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 14, 1977.
Almost from the beginning of steam navigation, there have been shipyards along Rondout Creek. Probably the biggest day in the creek’s history occurred on September 30, 1918, when the largest vessel built along the Rondout hit the water for the first time.
Back in World War I, steel was in short supply and the federal government decided to build oceangoing freighters of wood. Four of these were to be built at the shipyard on Island Dock. The first ship to be launched was named “Esopus” and the event, based on estimates made by the Daily Freeman at the time, was witnessed by 15,000 people — more than half the population of Kingston and the immediate surrounding area.
In that era of nearly 60 years ago, Rondout Creek was a busy place. In addition to the ocean freighters being built at Island Dock, the C. Hiltebrant Shipyard at Connelly was building submarine chasers and the other yards were busy building barges to carry the Hudson’s commerce. The creek echoed with the sound of caulking hammers, the whine of band saws, and the whir of air drills and hammers.
The "Esopus” was the largest vessel, then or since, to be built along the Rondout, and her size, together with the intensity of the war effort, created a great deal of local interest in the ship. It had been rumored the launching would take place in mid-September. When it did not, this only piqued the interest of area residents.
Finally, it was announced in the Freeman that September 30 was to be the day. Spectators began to arrive early and crammed all vantage points. Grandstands had been erected and benches set up for the people lucky enough to get on the Island Dock. Up on Presidents Place and in the area known as the “Ups and Downs” at the end of West Chestnut Street, there were large groups of people to get a birds-eye view. Along the South Rondout shore, people were in rowboats and the steam launches and yachts of old. Even the abutment on which today stands the south tower of the Rondout Creek highway bridge, completed just prior to World War I, was crowded with people. It is my understanding there were even some doubting Thomases among the estimated 15,000 spectators. Some were of the opinion the "Esopus” was so big she would stick on the launching ways, while others thought she might tip over on her side when she hit the water, or go right across the creek and hit the South Rondout shore. I have heard there were even small bets among some people that one of these possibilities would occur.
As the launching hour approached, the sound of music from the Colonial City Band, on hand for the occasion, filled the early autumn air. The music was punctuated by the sound of workmen’s mauls driving up wedges to remove the last remaining blocks from beneath the ship. The launching ways had been angled with the creek’s course to gain additional launching room.
When all was in readiness, Miss Dorothy Schoonmaker, daughter of John D. Schoonmaker, president of the Island Dock shipyard, broke the traditional bottle of champagne on the ship’s bow, and the “Esopus” started to slide down the greased ways. As soon as she started to move, the gentle September breeze caused the ship’s flags and bunting to wave, and bedlam broke loose. It seemed as if every steam whistle along Rondout Creek was blowing at once.
The Cornell tugboats “George W. Pratt,” “Rob” and “Wm. S. Earl" were on hand to take the “Esopus” in hand when she was waterborne. The steam whistles of this tugboat trio led the noisy serenade, together with the shipyard whistles at Island Dock and Hiltebrant’s, and the shrill whistles of the small old-time steam launches present for the event. The steeple bells of Rondout’s churches were also ringing and added to the festive air. It was a perfect launching and an impressive sight.
It seemed that even nature smiled that day — so long ago that few today remember — for the weather was perfect. Even after the whistles quieted down, from way down the creek where the Central Hudson Line steamer "Homer Ramsdell” lay at her berth near the foot of Hasbrouck Avenue came the sound of her soft steam whistle still blowing a salute of good luck to the “Esopus.” And the ferryboats “Transport” and the little “Skillypot” were joining in. Finally, the “Pratt,” “Rob” and “Earl” had the "Esopus” securely moored at Island Dock, and peace and quiet returned to Rondout. As the crowds of people began to disperse, the band saws and air drills could again be heard as the shipyard workers resumed their work, both on the “Esopus” and on her sister ship that was to be called the “Catskill.”
