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 originally published July 4, 1976.
When I was pilot and captain of the tugboat “Callanan No. 1” from 1946 until 1954, we had a steward by the name of Ed Carpenter from Port Ewen. In addition to being the best cook on the river, he was also an excellent story teller. On more than one occasion, he would recall the summer months of 1910 when Halley’s Comet was streaking through the heavens. He would also recall the days of another generation when the natural ice business was a big employer of men along the Hudson.
At the time when Halley’s Comet was at its most spectacular, Ed Carpenter was cook on a repair barge of the Knickerbocker Ice Company by the name of “Beverwick.” During the summer of 1910, the “Beverwick” was tied up at the old ice house dock on Rattlesnake Island, just north of Coxsackie.
Ed would relate how, night after night, he and other members of the ice house gang would sit on deck and watch with awe as Halley’s Comet would go through the skies. Apparently, the comet had a fiery tail that never failed to amaze the comet watchers.
A more earthly sight that also enthralled the comet fans was the passage of the big Albany night boats — the “Adirondack” and the “C.W. Morse,” the largest steamboats on the river. Along the upper reaches of the Hudson, where the river is so narrow, they, too, were a particularly impressive sight.
In the narrow channel the huge steamers would dwarf everything else. As they glided past with their hundreds of electric lights, their names spelled out in large electric signs on their hurricane decks, and their search lights probing the darkness of the night, they would appear to be one of mankind's most wondrous achievements.
After the Albany night boat would pass from sight, Ed would turn in for a night’s rest, for it was up at 3:30 a.m. to start the hearty breakfast for the men working at the ice house, loading the ice barges for the New York market.
In those days, before the invention of the home electric refrigerator, almost everyone used ice. And most of the ice for the New York City area would come from the Hudson River north of Poughkeepsie. A traveller on the upper Hudson would never be out of sight of an ice house — those huge wooden structures with double walls filled with sawdust that housed the winter’s harvest.
The ice harvest would follow a fixed and then familiar pattern. In the fall of the year, after pulling ice wagons through the streets of New York all summer, the ice company’s horses would be herded to the New York piers where they would board a steamboat to the upper Hudson ice houses.
There they would be stationed until needed on the ice.
Once the river froze over, generally in January, the ice harvest would begin. Large numbers of men, usually boatmen layed off for the winter months, would be hired. The horses would then be put to work and used to pull plows to scrape off the snow covering the ice, pull the markers to lay out the ice field, and to help pull the cut ice through the ice channels to the ice house elevators. During a good winter, the same ice field might be harvested several times in order to fill the ice house.
In the spring of the year, the horses would go back to New York by steamboat to resume their summer job of pulling the ice wagons through the city streets. The ice itself would all be transported to New York by ice barges and a gang of men would be employed at the ice houses to load the barges.
An ice barge was somewhat like a floating box. The ice would be loaded on the inside of the box — the barge's hold — so that as much of the barge as possible, when loaded, would be set low in the water to use the lower river temperatures to keep the ice melting to a minimum.
A river watcher could always spot an ice barge for it would invariably have a wind mill atop the barge. The wind mill served the practical purpose of operating the barge’s pumps to pump overboard the water from the melting ice as the barge was towed down river. There would be tows on the river during the summer that would consist solely of dozens of nested ice barges.
The electric refrigerator and artificial ice making brought the natural ice industry to an abrupt end. The ice barges soon disappeared from the scene. The huge ice houses gradually passed from the river's banks. Some were torn down, others burned to the ground in rather impressive conflagrations, and a very few survived until the 1940’s for the growing of mushrooms. Like Halley’s Comet, the natural ice industry was a great show while it lasted.
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.