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 February 18, 1973.
"THE STEAMBOAT “RENSSELAER” PASSES ALBANY on Jan. 29, 1913, the date of her mid-winter excursion. Although her flags and pennants are flying in mid-summer fashion, the floating ice in the Hudson and the very few people in deck testify to the frigid temperatures." Image originally published with article, February 18, 1973.
In days gone by, steamboat excursions were commonplace. Almost without exception, they were offered during the summer and occasionally in the late spring or early autumn. One highly unusual excursion - probably the only one of its type - took place in the dead of winter on Sunday, Jan. 29, 1913.
On that winter’s Sunday, the steamboat “Rensselaer” of the Hudson Navigation Company was chartered for an excursion by the Troy Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, No. 141. From Troy down the river to Hudson and return. The story of that long ago excursion was related to me by the late Francis “Dick” Chapman of New Baltimore, one of the pilots of the “Rensselaer” the day of that wintry sail on the river.
Dick said the sky was overcast, and it was a day when the cold “would penetrate right to your bones.” About 10 a.m. it started to snow and the river was full of floating cakes of ice. They were scheduled to leave Troy at 12:30 p.m.
On the way down river, they were held up briefly at the first railroad drawbridge by a crossing freight train. When the bridge opened and the “Rensselaer” got in the draw, she lay there until the Maiden Lane Bridge, downstream, opened. She eventually passed the Night Line dock at Albany at 1:45 p.m.
Down at Van Wies Point, below Albany, the river was covered with ice from shore to shore and the “Rensselaer” had to make a new channel. As she was going through the ice her paddle wheels would throw the ice up against the steel lining of her wheel batteries.
It sounded like crashing thunder. One could hear the noise all through the streamer.
Although they were originally scheduled to go down river as far as Hudson, Dick told me the visibility was so poor and the ice so heavy, they decided to go only as far as Castleton. There, they turned around and went back up river to Troy. They steamed slowly on the return so as to give the Elks their full time afloat. Since the visibility left much to be desired, it was somewhat questionable if the excursionists would have been able to see any more of the river if they had gone all the way on to Hudson.
A few years later, the Night Line decided to try and operate year round service. The “Rensselaer” and her sister steamer “Trojan” were chosen for the operation. On one of the “Rensselaer’s” trips down river, she was passing a Cornell tow fast in the ice off Germantown. When the “Rensselaer” tried to pull out of the tracker and break into the solid ice to pass the tow, she sheared off right into the tow. The Cornell helper tug “George W. Pratt” - laying alongside the tow - couldn’t get out of the way and the guard of the “Rensselaer,” before they could get her stopped, went over the rail of the “Pratt” and shifted and damaged her deck house.
With damages like that to the “Pratt,” and - after every trip - having to make repairs to the paddle wheel buckets and required to put new bushings in the arms of the feathering paddle wheels, the Night Line soon found the project to be too costly. Side wheel steamboats were just impractical for operation in the ice.
During that short period when the “Rensselaer” and “Trojan” attempted to operate during the winter, old boatmen told me on a clear, cold night they could hear the “Rensselaer” or “Trojan” at Port Ewen when the steamers were up around Barrytown or on the up trip, as far away as Esopus Island. They would hear their paddle wheel pounding and breaking the ice and crashing the broken ice cakes against the steel paddle wheel housings.
The captains and pilots of the night steamers on the river deserved a tremendous amount of credit for their skill in operating those old side wheelers in all kinds of weather. Unlike the captains and pilots of the day steamers that usually operated during the daylight in the best months of the year, the night boats would run from early spring to late fall and encounter lots of fog, snow or whatever came their way.
The upper end of the Hudson in particular is very narrow, and the night boat men always had tows, yachts, and floating derricks and dredges to content with. Regardless of the weather, almost always they would bring their big steamboats into Albany on time. Those captains and pilots were, as they say, “right on the button.”
The “Rensselaer” and the “Trojan” were cases in point. From the time they entered service in 1909 until the end of their service in the latter 1930’s, they rarely had a mishap. Probably the most serious mishap to the “Rensselaer” occurred on Sept. 27, 1833 when she was in a collision with an ocean freighter off Poughkeepsie. This incident will be the subject of a later article.
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.
Need a break from the snow and cold? Take a virtual tour of the Hudson River in 1949!