After several more weeks of completion work, the time came for the “Esopus” to leave the Rondout Creek forever. This occasion also drew crowds of people to the creek to witness her departure. The ship was completed at Kingston except for the installation of her engine and boilers. She was to be towed to Providence, Rhode Island, where these components would be installed and the vessel readied for sea.
On the day of departure, people had started to gather at daybreak at vantage points along the creek and on top of the buildings along Ferry Street, for the newspaper had said she would leave early. However, it wasn’t until about 9 a.m. that the Cornell tugs “Rob” and “Wm. S. Earl” were seen heading up the Rondout to take the “Esopus” in tow. This pair of tugboats was to take the ship to the river, where the big Cornell tugboat “Pocahontas” was to take her to New York.
The “Earl,” in charge of Captain Chester Wells, put her hawsers on the bow of the “Esopus” to pull her, and the “Rob,” in charge of Captain George “Bun” Gage, lay along her starboard quarter to both push her and act as a sort of rudder. As they pulled away from the yard of the builder of the “Esopus,” the steam whistle of the Island Dock began to blow farewell. Over in Connelly, the steam whistle of the Hiltebrant shipyard joined the serenade.
As the “Esopus” moved sedately down Rondout Creek toward the Hudson, all the vessels along the creek with steam on their boilers joined in whistle salutes of goodbye and good luck. At the Central Hudson Line wharf between the foot of Broadway and Hasbrouck Avenue lay the big steamer “Benjamin B. Odell.” The “Odell’s” pilot, Richard Heffernan, was on top of the pilothouse as the “Esopus” passed, pulling on the cable connected to the large commodious whistle and he kept pulling it to the whistle’s full steam capacity. Even the trolley cars along Ferry Street were ringing their bells.
At that time, Rondout Creek sort of resembled a home for old steamboats. At the foot of Island Dock lay the big sidewheel towboat “Oswego” built in 1848. At the Abbey Dock, east of Hasbrouck Avenue, lay the old Newburgh-to-Albany steamer “M. Martin,” which at one time during the Civil War had served as General Grant’s dispatch boat. Farther down the creek at the Sunflower Dock lay the old queen of the Hudson, the “Mary Powell.” Now, on all three, after over half a century of service on the Hudson, their boilers were cold and their whistles were silent.
As the "Esopus" neared Ponckhockie, the large whistle on the U.& D. Railroad shops and the whistle of the old gashouse blew long salutes of goodluck and happy sailing. Finally, as she approached the mouth of the creek, Jim Murdock, the keeper of Rondout lighthouse, rang the big fog bell in a final farewell to the “Esopus." When she reached the Hudson, the “Pocahontas” took the “Esopus” in tow and started the trip to New York.
Years later I was pilot on the “Pocahontas,” and her chief engineer, William Conklin, told me about the 1918 trip down the river. Chief Conklin was a great man for detail. He said that when they got to the Hudson Highlands, between Cornwall and Stony Point, it was the time of evening when the nightly parade of nightboats made its way upriver — the passenger and freight steamers bound for Kingston, Saugerties, Catskill and Hudson, Albany and Troy, as well as tow after tow. That was when the Hudson River was really busy with waterborne traffic.
Bill went on to tell me the “Esopus” towed like a light scow, following the “Pokey” without any trouble at all. They arrived in New York in the early morning and a big coastwise tug was waiting for them at Pier 1, North River, to tow the “Esopus” out Long Island Sound. The orders from the Cornell office were for the “Pocahontas” to stay with the tow up the East River through Hell Gate and then call the Cornell office for further orders. After passing through the Gate, the "Pocahontas” let go, saluted the "Esopus" three times and returned to the Hudson.
