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 May 11, 1975.
Sooner or later almost every boatman finds himself involved in the intricacies of maritime law, the courts and the questioning of lawyers. Generally the reason is a fog caused grounding, a collision, or some leaky old scow or barge that should have been retired from service many years earlier.
Before the days of radar and years ago when New York harbor was much more crowded than it is today, it seemed the boatman’s days in court were more frequent. Court appearances could be unnerving to a boatman since this was not his bag of tricks. In some instances, however, a boatman could hold his own. Two instances come to mind.
One such instance took place around 1921 and involved a deckhand on one of the tugboats of the Cornell Steamboat Company. The man was then about 40 years of age and had been a deckhand all his working life, at that time not having advanced to a pilot or captain. He was testifying in a lawsuit involving a collision between two tugs, each towing some scows.
The deckhand was on the witness stand being questioned by the lawyer for the opposition. The lawyer was about the same age as the deckhand and during the questioning, apparently was not getting the answers he desired. It would appear the lawyer then decided to try another tack and attempted to discredit the competency of the witness. The lawyer started by asking the deckhand how long he had worked on tugboats, his age, all in a rather derogatory manner.
Finally, the lawyer said, “You have been working on boats for over 20 years and you are still a deckhand?” The decky answered, “Yes Sir,” to which the lawyer shook his head and sort of snickered.
With that, the deckhand turned to the judge and said, “Your Honor, could I please ask this man a question?” The judge, perhaps being a student of human nature, replied. “You may.”
The deckhand then turned and said, “Mr. Lawyer, how long have you been practicing law?” The lawyer sort of threw out his chest and replied, “Since I was 23 years of age.” With that, the deckhand turned his palm upward towards the judge, and said, “Then why aren’t you on the bench like this man?”
They say the judge just put his head down on his arms on his desk and shook with laughter — as did the whole courtroom. It may or may not have had anything to do with the deckhand's questions, but it is said the case was thrown out of court.
The other instance could be called “The Case of the Wrong Log Book.” As I guess everyone is aware, every vessel keeps a log book of events as they happen, weather changes, etc. It is kept in the pilot house by the pilot on watch.
On this occasion, many years ago, the Cornell Steamboat Company owned a tugboat named the “Eli B. Conine." She was involved in a collision in New York harbor with, I believe, a Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad tugboat towing a car float. There was quite a bit of damage to the port stern, railing and cabin of the “Conine."
As time went on, the case came up on the court calendar. The lawyer for the railroad was a very highly dressed, very dignified person to look at. One would think from his looks he should be on the Supreme Court.
The “Conine's" pilot, who had been on watch at the time of the accident was on the witness stand. All the regular questions were asked by the railroad’s lawyer. As the questioning went on, the lawyer was getting a little impatient with the pilot and his answers, as it seemed the pilot just could not recall, he forgot, etc.
Finally, the lawyer literally grabbed one of two log books that had been impounded by the court, and said, “Is this your tug’s log book?” The pilot answered, “Yes Sir." Said the lawyer, “Is this your writing?” Answered the pilot, “Yes Sir." Queried the lawyer, “Did you make a report in your log book about this collision?” to which the pilot again replied, "Yes Sir."
By this time the lawyer was raising his voice very high and, in an almost shrill command, ordered, "Well then show it to me.” The pilot started to leaf through the log book of a couple of hundred pages, taking his time, almost as if he were reading each entry and savoring his written word. The lawyer continued to fidget and grow ever more impatient and, in apparent exasperation, turned to the judge and said, "There, he can't even find it himself.”
The judge, frowning on the pilot, said, "Are you not supposed to keep all events involving your tugboat recorded in your log?’’ The pilot said, "Yes, Your Honor, we do." “But," the judge said, “it seems this collision was not recorded. Why is that?"
The pilot, keeping his face as sober as the judge’s and knowing he was getting the best of the railroad lawyer, replied, "Your Honor, this is the wrong log book.’’ The court, for a moment at least, was in disarray.
It seems the collision took place just as one log book had been filled and a new one was being started. The events surrounding the collision were entered in the new book. Both log books had been brought into court, but the lawyer, in his exasperated state, had picked the wrong one to pin down the wily pilot.
In 1926 the "Eli B. Conine" had her steam engine and boiler removed, a diesel engine installed and her name changed to "Cornell No. 41." As a diesel tugboat, she remained in service until the old Cornell Steamboat Company went out of existence in 1958. "Cornell No. 41" is pictured here tied up at the Cornell Steamboat Company docks. Hudson River Maritime Museum Collection.
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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