Featuring the historic Hudson River steamboat Robert Fulton, this 1949 film by the The Reorientation Branch Office of the Undersecretary Department of the Army, discusses the reorganization of the Hudson River Day Line Company briefly, before diving into a film version of what a trip up the Hudson would have looked like at that time. Lots of beautiful shots of the boats themselves as well as the Hudson River Day Line Pier in Manhattan. Sights seen include the New York skyline, George Washington Bridge, Palisades, the Ghost Fleet, a visit to Bear Mountain State Park, Sugar Loaf Mountain, West Point, Storm King Mountain, Bannerman's Island, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, taking the bus to FDR's home in Hyde Park, Sunnyside, and back again.
The Robert Fulton was built in 1909 in Camden, New Jersey by the New York Shipbuilding Co. for Hudson River Day Line. It operated from 1909-1954. In 1956 it was sold for conversion to a community center in the Bahamas.
Many thanks to the Town of Clinton Historical Society for sharing this wonderful film.
In 2004 the Steamship Historical Society of America produced the documentary film, "Steamboats: On the Hudson." Featuring footage from rarely seen private collections and from public archives, including scenes of the famous Robert Fulton, the last Hudson steamboat powered by a walking-beam engine. Historian Roger Mabie of Port Ewen contributes his first-hand knowledge of Hudson River steamboat history, and noted steam expert Conrad Milster offers perspective on the machinery that drove the era. The film also features Hudson River Maritime Museum Curator Emerita, Allynne Lange.
In April, 2020, the Steamship Historical Society of America shared this documentary film on their YouTube channel, which allows us to share it with you!
For over 150 years steamboats ruled the Hudson River, carrying passengers and freight between Albany and New York, and the many river communities in between. This program looks back at the golden age of steam, when spit and polish, and elegant surroundings marked a style of travel that has now disappeared.
The Hudson is where steam navigation began, and it is where the American river steamer reached its ultimate expression, with enormous paddle-wheeled vessels carrying over 5,000 passengers.
Featuring still photographs, historic film footage, and interviews, "Steamboats: On the Hudson" documents the evolution of steam vessels on the Hudson, from the early 1800s up to the final trip of the steamer Alexander Hamilton in 1971.
We hope you enjoy this engaging and informative documentary film.
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!
Editor's Note: This detailed account of the fire on the Citizens' Line steamer City of Troy at Dobbs Ferry is from the April 6, 1907 New York Times. The tone of the article reflects the time period in which it was written.
CITY OF TROY BURNS IN HUDSON
The Old River Steamer Lands Her 65 Passengers Just in Time.
A FIRE OFF DOBBS FERRY
Captain the Last to Leave After Bringing Her to Edwin Gould's Pier.
BOAT A WRECK IN AN HOUR
Fire Started in Mid-River at 9 o'clock - No Panic - Some Passengers , Helped Fight the Flames.
With her hold a mass of crackling flames, the big steamer City of Troy of the Citizens' Line, a wooden side-wheeler, 280 feet long, on which were 65 passengers, plowed through the Hudson at full speed last night, her Captain endeavoring to find a pier to which he might tie long enough to land the passengers and crew. The City of Troy was on the Jersey side of the river off Yonkers, going up the river, when the fire was discovered, and it was an hour later before she was finally tied up at the private pier of Edwin Gould at Dobbs Ferry. There every passenger was safely landed. Mate W. S. Eagle was the only one overcome by smoke. He was taken ashore and soon recovered. The vessel, an hour later, was a blackened mass burned to the water's edge.
Some of the passengers who had retired early, were already asleep when shortly after 8 o'clock tiny puffs of smoke creeping up through hatches and companionways were noticed by other passengers and deckhands.
The fire alarm signal was rung through the boat and the crew rushed to their places, while terrified passengers rushed to the decks begging to be told what had happened. Many had been awakened from sleep by the alarm, and these, rushing on deck, added to the excitement. In the meantime the flames had been found in the hold amidships.
It is thought detective insulation on the electric wiring in the pantry started the fire. It gained rapid headway, eating its way fore and aft and licking at the deck above. Several streams of water were quickly turned into the hold and a desperate fight was made to check the flames. Many of the more cool-headed of the passengers joined with the crew in handling hose and carrying water.
Across the River on Fire.