After that, I never knew for sure what became of the “Esopus.” It would be nice to be able to say she had a distinguished career in war and a long, profitable one in peace. Ships like the “Esopus,” however, had been an emergency measure. World War I was over before she saw much service and apparently they found little use in the years that followed. It is my understanding the “Esopus” was the only one of the four to be built on Island Dock that was completed. Her sister, the “Catskill,” was launched but never finished, and construction of the other two was stopped and they were dismantled.
In the 1920’s and early 30’s there used to be ships like the “Esopus” in the backwaters of New York harbor lying on flats and abandoned, but I never saw any names on them. Gradually they rotted away with only a few watersoaked timbers remaining. If one of these should have been the bones of the “Esopus,” it would have been a sad end for a ship that was cheered by some 15,000 people when she was launched on Rondout Creek nearly 60 years before.
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!
Filmmaker Ken Sargeant has compiled many of Henry's stories, including with footage from a filmed oral history interview, into "Tales from Henry's Hudson."
In 2013, Arts Westchester put together this short video of Henry, combining oral histories from the Hudson River Maritime Museum and film interviews by Ken Sargeant. You can watch more of Henry on film below:
For today's Media Monday, we thought we'd highlight one of the best storytellers on the Hudson River. Henry Gourdine, a commercial fisherman on the Hudson River since the 1920s, was a famous advocate for the river and its fishing heritage. Born on Croton Point on January 7, 1903, his reminiscences of growing up along the waterfront, defying his mother to spend time there, and his working life on the river, captured the imagination of the region at a time when commercial fishing was under threat from PCBs.
A boatbuilder, net knitter, and fisherman, as well as a storyteller, Gourdine helped preserve many of the fishing crafts. He taught boatbuilding and net knitting at South Street Seaport, recorded descriptions of many heritage fishing methods on tape, and would happily talk about the river and fishing to anyone who asked.
Henry Gourdine passed away October 17, 1997 at the age of 94. Read his New York Times obituary.
In 2006, the New York Times published a retrospective on the impact of Henry Gourdine on local communities throughout the valley.
Henry Gourdine on Film
Henry Gourdine Oral History
The Hudson River Maritime Museum has an extensive collection of oral history recordings of Hudson River commercial fishermen. Marguerite Holloway interviewed Henry Gourdine several times between 1989 and 1994, covering a whole host of fishing-related topics. Those oral histories now reside at the Hudson River Maritime Museum and have been digitized for your listening and research pleasure. Click the button below to take a listen!
Henry Gourdine's Fishing Shack
Built in 1927, Henry Gourdine's fishing shed stood for decades along the Ossining waterfront. But the days of the working waterfront were over, and Ossining sold the property to developers in the early 2000s. By 2006, work was set to begin, and Henry's shed was not part of the for condominiums overlooked the Hudson River. Despite pleas from local conservationists and the Gourdine family, including a temporary injunction from a court, the shed was ultimately demolished in May, 2006.
Henry's fishing equipment and two boats were salvaged from inside and saved by Arts Westchester and family members.
Preservationist and cataloger of ruins Rob Yasinsac cataloged the shed and its contents in April, 2006, before it was bulldozed. Read his account and see more pictures.
Sadly, the development soon stalled, and ground was not broken on the condos until 2014.
Henry Gourdine Park
Perhaps as an apology for the demolition, the condominium development known as Harbor Square created a waterfront park and named it Henry Gourdine Park in honor of the man who fished off its shores for nearly 80 years.
The park was opened in June, 2018. You can learn more about the park and its amenities and visit yourself.
