Mr. Olcott Walks the Ice
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 January 23, 1972.
For a number of years prior to World War I, the Hudson River Day Line always layed up the “Mary Powell” and the “Albany’’ for the winter at the Sunflower Dock at Sleightsburgh on Rondout Creek. At that time, Mr. Eben E. Olcott was president of the Day Line.
During the winter of 1917, both the ‘Powell’’ and the ‘Albany’ were, as usual, layed up at the Sunflower Dock. Across the creek on the Rondout side, both Donovan and Feeney had boat yards.
Both shipyards had built canal barges and launched them in the ice. Also, they were loading the new barges with ice to ship to New York when navigation opened again in the spring. And, where they had taken in the ice, there were various channels cut in a multiplicity of different ways. Anybody not knowing this and trying to walk over the ice at night would be necessarily taking his life in his own hands.
Snow and Sleet
On the night I am writing about, it started to snow and sleet about 6 p.m. And, at that time, Phil Maines of Rondout was the ship keeper on the ‘‘Mary Powell.”
About 11 p.m. Phil thought he would take a walk around to see if everything was all right before taking a nap. As he started up the companionway, he thought he heard someone walking on the deck above and trying to open the doors. He knew he had left one door unlocked, so he went up on deck and stood in the dark behind the unlocked door, waiting for whoever it was to come in.
After a while the door slid back and a man walked in. Phil, standing in the dark, said, “Stick up your hands! Who’s there?”
The reply came back swiftly, “It’s Mr. Olcott, Phil, only me. I thought I’d drop around and see if everything was all right.”
He was Lonesome
So, together, they went down to the winter kitchen, which was on the main deck for the keeper’s use in winter, and had a cup of coffee. Mr. Olcott said he was staying over night in Kingston, had gotten a little lonesome and so thought he would come over and see Phil for awhile. After he had stayed for about 15 minutes, he said he was tired and thought he’d go back to his hotel and get some rest before morning. Phil took him back across the creek, this time with a lantern.
How Mr. Olcott ever got over to the “Powell” without falling through the ice in the many ice channels was not only a streak of good luck for the president of the Hudson River Day Line, but something of a miracle in itself.
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.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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