Despite their efforts[,] the flames continued to gain headway. When it was seen that there was no longer hope of saving the boat[,] Capt Charles H. Bruder turned his vessel's head off the shore and rung for full speed ahead. Straight across the river the boat ploughed, and at the Dobbs Ferry pier an effort was made to tie up.
For some reason the boat could not be made fast, and, despairingly, Capt. Bruder turned toward the pier of the Manila Anchor Brewery. The terror of the passengers was redoubled when it was found that here also the boat would be unable to land. By this time, too, the flames had gained dangerous headway and the passengers crowded on to the upper decks.
When the vessel approached Dobbs Ferry there was to those ashore no sign of fire aboard except a cloud of smoke trailing off to the stern, as she ran shoreward, and her whistles for help did not seem justified to those who saw her approaching.
There was no panic aboard as the boat neared land. All hands were ready to leave as quickly and quietly as might be. Planks were run out to the pier, and everybody got off safely, though it was said none of the baggage was saved. There being only a few passengers, they got off in two minutes.
Some time after she landed the vessel drifted away from the pier somewhat. She was then ablaze from stem to stern. Capt. Bruder was the last man off and he left in a rowboat.
When the steamboat was laid alongside the pier the crew had knocked out the forerail and had a gangplank ready to run out. It took but a couple of minutes to get the passengers ashore and on to the tracks of the Central Railroad. The fire broke out all over the vessel, flames breaking forth in a dozen places just as the last of the passengers got ashore.
Running toward the east side of the river, the steamboat had been running with the wind, so that there did not seem to be much draught for the fire, but once she stopped and the wind began to whistle through her the flames seemed to leap out in a dozen places.
The fire swept through the boat within a very few minutes. All effort had to be turned toward saving the brewery and the pier as well as the cottage on the pier. The latter was saved, as was the brewery, but a portion of the pier will have to be rebuilt, even to the pilings as the fire extended to it.
Then Capt Bruder ran his boat toward Mr. Gould's dock. Here at last he was able to make fast, and with the flames crackling almost at their heels[,] the passengers were tossed and tumbled over the gang planks to the pier.
The Dobbs Ferry Fire Department had turned out as the blazing City of Troy was seen approaching the town, and the men set to work to save the steamer. Their work was hopeless, however, and the flames were already eating into the upper works of the steamer when the word flashed through the crowd that a woman passenger was still asleep in her berth.
Alfred Smith and Robert Wilson of the Fire Department immediately darted down into the burning cabin. Choking with the dense smoke they fought their way from stateroom to stateroom until they came to one which was locked.
Sleeping Passenger Saved.
Putting their shoulders to the door they smashed it in. In the berth they found a woman, whom neither smoke nor noise had awakened. She had not been overcome by smoke, however, and grabbing her in their arms, Smith and Wilson rushed with her to the deck. From here she was got safely ashore.
In the meantime the flames had been communicated to the pier, and this, too, soon blazing fiercely, driving the firemen, back foot by foot, until at last they were compelled to abandon all hopes of saving the vessel. On board of her were thirteen horses, besides a valuable cargo of freight. All the horses and the freight were lost.
Before the firemen were driven from the pier an effort was made to reach the horses. Several men dropped into the burning hold, but it was quickly found that the horses could not be reached.
The passengers hurried to the railroad station after leaving the boat, and many of them returned to this city on the 11:30 o'clock train, while others left for Troy shortly after midnight.
STORIES OF PASSENGERS.
All Praise Bravery of Capt. Bruder, Who Was Last to Leave.
Seven passengers and about twenty-five members of the City of Troy's crew arrived at the Grand Central Station on the 12:53 train from Yonkers this morning. The passengers looked very little the worse for their experience, but it was different with most of the crew.
They were asleep in their bunks when the fire was discovered, and as the quarters were close to where the fire started they had no time to get together their belongings. Several of the negro stewards when they got to New York had on only an undershirt, overalls, shoes, and a blanket. They were bareheaded, and were still wondering what had happened when sadly they walked down the platform of the Grand Central.
On only one point did those who got here this morning agree, and that was the bravery of Capt. Bruder, the skipper of the City of Troy. The skipper, all said, was the bravest man on the boat, and it was not until the last person had been safely landed that he made his way through the smoke to the gangway that led to Edwin Gould's dock at Dobbs Ferry.
