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 November 4, 1973.
Now that the early morning fogs of autumn and the duck hunting season are both with us, I recall an incident in my youth when I went duck hunting and got lost in the fog.
One time in my late teens in October 1927, I went down to the flats at Sleightsburgh to hunt ducks. When I got down on the shore to get my duck boat it was about 3:30 a.m., still very dark and with a heavy autumn fog. I could hear ducks quacking out around the old Rondout lighthouse, which still stood along the south dike of Rondout Creek quite a ways in from the present Creek entrance.
I started out over the flats planning to follow the shore and then follow the dryed up purple loose leaf weeds to the area near the old lighthouse station. However, on my way out somehow or other I got a little too smart for my own good and lost sight of the shore line. It seemed that no matter in which direction I thought I rowed, I couldn’t find the shore. Even the ducks stopped quacking.
I kept on rowing, figuring I had to end up some place. In the distance, I could hear some steamboat blowing its whistle periodically with one long blast. I would stop and listen, thinking I would hear something on shoe. There wasn’t a sound through the murk except that steamboat whistle which kept getting closer and closer. Obviously, I had rowed out into the middle of the river and was either in or near the channel.
Shortly, I began to hear the thump, thump, thump – thump, thump, thump of the steamboat’s paddle wheels. I realized it was one of the Albany night boats. I wasn’t sure as to just what I should do for I certainly didn’t relish the thought of getting run down by the Albany night liner in the middle of the fog enshrouded Hudson. So I fired my shotgun into the air so I would have an empty shell to blow like a whistle. When I fired my gun, I could hear the thumping of the paddle wheels slow right down.
I suppose the pilots of the steamboat knew they were close to something, but didn’t know what. I kept blowing on my empty shell, and by the sound of the steamer’s whistle. I knew they were going by me. In a few moments I could feel the steamer’s waves going by me, so I knew the danger of getting run down was past. The fog was so thick I didn’t even see the vessel’s lights.
I still didn’t know which way to go, so I just sat still and drifted with the tide. After a while I could hear another steamboat blowing her fog signal. By the sound of her whistle, I recognized her as the freight steamer Storm King of the Catskill Evening Line. Her whistle, however, was quite a ways off so I knew there was no danger. About five minutes later, her little swells passed by me and I could hear both boats getting further away as they went on up river.
After daylight broke I was still drifting with the ebb tide. Finally I drifted into shore alongside the remains of the old towboat Norwich, which was being broken up at lower Port Ewen. That incident taught me a lesson – never try to go out in a fog without a compass. It can be a very lonely and unnerving experience.
Some years later in October of the middle 1930’s, I was pilot on the tugboat Lion of the Cornell Steamboat Company and coming down the upper Hudson with a good sized tow. It set in foggy at New Baltimore and the fog continued heavy all the way to Athens.
When opposite Coxsackie at about 8 a.m. the fog was particularly dense. All of a sudden I could hear people talking and a bell ringing out in the middle of the river. So I took the megaphone and asked what it was. The reply came back it was the Queen Mary.
Now, lest you think the former giant Cunarder of that name had sailed right by New York and somehow got to the upper Hudson, there was also a small diesel ferryboat – not much bigger than the old Skillypot – that carried the rather improbable name of Queen Mary. At that time, she was running back and forth between Coxsackie and Newton Hook.
After the ferryboat identified herself, the voice in the fog said they were anchored on the middle ground off Coxsackie. The voice further said. “Be careful. You are going up inside Coxsackie Island.”
Now, if I were to be going up inside Coxsackie Island I would have to be going in the opposite direction I was headed. I certainly knew my compass course was south and my whistle echoes were all in good order. It wasn’t me who was mixed up, it was the ferryboat. Obviously, anchored in the thick fog they had swung around with the tide and didn’t realize in what direction they were heading. I continued on and eventually ran out of the fog off Athens.
I often wondered who it could have been on that ferryboat who was so balled up in his directions he was 180 degrees off in the direction he thought he was headed. But, that’s the way one can easily find himself in heavy foggy weather. Intuition is no substitute for a good compass.
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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