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.
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The D&H Canal and the Hudson River
The Hudson River was integral to the development of the Delaware and Hudson Canal. The Canal was conceived by Philadelphia dry goods merchants Maurice and Charles Wurts in the second decade of the 19th century, in order to transport anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines to New York City. The coal traversed the 108-mile-long Canal, winding through the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink, Bashakill, Sandburgh and Rondout valleys before arriving at the Hudson River near Kingston, NY. From there, the cargo would travel south on the Hudson for over eighty miles to supply the primary market in New York City. Coal was also shipped north to Albany—about forty-five miles—and from there it could be transported on the Erie Canal to support the westward expansion of the population.
Island Dock in the Rondout Creek showing coal loader machines made by the Dodge Coal Storage Co. of Philadelphia. The canal boats behind the steamboat have had their rear compartments 'hipped', the addition of higher sidewalls to accommodate a greater load, and appear to possibly rafted together to be towed by the steamboat. D&H Canal Historical Society Collection, #73.22.
Benjamin Wright (the chief engineer of the middle section of the Erie Canal) oversaw the original plans for the D&H Canal, which date from 1823. He believed that “the Canal boats may navigate the Hudson. A steam boat of 50 horse power will tow ten of them, and if double manned will perform the trip to New York and back in 2 days, the distance 100 miles.” However, the earliest canal boats, which were 75 feet long and 9 feet wide, with a capacity 30 tons, proved unsuitable for travel on the river. As a result, coal had to be offloaded from canal boats to other vessels at Rondout for transport on the Hudson River—a time-consuming and costly process. In Steamboats for Rondout Donald Ringwald writes, “...the canalboats obviously had to be small size and because of this and a need to keep them on their regular work, they generally did not go beyond the Company works on Rondout Creek.” By 1831, the Company had begun purchasing barges for use on the Hudson. The first two were the Lackawanna (146 feet in length) and the James Kent (135 feet in length), and to tow them, the D&H Canal Company “chartered and then purchased an elderly sidewinder named Delaware.”
As the Canal Company prospered, the Canal was enlarged. In the 1840s, the depth was incrementally increased from four to five feet, with no change in the original width of thirty-two feet. In 1847, anticipating increased traffic from a deal with the Wyoming Coal Association (which later became the Pennsylvania Coal Company) to transport their coal on the D&H Canal, the company enlarged the waterway, which reached its final depth of six feet and width of forty to fifty feet by 1850. The new dimensions of the Canal accommodated boats that were ninety-one feet long, fourteen and a half feet wide, and could carry up to 130 tons of coal.
Safe navigation of the Hudson was considered so important that, in a letter dated January 21, 1852 from head engineer Russel Farnum Lord to President John Wurts, a discussion of the new boats for the enlarged canal noted: “The Birdsall Lattice Boats derive their advantage of carrying the largest cargoes, mainly, if not entirely, from the difference in their weight when light – Their plan of construction however is such that there is a reason to doubt their durability and substantial ability for use on the river.” Later, referring to boats from a different builder, he wrote: “From the experience had, it is evident that the Round Bow Section Scows are, and will be, the best and most desirable for the Coal Canal business – With them an important and permanent reduction in the rate of freight may be established – The only draw back is, whether they will be competent for the river transportation.” The cost of handling the coal at Rondout was uppermost in their minds and the larger boats that the company ordered proved Hudson River – worthy.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, rafts of up to 100 canal scows were frequently encountered on the Hudson. On August 18, 1889 The New York Times wrote:
Very few persons who journey up or down the Hudson River either upon the palatial steamers or upon the railway trains that run along both banks of this great waterway know how great an amount of wealth is daily floated to this city on the canalboats and barges that compose the immense tows that daily leave West Troy, Lansingburg, Albany, Kingston, and other points along the river bound for this city…. From Kingston, which is the tide-water outlet of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, another class of merchandise is shipped in the same manner. From the mouth of the Rondout Creek, which forms the harbor of the thriving and busy city of Kingston, can be seen emerging every evening huge rafts of canalboats, tall-masted down-Easters, and barges of various sorts, laden with coal, ice, hay, lumber, lime, cement, bluestone, brick, and country produce. Many of these craft have received their cargoes at the wharves of Kingston, while others have come from the coal regions about Honesdale and Scranton, in Pennsylvania, all bound for this port and consigned to, perhaps, as many different persons as there are boats in the tow.”
From its opening in 1828 through the closing of most of the canal in 1898—and even through 1917, when the section from Rosendale to Rondout finally stopped carrying cement—the Delaware and Hudson Canal was responsible for vast amounts of traffic on the Hudson River. Indeed there would not have been a Delaware and Hudson Canal without the Hudson River!
 H. Hollister M.D., History of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. Unpublished MS c1880. p. 22.
 Donald C. Ringwald, Steamboats For Rondout, Passenger Service Between New York and Rondout Creek, 1829 Through 1863. Steamship Historical Society of America, Inc. 1981. p. 17.
 Larry Lowenthal, From the Coalfields to the Hudson. Purple Mountain Press. 1997. pp. 142-48.
 The letters of Russell F. Lord, chief engineer of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, June 1848 to October 1852. D&H Canal Historical Society collection #2016.01.01. Transcribed by Audrey M. Klinkenberg.
 New York Times, August 18, 1889.
Bill Merchant is the historian and curator of the D&H Canal Historical Society in High Falls, NY. He lives in a canal side, canal era house in High Falls with his wife Kelly where he also works as a double bass luthier and antique dealer.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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