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 March 26, 1972.
Back in the days when the Cornell Steamboat Company was towing large tows of barges and scows up and down the river, the company developed a series of whistle signals so that the helper tug could communicate with each other.
Generally, the tows would be large. The big towing tug would be up ahead with the tow strung out astern. Frequently, the helper tug would be back at the tow adding to or taking off barges from the tow for local delivery. The two tugs had to be in communication with each other and, before the age of electronics and short wave radios, whistle signals were the method used.
For example, five long and three short blasts was the signal for “the tow is all made up, hood up and go on,” three short blasts was “go slow,” four short blasts was “stop,” three long and three short was “go ahead,” two long and two short to a passing steamer meant “your signal lights are out,” etc. If one tug originated the signal, the other tug would answer with the same signal to indicate that the signal was understood.
It so happened the whistle signal of one long and two short was the Cornell signal for “The steamer having the tow wants her hawsers cast off.” It was also the same signal under the Nautical Rules of the Road for a tow underway in a fog.
One night back in 1937, the big Cornell tug “Perseverance” was coming up river on a flood tide with a very large tow. John Hickey, captain of the “Perseverance,” had on board as a crew member a young, green deckhand. The decky had heard at different time, the “Perseverance” and the helper tug exchange the one long and two short whistle signals, and then helped to haul the towing hawsers in.
On this particular night, when the tow was off Hyde Park, it set in very foggy. The helper tug had already left the tow and had gone on up ahead to Kingston. Captain Hickey started to run slow and to blow the fog signal of one long and two short whistle blasts as required by the Rules of the Road. After the second or third fog signal on the whistle, the “Perseverance” seemed to be moving ahead very fast.
At the same time, the deckhand came up to the pilot house and said, “All right Cap, all gone.”
Captain Hickey replied, “What do you mean?”
The decky said, “I threw the hawsers off. You blew two, didn’t you?”
Boy, oh boy, did Captain Hickey ever blow his top when he heard that! Of course, he had to turn the “Perseverance” around and try and find the tow in the fog. And what a job after they found the tow to get the hawsers up on the “Percy” again. The forward momentum of the tow, when the hawsers were cast off, caused to the tow to run over the hawsers.
When they finally did get everything squared away again, they had the new problem of trying to figure out where they were. All that maneuvering and time lost in the fog caused them to lose completely and exact idea of their position.
By inching ahead, Captain Hickey finally rounded up and bucked the tide until morning when the fog cleared up.
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.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.