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 February 18, 1973.
One day back in February of ‘36 I took a drive to Bear Mountain where the steamboats “Onteora” and “Clermont” were layed up for the winter. I planned to pay a visit to my friend John Tewbeck, who was the mate on the “Clermont” and acting as shipkeeper for the two steamboats. He had been second Mate with my brother, Algot, when Algot had been first Mate of the “Onteora” back in 1921.
It was an overcast day and looked as if a snow storm might be in the making. Sure enough, after I arrived aboard the “Clermont” about 2 p.m., it started to snow. John had to go on an errand to Highland Falls and suggested I wait until he returned. After he left, I took a walk around the two steamboats, all dark and still in their winter hibernation.
As I stood in the silent, cold pilot house of the “Onteora” I couldn’t help but think how it must have been there in the day when the “Onty” was new, back at the turn of the century, and running for the old Catskill Evening Line to Catskill, Hudson, Coxsackie and other up river landings.
I could almost see the ghosts of Captain Ben Hoff and the Pilots and quartermaster during the early morning hours discussing the political events of the day, as pilot house crews are wont to do. Perhaps talking about Teddy Roosevelt’s campaigns against Judge Alton B. Parker in 1904 and in 1912 against Wilson and Taft.
Then my thoughts wandered to the early 1920’s when the “Onteora” had been converted to an excursion steamer and was running between New York and Bear Mountain. How as a little boy I would visit my brother and be sitting enthralled in that same pilot house. On one such visit, I remembered looking out the port windows and seeing the steamer “Poughkeepsie” of the Central Hudson Line running up river at about the same speed as the “Onteora,” getting a little too close. And Captain Hoff saying “Come on, Amos (meaning Captain Amos Cooper of the “Poughkeepsie”), get over there.”
Now, however, all was still and quiet in the pilot house and the only sound was a train on the New York Central going up the east side of the river at the foot of Anthony’s Nose. How the steam would “siss” across the cold, icy river.
I then leisurely walked back on the “Clermont” and went through her cold, silent engine room. The bright work and moving parts of her engine were all covered with black grease as protection against the onslaught of winter’s rust. Up in her pilot house, it sure was cold with the snow falling outside. The brass was all tarnished and dark. By that time, dusk was falling and the now was coming down heavier. I couldn’t even make out the Bear Mountain bridge or the aero beacon on top of the Nose.
John Tewbeck came back and said, “Well, Bill I guess you will have to stay here tonight as the roads are very slippery.” So I stayed aboard the “Clermont” all night. On the second deck, in one of her former staterooms on the port side, John had two cots and a small stove.
During the night, how the wind rattled her windows and how the “Clermont” creaked and groaned as she tugged on her mooring lines.
It was very snug and comfortable that winter’s night in the “Clermont’s” cabin with the reassuring dull red glow from the coal fire in the small stove. How nice and warm it was to lay in bed and dimly see the lights up in Bear Mountain Park and the snow plows going along the highways very slow with their red lights blinking their warning signals.
About 3 a.m. I woke up and dressed. John, somewhat taken aback, said, “Where are you going at this hour?” I answered, “I’m going to take a walk around the boat to see how it is this hour of the morning in a snowstorm.”
After giving me his flashlight, which I took, John said, “I guess there is only one Benson like you in this world.” I replied. “Well, I will never again have this opportunity to stay all night and walk around a passenger boat tied up at Bear Mountain, so I thought I’d take advantage of it.” John retorted, “Well, Bill, enjoy yourself, while I sleep in this warm bed.”
Cold on Deck
I went out on deck. It was bitter cold, but the snow had lightened up considerable. I could now clearly see the Bear Mountain highway bridge and the aero light atop the Nose. How different the river looked all full of ice and snow.
I went up to the dark, still pilot house of the “Clermont.” There was something about it that drew me there. Although it was very cold, I couldn’t help but think of how it must have been in that pilot house in seasons past when the steamboat was alive.
Things were all hustle and bustle with passengers out on the decks, and perhaps the “Clermont” might be going into Stockport on a warm summer's morning with all the pilot house windows and doors open to catch the warm breezes.
Finally, the cold brought my thoughts back to the present and that warm bed and coal stove on the second deck. John was fast asleep and in a few moments so was I. About 7 a.m. I awoke to the aroma of freshly brewing coffee and frying ham and eggs. It was indeed pleasant to eat breakfast by the warm fire and look out on the snow covered park with the sun shining brightly.
Recalling That Night
About 10 a.m. I left for home. After that I went to visit John a number of times, but never again did I stay overnight. In 1946 he died of a heart attack and the “Clermont” herself was broken up in 1949. A number of times in years later when going by Bear Mountain on cold and stormy nights, I would think about that night in February 1936 and recall my pleasant winter visit to the layed up steamboats.
I remember an editorial that once appeared in the old New York Herald Tribune when the Day Liner “Washington Irving” was finally sold for scrapping. The writer observed that of all inanimate objects, ships and steamboats seemed to be endowed with a life of their own and have friends. I know the truth of the writer’s words, for this was my feeling for the “Clermont” and “Onteora.”
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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