Did you ever meet Henry Gourdine? Have you ever fished on the Hudson River? What's your favorite Henry Gourdine story? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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The hamlet of New Baltimore is an unincorporated community of less than 200 homes situated on the west bank of the Hudson River approximately 15 miles south of Albany. From the river, New Baltimore is identified by several early nineteenth century houses with verandahs, the steeple of the Dutch Reformed Church and the squared bell tower of a former Methodist church. Driving through the hamlet, one might notice the well-preserved nineteenth century houses, carriage barns and church buildings, as well as the lawns and mature trees which contribute to its attractiveness. The core of the hamlet was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. At its height of its prosperity and physical development, New Baltimore was a substantial community with hotels, stores, hundreds of houses, docks and industries. Of the latter, shipbuilding and ice harvesting were dominant. Today’s New Baltimore reflects little of the urban density and industrial character typical of much of its waterfront during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The hamlet was first settled by several Dutch families and New Englanders at the end of the eighteenth century. By 1800, the place had accumulated two dozen houses and the name New Baltimore, often abbreviated as simply “Baltimore.” New Baltimore was strategically located just below an area of the river choked with islands and bars that often impeded ship navigation to Albany. One of these obstructions, the infamous “overslaugh” bottled up shipping during periods of low water. New Baltimore had the advantage of being below these obstructions and still close to Albany. A promotional map from 1809 encouraging investment in real estate describes the place as “commanding a spacious harbor and intersected by extensive turnpike roads opening a fair prospect for the mercantile and seafaring adventurer.”
Shipbuilding was clearly underway in New Baltimore by 1793 when the sloop Sea Flower was built by Nathan Dunbar. This was followed by more than a dozen new sloops, schooners and a brig built for the river trade and even trade with the West Indies. These sailing vessels tended to average 60 to 70 feet in length on deck and carried freight and passengers up and down the river while maintaining communications between Hudson River towns, New York City and southern New England. At least one New Baltimore sloop remained in service locally into the 1870s. The town’s yards also thrived repairing and rebuilding sailing vessels. By 1830, a community of shipbuilders, masters, owners and merchants had emerged building docks, warehouses, several shipyards and a series of mostly frame houses on small lots along what are now Main and Washington streets.
A drydock was added to New Baltimore’s yard facilities in 1835. Sloops continued to be built and repaired here into the 1850s, when steamboats and barges began to be produced. In 1858, Jedediah R. and Henry S. Baldwin purchased the Goldsmith and Ten Eyck shipyard and began a business that continued almost uninterrupted until 1919. The Baldwins built at least 100 steamboats, canal barges, hay barges, tugboats and a large steam dredge over their 61-year history and repaired many more. A marine railway was built at the company’s Mill Street yard in 1884 which facilitated the launching of new boats and the repair of passenger steamboats of all but the largest sizes. Among the more notable boats built here were the 182-foot sidewheeler Andrew Harder in 1863, 253-foot propeller steamboat Nuhpa in 1865, the sidewheel towboat Jacob Leonard in 1872, the 127-foot sidewheel steamboat G.V.S. Quackenbush in 1878 and the 139-foot hay and excursion barge Andrew M. Church in 1892. Between 1905 and 1906, 13 boats were launched at the Baldwin yard. Photographs of the yard taken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show the marine railway in use, new boats being built on the shoulders of the railway slip, an office and loft building, several storage buildings, a steam mill for sawing and planning lumber, a basin adjacent to the river to keep logs from drying and checking, several steam boxes with brick furnaces and teams of workers with caulking mallets in hand. Launches of the larger boats were often celebratory events for the community and recorded in photographs.
Small boats were also produced and serviced in New Baltimore. In the 1880s, Herrick & Powell produced yachts and launches with steam and early internal combustion engines. In 1898, William H. Couser moved his boat shop to Mill Street where he produced and repaired small craft for some years. The Baldwin firm built or repaired at least one small auxiliary schooner at its Mill Street yard and briefly operated a small yard nearby at Matthews Point for building smaller tugs.
New Baltimore’s mid and later nineteenth century prosperity was expressed in its fine homes and churches. Stylish homes with verandahs overlooking the river and sometimes distinctive cupolas were built by the town’s leading industrialists and merchants in the latest styles of the day. Steamboats connected New Baltimore to Albany, Hudson and ports in between and a five-story hotel was built on the town square. Large warehouses flanked the public dock and coal pockets were built near the steamboat dock and a short distance south on Mill Street. By the 1890s, the waterfront was flanked by enormous icehouses at its north and south ends and across the river on Hotaling Island.
