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 March 12, 1972.
Once upon a time in the early 1900’s, a young boy about 16 years of age from up Athens way came down to Rondout to seek a job as a deckhand on one of the tugboats of the Cornell Steamboat Company.
He went to the Cornell office at 22 Ferry Street and spoke to Isaac M. North, who was then the company’s agent in charge of all tugs. North gave him a job as a deckhand on the big tugboat “John H. Cordts.”
After the new deckhand had been on the “Cordts” for about four or five days, the tow on which he was working was coming down the river past the lower Port Ewen ice house. Just north of this ice house was a small cluster of three homes. The deckhand was standing by the engine room talking to one of the old firemen. He said, “What do they call that over there?,” pointing at the houses. The fireman replied very seriously, “Why, they call that Grubville.”
They Passed It Again
A few days later, the deckhand was up in the pilot house talking to the captain, when the tow went by the same spot again. So he asked the captain, “Why do they call that place over there Grubville?”
The captain turned around, his face livid red, and said, “Son, I’ll tell you when we get in the creek.”
So when the “Cordts” tied up at the Cornell shops, the Captain handed the boy his time. In other words, he was fired.
Now there had been a time around the tugboats when the captain was given food or “grub” money, a certain amount per man per day on which to feed the crew. Some of the captains would pocket a small amount from each man’s food money.
A Shady System
For example, under that shady system, a captain in those days might be given $.65 a day for each crew member by the company. The captain would hire a cook on the condition he feed each many for $.55 or $.60 a day. Then the captain would keep the rest. Not all captains would do this and most did not. But there were others who would.
So when the fired deckhand went to the office to get his money, agent North said, “What’s the matter son, homesick?”
The boy replied, “I don’t know. No, I’m not homesick. The captain fired me because I asked him why they called those houses below Port Ewen Grubville.”
North tried to explain to the boy what had happened, knowing full well the boy was an innocent participant in the incident.
A Change of Heart
As it turned out, North also had a talk with the captain of the “Cordts.” After this talk, the captain told the boy he could come back aboard as deckhand again.
The boy, however, was stubborn and wisely went back to his home at Athens. A few days later, North offered the boy a job as deckhand on the tugboat “Harry.” The boy took the job, became a man and continued to work for the Cornell Steamboat Company for over 50 years.
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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