Whistling in the Dark
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 March 6, 1977.
Captain William O. Benson recalls the plight of a sleepy steamboat passenger who got off at the wrong stop.
In the long ago days of Hudson River steam-boating, almost every city and larger village along the river had their own steamboat line to New York. Each line would have at least two boats to maintain daily service— one boat going down, one back the next day.
The steamers of the lines north of Newburgh were known as night boats because they usually departed in the late afternoon or early evening and arrived at their destination in the early morning. All would carry freight on their main decks, with the deck above reserved for staterooms that offered sleeping accommodations for passengers.
Generally, travelling on the night boats was an extremely pleasant way to make a journey for or from New York. The river was always attractive in the evening and travellers could count on a good night's sleep— except when the steamer ran into fog and the pilots would have to blow their boat's whistle or if a passenger had a stateroom right next to the paddle wheels.
Saugerties was one of those towns that had its own steamboat service. The name of the company was the Saugerties and New York Steamboat Company, and it was operated mostly by home town men. During its last twenty years or so of service it was promoted and known to the travelling public as The Saugerties Evening Line.' At the time of this particular incident, shortly after World War I, they had two small, smart sidewheelers named "Ulster" and "Ida".
The incident took place on the "Ulster," and on this particular trip she left Pier 43, North River, in New York at her regular time. She had freight for all her landings, which in those days were Hyde Park, Rhinecliff, Barrytown, Ulster Landing and Tivoli, before ending her journey at Saugerties.
"Ulster" made very good time until she reached Crum Elbow, just south of Hyde Park. Then the fog set in. At the time, she was overtaking the Catskill Line freighter "Storm King". Of course, the fog signals had to be sounded from both steamers.
A Cornell tow was also on its way down the river, blowing one long and two short whistle signals indicating they had a tow underway. And as a matter of courtesy, the helper tug back on the tow, was also blowing its whistle because it was a good 500 feet back from the towing tug.
A racket of steam whistles reverberated across Hyde Park. If Franklin D. Roosevelt was at home— or the Vanderbilts or the great naturalist John Burroughs, they certainly woke up. For on top of all the other whistles, the big night boats out of Albany and Troy came along, sounding their way through the fog.
Some of the passengers on the "Ulster" were up complaining about all the noise. Others just stayed in their staterooms and put up with it. Then, a short while after things got reasonably quiet again, came the landing at Rhinecliff with the organized confusion of unloading freight. The hand freight trucks clattered on and off the gang plank, and the mate shouted at the freight handlers to get the freight off so they could get out on time.
After leaving Rhinecliff all was serene for a few moments, except for the periodic blowing of the fog signal. But off Astor's tunnel, they met a canal tow which was siting crossways in the channel and this caused more whistle blowing. Once clear of the tow, the "Ulster " landed at Barrytown. The freight trucks started up again, and an argument between two freight handlers, halted by the authoritarian voice of the mate, added to the din. (More on page 17)
The ”Ulster” then headed across the river to Ulster Landing. It was the custom on night boats for a hallman to knock on the door of the stateroom of a passengers getting off at a patircular landing about ten minutes before docking and announce the arrival. Sometimes, a passenger would have to listen pretty closely, for some hallmen were like some of the conductors on the old West Shore Railroad – they had an odd way of pronouncing the names of some of the stations or landings.
In any event, a hallman knocked on the door of the stateroom of one Ulster Landing passenger and called out “Ulster Landing, Ulster Landing”. A lady passenger bound for Saugerties and in a stateroom or two away also heard the knocking and the announcement “Ulster Landing”. After all the whistle blowing at Hyde Park, Rhinecliff, and Barrytown, she in all probability had been sleeping fitfully and in her half awake state may have thought “Ulster Landing” meant that the “Ulster” was docking and that it was time to get off. In any case, she got up, got dressed and when the steamer ghosted through the fog into the dock at Ulster Landing, she was at the gangway. As soon as the gang plank was put out, she walked ashore.
There was very little freight for Ulster Landing, so the gang plank was taken in and in a few minutes, the “Ulster” was on her way to Tivoli. The lady found herself virtually alone on a river dock before dawn. And it sure wasn’t Saugerties.
The only light on the lonely dock was a kerosene lantern, and the only other person around was the dockmaster who was an elderly man who was very hard of hearing. The sight of this well dressed lady alone in the freight shed made him so nervous that she had a hard time getting him to understand her plight. But the message finally got through, and the dockmaster got her a chair to sit in until daylight, then found a friend with a horse and wagon to take her on to Saugerties.
I often wondered if she ever made the steamboat trip to Saugerties again.
I, too, once made an overnight trip on the “Ulster” – by then renamed the “Robert A. Snyder”. It was in August of 1928, and I was a deckhand on the steamer “Albany” of the Hudson River Day Line.
I’d been home for a day and thought I’d go back to New York on the “Snyder” with my friends Richard Heffernan, who was her captain, and Harry Grough, her pilot. I got aboard her at Rhinecliff at 8 p.m. It must have been late in the month, for I remember it was already dark when we pulled away from the dock. Quite a few passengers were aboard.
I got the key to my stateroom and then went up to the pilot house to visit with my friends, Dick and Harry.
We talked for a while as the “Snyder” paddled her way down the Hudson, then, as we passed Poughkeepsie, I went down to my stateroom, which turned out to be on the port side just forward of the paddle wheel. All night long I could hear the old wheels pounding in the water below me. Once I got used to it, it was a very rhythmic and soothing sound. Every once in a while, though, the buckets on the wheels would pick up some sort of debris floating in the river, which would clatter and spin around in the wheel batteries.
Down around Clinton Point, I could hear the whistle of the “Snyder” blow one long and two short. On looking out the stateroom window, I could see the steamer “Ida” on her way up the river to Saugerties. Then again off Roseton I heard a whistle, which I recognized right away. It was the “Benjamin B. Odell” of the old Central Hudson Line headed north for Rondout. She sure looked great with all her electric lights shining in the dark and reflecting on the water.
After the passing “Odell”, I went to sleep and didn’t wake up until we landed at Pier 43, North River. The I said goodbye to Captain Heffernan and Pilot Grough, and took the old Ninth Avenue El Line up to 42nd Street and back to work again on the “Albany” at the Day Line pier at the foot of the street.
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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