New Baltimore’s decline was gradual. The West Shore Railroad by-passed the hamlet by more than a mile when service began in 1883, limiting the possibilities that direct rail service might have provided. Major fires in 1897, 1905, 1912 and 1929 largely destroyed the business center of the community. The natural ice industry declined during this same period due to public concerns over bacterial contamination from polluted river water and the simultaneous rise of clean manufactured ice.
The Baldwin shipyard was purchased by William Wade in 1919 and incorporated as the New Baltimore Shipbuilding and Repair Corporation. It may have built one or more wooden tugs. The last launch in town was the 90-foot wooden steamship Kittaning built in 1922 for the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island. Thereafter, the yard became a dock for Wade’s adapted sand and dredging company. While ideal for building wooden sloops, barges, tugs, ferries, and small to mid-sized steamboats, New Baltimore did not have enough available flat land along the river or the access to rail shipments necessary to create an efficient yard for building with steel. Steel shipbuilding succeeded elsewhere on the Hudson River where adequate land and infrastructure were available, notably at Kingston, Newburgh, and Cohoes.
With its prime industries lost, New Baltimore lost status, population, and a number of ancillary businesses that once thrived on its booming economy. Images taken by Office of War Information photographer John Collier, Jr. in October 1941 show a town with little apparent activity, dilapidated fences, unpainted porches and a waterfront with rotting barges. Buildings continued to be lost to fire and neglect and trees reclaimed industrial sites and yards. Areas of dense-packed housing were gradually thinned and by the 1970s, the town had lost as much as one-fourth of its historic building stock.
The hamlet’s stabilization and recovery, beginning in the 1970s, paralleled a broadened appreciation for the Hudson River and the gradual clean-up of its waters. Today, the hamlet is an attractive bedroom community for families and individuals with employment in adjacent communities and nearby cities. Its maritime heritage is echoed in the houses of the shipbuilders, captains, shipwrights and rivermen, the remains of the earth-filled docks and slips, a lone derrick, several subbing posts along the shoreline and the stone foundations of some of its lost buildings and industrial sites.
Bush, Clesson S. Episodes from a Hudson River Town, New Baltimore, New York. SUNY Albany, 2011.
Gambino, Anthony J. By the Shores of New Baltimore: Its Shipyards and Nautical History. Self-published C.D., 2009.
Historic photos courtesy of Town of New Baltimore Historian's Office and Greene County Historical Society.
Mark Peckham is a trustee of the Hudson River Maritime Museum and a retiree from the New York State Division for Historic Preservation.
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!
Most people familiar with CLEARWATER know the sloop was the brainchild of the late American folk legend and activist Pete Seeger. Pete was an idealist and an optimist. He once wrote, “There is a little Don Quixote in all of us.” You couldn’t tell him something couldn’t be done. But when you take a closer look at CLEARWATER’s story, it’s a miracle the boat was ever built at all.
At the time CLEARWATER was built, the “tall ship revival” was still a decade or two away. Yes, the first Operation Sail brought tall ships from around the world to New York Harbor in 1964, but no one was building new tall ships with one or two exceptions. There were vessels built that were replicas of specific ships, such as the MAYFLOWER II, launched in 1956, and the HMS BOUNTY, launched in 1962 and built specifically for the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. But to form a new not-for-profit to build a replica of a type of ship -- not even a famous historic ship? Nobody was doing that. Seeger and the fledgling Clearwater organization were ahead of the curve.
When Pete got interested in sailing and subsequently in Hudson River sloops -- the traditional cargo-carrying sailing vessels of the Hudson -- he got an idea. Maybe you could build a vessel that was so grand, so extraordinary, and one that had not sailed the river in a very long time, and maybe you could draw people down to the banks of a river that had long ago been forsaken. Pete saw potential where others did not and believed that if CLEARWATER could bring people to the river, then maybe it could help people to “love their river again.”
