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 July 2, 1972.
When I was a boy of 10 in 1921, my brother Algot was home over the Fourth of July. At that time, he was chief mate on the steamboat “Onteora” - and brought with him about $10 worth of fireworks, which before these present days of inflation was a lot of fireworks! They were all in the big box sitting out on our porch.
For the fun of it, he threw a very small firecracker under me as I was leaning over. When it went bang, I jumped up real quick and everybody laughed. Not to be outdone, I threw a firecracker at him. Instead of going off, it sizzled and scooted across the porch right into the box of fireworks. How everybody ran for cover when the whole box went up - night works, roman candles, torpedoes, salutes, sparklers, everything! The glorious explosion was all over in about three minutes.
Was my mother angry at me for doing such a thing to my brother and for causing all the fireworks to explode! But my brother was good about it all. He laughed and said, “Come on Bill, let’s go down along the shore.”
I was crying by now, thinking I would be all day without any firecrackers.
On the Strand
Algot took me and our rowboat and rowed over to the Strand and bought $10 more of fireworks - and gave them to me. He sure was a wonderful brother to me. I shall never forget him, even though I was only 11 years of age when he died the following year.
Also at that time, on Sundays and holidays I remember going out to Kingston Point with my father. We would watch all the people and the big boats come and go and unload and load their passengers. Phil Maines, former mate of the “Mary Powell,” was dockmaster. Phil always saw to it that we got inside the gates where there were no people and could get a good view of the boats coming in and going out.
Jim Murdock was the keeper of the Rondout Lighthouse at the time, and he also would be over there. I can still remember how he would be dressed. He always wore a straw boater hat, a light gray suit, a red tie and black patent leather shoes with white laces. Always, his hat stayed high on the back of his head, seemingly because he has so much hair.
I remember one day the mate of the steamer “Washington Irving,” Thurlow Davis of Kingston, was going to push Jim Murdock out of the private gangway into the crowded one.
“Just a minute there, I am the keeper of the Rondout Lighthouse,” Mr. Murdock said. That ended that! The mate gave him a scowl and went his way. Thurlow Davis was an excellent mate for passenger boats. He could do carpenter work or anything in the line of maintenance that came up to do on a steamboat.
How my father loved the Fourth of July! How he loved to have his boys enjoy firecrackers and fireworks so they could properly celebrate the Glorious Fourth. I often wonder how he would have reacted today when fireworks are not allowed. I suppose, like myself, he would uphold the law - but not really think much of it.
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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