"I was in the engine room watching the machinery;" said Carl Carlson of 5 Water Street, this city, "when the fire was discovered. I immediately ran up on deck and made my way to the bridge. where I informed Capt. Bruder what was the matter. I never saw a cooler man than that Hudson River skipper. He did not lose his head for a single second. He called his officers to him and then ordered every man to the place assigned to him in the fire drill.
Captain Reassures Passengers.
Then he made his way to the saloon where the passengers were and begged them to keep cool and trust to him to get them to land. He said that we were in danger, but that the greatest danger of all was a panic. When we got ashore he told us to meet him at the police station and he would furnish us transportation to wherever we wished to go. Then the skipper rushed back to the bridge and guided the boat to the pier at Dobbs Ferry. So far as I know no one was lost, although I did hear that two men had jumped overboard but were rescued.
"The passengers had just finished dinner and were making themselves known to one another in the saloon," said R. H. Keller of Troy, "when the skipper came into the saloon and informed us in a cool business-like way that bad luck had come our way, and that the boat was on fire. Several of the women appeared to be on the verge of going into hysterics, but the skipper had foreseen all that and assured them that the greatest danger of all lay in their losing their heads. Then he told us what to do and where to go, and hurried back to his place on the bridge.
"It was as cool a piece of work as I have ever seen under such serious conditions. 'Meet me at the police station and I'll send you home,' the skipper said as he hurried out of the saloon."
As far as I was able to ascertain," said Frank Fletcher, one of the engineers of the City of Troy, "the fire started in the pantry, which is located on the main deck about amidships. I have not yet learned the cause, but imagine that defective insulation must have started it. The moment the skipper realized what the matter was[,] he headed straight for Dobbs Ferry. There was not any panic, and we did not lose a soul, either among the passengers or the crew."
Four Streams Didn't Check Flames.
"When the fire alarm was sounded Capt Bruder hustled every man to the place assigned to him in the fire drill, and soon we had four streams playing on the fire. Despite our efforts the flames gained rapidly on us, and in a few minutes after we bumped up against the dock at Dobbs Ferry the boat was a mass of flames from stem to stern.
"We were going at full speed when the fire started, that is, about 14 knots an hour. The most pitiful incident of the fire was the loss of seven [or 13?] fine horses that we had on board. We all wanted to save the poor beasts, but it was impossible to do so. I do not know to whom the animals belonged."
Michael Murray and Thomas O'Hara were two of the crew that arrived here this morning. They did the talking for their fellows and all agreed that they were mighty lucky to get back to New York alive.
Most of these men were asleep when the fire drill was sounded. They did not stop to pick up any of their personal belongings, but hustled on deck to help try put out the fire. O'Hara said that Capt. Bruder had to be taken off the ship in a lifeboat, as the vessel was ablaze from stem to stern on the landing side when the skipper deserted the boat, after the last of the passengers were taken off.
Some of the others said that O'Hara was mistaken in this and that the skipper had left the boat via the gangplank, which he reached by a perilous groping through the smoke that enveloped the ship.
The negro cooks and stewards were the great sufferers and saved almost nothing at all. Several of them had very few clothes on last night and were trying to keep themselves warm with blankets that had been given them by kindhearted people in Dobbs Ferry.
One of the crew said that one of the officers found a crowd of fifteen excited Italians preparing to jump overboard. He remained among them until the boat landed, after issuing a standing threat to brain the first man that moved, with a belaying-pin. The Italian re[m]ained quiet.
The City of Troy was a wooden side-wheel steamboat, 280.6 feet long and 38 feet in breadth, drawing ten feet of water. She was built in Brooklyn in 1876 for inland passenger service, and had continued in the Hudson River service for the Citizens' Steamboat Company since. She cost $250,000 originally. Her gross tonnage was 1,527, and net tonnage 1,280. The steamboat had a crew of forty-eight men and 200 staterooms.
Some thirteen years ago, when the present management of the Citizens Line assumed control, the boat was remodeled at a cost of $150,000. On each deck she was provided with fire cocks and hose. The officers and crew have always been considered most efficient, and were well versed in the fire drill.
Thank you to HRMM volunteer George Thompson, retired New York University reference librarian, for sharing these glimpses into early life in the Hudson Valley. Thank you to HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer for transcribing these articles.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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