The challenges that the Clearwater organization faced were many. First and foremast, perhaps, was the fact that it was the 1960s. Pete Seeger had been blacklisted, and the Vietnam War was raging and becoming increasingly unpopular. So unpopular that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in a nationally televised address in March 1968 that he would not run for re-election. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of that year, sparking riots in over 100 American cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. In August, there were violent clashes between police and protesters in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
Years later, in recounting the early days of the sloop project, Pete would write:
It really seemed a frivolous idea. The world was full of agony; the Vietnam War was heating up. Money was needed for all sorts of life-and-death matters, and here we were raising money to build a sailboat.
It wasn’t just a turbulent civil and political climate, however, that made building CLEARWATER a challenge. There hadn’t been a Hudson River sloop built in over 100 years, and there were none left afloat.
Pete’s inspiration for building a Hudson River sloop came in 1963 after his friend Vic Schwarz loaned him a copy of the 1908 book Sloops of the Hudson, written by William Verplanck and Moses Collyer, two retired sloop captains. He read it through in one night. Some time elapsed before Pete wrote his friend a five-page letter, which started:
"One way to see if a pipe dream has any practicality is to get it down on paper. So I’m writing you now with the most grandiose and ambitious plan. It will make our wives groan. It will probably never get beyond the paper stage, but here goes:"
He wrote the letter and then forgot about it. It was September 1965. Vic did not forget the letter and began chatting up fellow commuters on the train to New York. That fall, Vic called up Pete and asked, “When are we going to start building that sloop?” Pete answered, “You must be kidding!”
Much of what we know about how the rest of the story unfolded is because in the 1960s people actually wrote letters and saved them. They also often saved carbon copies. Postage was inexpensive and long distance phone calls were most definitely not. After making a foray into the library at Mystic Seaport, Pete wrote a letter that December to Joel White, a boat designer and builder.
Joel was the son of the writer E. B. White and had a boatyard in Brooklin, Maine. White wrote back, telling Pete his shop was too small to build a boat that big, and he was too busy to do any design work. He did recommend naval architect Cyrus Hamlin of Southwest Harbor, Maine. “He is a fine architect, and I am sure you would like him,” Joel wrote.
The following month -- January 1966 -- Pete and Vic met with Cyrus Hamlin at the National Boat Show in New York City. Pete and Cy hit it off. Cy sent a formal letter to Pete in February, outlining his estimate for the cost of construction and a quotation for his design fee based on the estimate. In April, Pete wrote Cy a $500 personal check to cover the naval architect’s “advance research” on the Hudson River sloop.
Pete’s initial vision, as outlined in his letter to Vic, was for the sloop to be something like a floating timeshare. Off the top of his head, he estimated that a 55-foot sloop might cost $100,000 to build. That was more money than he and Vic could scrape together, so he suggested that they try to form “Hudson River Sloop Clubs” up and down the river. If there were 10 clubs, then each would have to raise $10,000 to build the vessel, and each club could sail the sloop for a week at a time.
Eventually, as we know, a non-profit formed. The Hudson River Sloop Restoration incorporated in September 1966. Interestingly enough, nowhere in the Articles of Incorporation is there any mention of the organization having an environmental purpose. Instead, the document states the purpose as:
"To acquaint people with matters relating to our cultural heritage; and to maintain and promote interest in the history of the Hudson River both as a commercial and pleasure artery; and in connection therewith to build, own, operate and exhibit replicas of the great sloops which once freely navigated the river, thereby generating a greater interest in our cultural heritage and an understanding of the contributions made to our culture and commerce by the river and the sloops which sailed it."
Also interesting is that multiple sloops are suggested and that there is no mention of actually sailing with passengers.
