont.”
By that time we were off Tarrytown. Looking down the river on that clear day, one could see all the way down to New York harbor and could see everywhere all kinds of passenger steamboats and yachts coming up the river. I was eagerly peering ahead to see if I could find my favorite, the “Benjamin B. Odell.” Sure enough, there she was coming up river with a big bone in her teeth, flags flying and black smoke pouring out of her big black smokestack.
The "Odell" was overtaking the “Rensselaer” of the Albany Night Line — and had just passed the propellor “Ossining” and the sidewheeler ‘‘Sirius" of the Iron Steamboat Company. As she sped by the “Ramsdell", she blew one long blast salute on her whistle. The white steam from her whistle ascending skyward and the big red house flag of the Central Hudson Line with the white letters “C.H.,” briskly flapping in the breeze from the flag staff in back of her pilot house, made a very impressive scene.
After we had passed this cluster of steamboats, along came the “Benjamin Franklin” of the Yonkers Line, closely followed by the Day Liner “Robert Fulton" on her way to Newburgh. We then passed the ‘‘Mandalay" headed up river. With her ferry boat-like bow, she was a nice looking steamer. Below Hastings, a tow in charge of the Cornell tugboats “Geo. W. Washburn” and “Senator Rice" was on its way up river. The “Washburn” blew a long salute to the "Ramsdell."
Down off Yonkers, the speedy “Monmouth” of the Jersey Central Railroad and the Central Hudson steamer “Newburgh” were coming up, loaded with passengers for a day's outing up the river. When we landed at 129th Street, I couldn't help but wonder how many people had boarded boats at that pier that morning. It must have been several thousand. On the south side of the pier lay the "Cetus" of the Iron Steamboat Company taking on passengers for Coney Island.
Going down through the harbor I saw the "Leviathan” of the U.S. Lines, then called the largest liner in the world, lying at her pier. With her three big red, white and blue smokestacks, it was the first time I had ever seen her.
Christopher Street, the ‘‘Robert A. Snyder" of the Saugerties Evening Line was lying on the south side. Going up river was the little sidewheeler ‘‘Sea Bird" with her large hog frame and walking beam. The ‘‘Sandy Hook" was just leaving her pier at Houston Street on her way to Atlantic Highlands and the “Mary Patten" was on her way to Gansevoort Street, coming back from Long Branch. By that time it was nearly 1 p.m. and we were landing at the Franklin Street pier.
We left New York on our return trip promptly at 4:30 p.m. For the next two and a half hours we passed a steady parade of steamboats, only this time they were all returning to New York. We passed again all of the steamers we had in the morning except the "Hendrick Hudson" which had gone on to Albany. In her stead, we passed the big “Washington Irving" which that day was the down Day Liner from Albany. The down Cornell tow in charge of the "Perserverance" had gotten all the way down to Hook Mountain. As we passed very close I remember how loud her whistle sounded when she blew a passing salute.
When we were at Iona Island, I could see the "Onteora,” another favorite of mine, just pulling away from Bear Mountain. That was the first I had seen her in two years as she had gone up river after we had landed at New York. My older brother, Algot, had been the mate of the “Onteora" and in March of the year before he died of pneumonia. When my father saw the “Onteora" ahead, I remember he got up and without saying a word walked to the other side of the "Ramsdell." I suppose he could not bear to see her got [go?] by knowing my brother was no longer aboard.
As the "Onteora" went by she was just straightening out on her course down river with a heavy port list after completing her turn around. We passed so close I could make out Ben Hoff, her captain, at the wheel in the pilot house. We again passed the “Geo. W. Washburn” and the "Senator Rice" with the up Cornell tow off Cons Hook.
After we left Newburgh we passed the steamer ‘‘Ida" of the Saugerties Evening Line on her way to New York and, off Danskammer Point, the freighter "Storm King" of the Catskill Evening Line also bound south. After that, as far as I know, we didn’t pass anything. I remember dozing off in an easy chair on the saloon deck and getting off at Rondout about 11 p.m, and going home to bed. For a boy, it had been a day to remember.
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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