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 April 7, 1974.
Human nature being what It is, we all have an odd quirk or two. Boatmen were no exception.
The foibles of two boatmen that come to mind were those of Staats Winnie and Ira Cooper, two of the better old time boatmen on the Hudson. Staats Winnie's whim was that he wore red flannel underwear the year round — Ira Cooper’s was a dislike for uniforms.
Staats Winnie was an old time pilot for the Hudson River Day line and at the turn of the century was second pilot of the “Albany.” When the “Hendrick Hudson” came out in 1906 he was to become her first pilot and served as her head helmsman during that steamboat’s early years on the Hudson. Like many old time boatmen, he had previously been a pilot on towboats and tugboats of the Cornell Steamboat Company.
With an impressive mustache and a stern gaze, Staats Winnie was a formidable looking man. As my good friend Donald C. Ringwald observed in his book “Hudson River Day Line,” Pilot Winnie looked as if he could steer anything afloat.
Like a number of old boatmen in his era, Staats Winnie wore red flannel underwear. Only he wore his year round, summer and winter. During the hot days in July and August, Pilot Winnie would frequently doff his uniform jacket and roll up his shirt sleeves, exposing a pair of bright red shod forearms.
Steamboatmen were always known as great arm wavers. Whenever two steamers passed each other, it was rare indeed if several crew members were not observed vigorously waving in the direction of the passing steamboat. One would have thought the crew members of the two steamers hadn’t seen each other in months.
As a matter of fact, in some instances this situation would have been true — as when a line had two steamers running between New York and Albany in daily service. The two steamboats would leave New York and Albany on alternate days and the only time crew members would see each other for months on end would be on their daily passing in the middle part of the river. Many crew members of a particular steamboat line came from the same community and were neighbors. During the season they would get but a fleeting glance of each other as their steamboats passed in mid-Hudson and this, perhaps, was the probable reason for the vigorous arm waving.
Staats Winnie was well known as one of the arm wavers. During July and August in his years of piloting the Day Liners, boatmen on passing steamers became accustomed to seeing a red shod arm waving a greeting from his pilot house window. It was said that passengers, however were frequently startled by the sight.
Ira Cooper was captain of the steamer “Onteora” of the Catskill Evening Line. During the early years of steamboating, officers of the steamers wore their usual civilian clothes in carrying out their jobs afloat. During the 1880’s and 1890’s, the larger steamboat companies began to introduce the use of uniforms for their steamer's personnel, particularly the officers.
The practice of wearing uniforms soon spread to all steamboat lines. First, it was just a uniform cap. Then it became a full fledged uniform with brass buttons and gold braid. On some lines, the uniforms were provided by the companies outright, others granted a uniform allowance and the officers purchased their own uniforms, while on others a partial reimbursement for uniforms was given to officer personnel.
Captain Cooper was an individualist of the old school. He would have no truck [sic] with the new fangled idea of uniforms. For him, what was good enough to wear ashore was good enough to wear afloat. To the very end, he steadfastly refused to don either a uniform or even the traditional steamboatman's cap. He undoubtedly was the last captain of one of the larger Hudson River passenger steamboats to command his steamer dressed in civilian garb.
It was said Captain Cooper's ideas as to dress did not particularly please the owners and operators of the Catskill Evening Line. It is my understanding, as a matter of fact, that a clash of wills ensued — and, since the owners held the trump cards, Captain Cooper left the “Onteora.” He was later captain for many years of the big tugboat “J. C. Hartt” of the Cornell Steamboat Company — where he had no trouble dressing as he pleased. The Catskill Evening Line’s loss, however, was the Cornell Steamboat Company's gain — for Captain Cooper was one of the best boatmen on the river.
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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