Whether or not the sloop could be classified as a “yacht” or would have to be classified as a “passenger-carrying vessel,” making it subject to United States Coast Guard regulations and inspection, was an important determination that had to be made. Having to comply with USCG regulations would make the sloop more expensive to build and operate. It would also mean that it could not be an historically accurate replica, and perhaps not even a very good-looking one.
At issue was the tragic sinking of the Brigantine ALBATROSS in 1961. A “school ship” carrying 13 American teenagers and five crew members went down in a sudden squall in the Gulf of Mexico. Six lives were lost, including four of the students. Although the ship was Panamanian registered, the USCG investigated the accident. Additional analysis resulted in the publication of On the Stability of Sailing Vessels by USCG officers John G. Beebe-Center and Richard B. Brooks in 1966. This work questioned the reliability of traditional stability assessment techniques for sailing vessels and would result in the adoption of more stringent USCG stability criteria.
While the Maine fleet of “windjammer” schooners had been grandfathered when it came to stability requirements, new vessels would now come under additional scrutiny because of the ALBATROSS, even those built prior to the publication of the Beebe-Center & Brooks paper. The schooner MARY DAY, built for the charter trade by Harvey Gamage and launched in 1962, somehow sailed beneath the Coast Guard’s radar. This was not the case for the topsail schooner SHENANDOAH, also built for the charter trade by Gamage and launched in 1964. Because SHENANDOAH did not satisfy the Coast Guard’s stability requirements, the schooner’s owner was not allowed to charge his passengers any fee for its entire first season. The following year, Capt. Bob Douglas was able to obtain a conditional stability letter.
Cy retained a Boston-based attorney in the spring of 1966 on behalf of Pete and the “sloop committee” to help facilitate a dialogue with the Coast Guard and explore various possibilities for the future vessel’s operation. Not coincidentally, Douglas had used this same attorney for his legal troubles. One option that was explored was to form a cooperative, wherein all the members of the cooperative would be considered “shareholders” and thereby owners of the vessel. The Coast Guard rejected this approach. Ultimately, Cy convinced HRSR to build their sloop to meet Coast Guard regulations, very likely the very first sailing vessel built to meet the new, more onerous stability requirements. This was not until as late as May or June of 1968, and there was still no plan to actually carry paying passengers.
When, exactly, Pete realized that the sloop could be a tool to help clean up the river, we don’t know. However, in a New York Times article written following the organization’s first major fundraiser on October 2, 1966, he is quoted as follows:
"Some people might think it’s the most frivolous thing in the world to raise money for a sailboat. But we want people to love the Hudson, not think of it as a convenient sewer."
Despite Pete’s “green” inclinations, clearly many people within the organization were solely interested in maritime history and had no interest in being standard-bearers for the environmental movement. This is reflected in the results of a membership vote to name the sloop in March of 1969. There were 44 names nominated. Some of them were pretty silly, such as GREASY LUCK and SEWER RAT. In the end, the name CLEARWATER narrowly edged out HERITAGE, with HOPE OF THE HUDSON placing third.
While there may not have been existing Hudson River sloops for Cy to study, he was able to research the vessel through builders’ half-hull models, periodicals and reference works, including John W. Griffith’s Treatise on Marine and Naval Architecture, published in 1850, and Lauchlan McKay’s The Practical Shipbuilder, published in 1839. He gleaned information about rigging details through paintings, period photographs and even a placemat or two that he discovered in a gift shop. He also had access to photos and drawings from Howard Chapelle, the great American naval architect and maritime historian, who was then a senior historian at the Smithsonian Institution. “Chap” provided Cy with the lines of the 1848 sloop VICTORINE and two others.
Ultimately, Pete and company decided their sloop should measure approximately 75 feet long as this would allow for more headroom below decks. Cy presented preliminary drawings at the organization’s annual membership meeting on November 5, 1967.
By late January of 1968, Cy had performed the necessary work to put the sloop project out to bid. He sent bidding documents to at least three yards in Maine and three in New York, including Rondout Marine. Cy also inquired with at least two yards overseas – one in Spain and another in Yugoslavia – where he had connections. Soliciting a bid from a foreign yard was not his idea. The organization thought that a foreign-built vessel might be less expensive. So Cy also agreed to look into shipyards in Nova Scotia. It was his opinion however that “the desirability of a yard is probably inversely proportional to the distance from the United States.” In the end, Harvey F. Gamage, Shipbuilder, Inc. of South Bristol, Maine came in with the lowest bid of those yards that submitted bids -- there is no evidence that any foreign yard did -- and was awarded the contract.
Construction of the sloop began in August 1968. There was a keel-laying ceremony at the shipyard on October 18 attended by about 50 HRSR members. Toshi Seeger anointed the length of the sloop’s keel with Hudson River water, and Pete led everyone in song. After two-years of recruiting new members and vigorous fundraising, there was finally something concrete to celebrate. Over the next several months, however, a lot more money still needed to be raised. Approximately 200 guests attended a special fundraiser hosted by Mr. & Mrs. Steven Rockefeller at the Rockefeller Farm Barn at Pocantico Hills in November. There were informational meetings and slide show presentations at rotary clubs, libraries and coffee houses. Numerous concerts were held, including a sold out performance at Carnegie Hall in April 1969.
Three larger gifts -- $10,000 each -- came from the Boscobel Restoration, Inc., the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund, and the Rockefeller Family Fund.
On May 17, a crowd of about 2,500 gathered at the shipyard. People packed inside the boatshed to hear speeches and celebrate the occasion with song. At approximately 12:30 PM -- high tide -- Clearwater slid down the marine railway and into the waters of a quiet cove alongside the Damariscotta River. The schooner BOWDOIN was in attendance, as was Maine’s governor, Kenneth Curtis. It was a belated birthday present for Pete, who had turned 50 precisely two weeks earlier.
Over the course of the next six weeks, the ship’s crew got busy rigging, fitting out, and provisioning the vessel. There were sea trials and Coast Guard inspections. But before the sloop could leave South Bristol, the shipbuilder needed to be paid in full. In the days before the sloop set sail, Toshi Seeger frantically called up a number of friends -- people she and Pete knew from the folk music world -- to secure personal loans to pay the bill. The Newport Folk Festival loaned the organization $10,000. The Seegers chipped in another $7,000.
Finally, on June 27, the sloop set sail for Portland, the first stop on its journey. One of the plans to raise money was to give a series of concerts at various ports-of-call between Maine and New York on the sloop’s maiden voyage. To this end, most of the sailing crew was made up of musician friends of Pete’s. Billed as the “Hudson River Sloop Singers,” the group included Pete, Capt. Allan Aunapu, Louis Killen, Gordon Bok, Don McLean, Jimmy Collier, Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. They made about 20 appearances including at The Fens in Boston and the Newport Folk Festival. The money raised made it possible to begin to repay those loans.
On August 1, 1969, CLEARWATER tied up at South Street Seaport to much fanfare and with New York City Mayor John Lindsay onboard. What had started as a “pipe dream” nearly four years earlier was now a reality. A Hudson River sloop would be sailing the river once again.
Fifty years later, CLEARWATER is still sailing. From on board, hundreds of thousands of school children -- and group sail participants of all ages -- have experienced the beauty and wonder of the Hudson River ecosystem. CLEARWATER’S award-winning education program has provided a model for organizations around the country, and the sloop remains a powerful symbol in the fight for clean water and a healthier, greener planet.
Betsy Garthwaite is a former captain of the sloop CLEARWATER. She first stepped on board the sloop in 1983 as a volunteer with no previous sailing experience. She resides in Kingston and works at the Ulster Performing Arts Center.
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue of the Pilot Log. 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.
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