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. For more of Captain Benson’s articles, see the “Captain Benson Articles” category. This article was originally published April 22, 1973.
One evening back in the early spring of 1925, the Cornell tugboat ‘‘S. L. Crosby’’ was in Rondout Creek getting ice at the old ice house the Cornell Steamboat Company used to maintain along the creek. The ice house was located just west of where the Freeman Building now stands. At the time, another Cornell tugboat, the “Thomas Dickson" was layed up adjacent to the ice house at the rear of the Cornell office building.
While taking on ice, Captain Aaron Relyea of the ‘‘Crosby” went over on the “Dickson.” Looking around in the “Dickson's” pilot house he came upon an old order dated June 1914. It read “Captain John Sheehan, tug 'Thomas Dickson’. You will pick up barge ‘Henelopen’ at the Beaver sand dock, Staatsburgh." The Beaver sand dock used to be where Norrie Point Inn is now located along the east shore of the Hudson River off the north end of Esopus Island. Even then, it hadn't been used in years.
Captain Aaron thought he would have some fun. At that time, the ‘‘Crosby’’ was the helper tug on a tow going down river in charge of the tugboat “Osceola.” John Sheehan, captain of the “Thomas Dickson" in 1915, was now the captain of the "Osceola.”
When the ‘‘Crosby’’ came up alongside of the ‘‘Osceola’’ out in the river, darkness was falling. Captain Aaron called out to Sheehan, “John, here's an order for you" — and sent the deckhand over to “Osceola” with it.
Captain Sheehan, not looking too closely at the order, got all excited and began to fume and sputter. He shouted back to Aaron, “We can't go in there for that barge; this boat draws too much water. Why, when we used to get them out with the "Dickson," we had to pull them out on a head line."
"Well," Aaron replied, “they are the orders. We are to hold the tow for you.”
With that, Captain Sheehan put the light on in the pilot house and read the order more carefully. It was then he finally noticed the 1914 date and the name of the tug as "Thomas Dickson" instead of ‘‘Osceola." Captain Sheehan was always a good sport. He thought it was a great joke Captain Relyea had played on him and laughed about it for days afterward.
Captain Sheehan also always used a rather odd form of greeting. Whenever he would be passing another boat close aboard, he would lean out of his pilot house — no matter what boat he was on — and holler over, "What do ya say, say say?’’ One would hear his booming greeting no matter what hour of the day or night.
In later years, Captain Sheehan was captain of the freighter “Green Island’’ of the Hudson River Night Line running between Troy and New York. In 1934, when the Depression had tied up a lot of steamboats at their docks, he was captain of a dredging company tug by the name of "Kate Jones." One day off Van Wies Point, on her way to Albany, Captain Sheehan slumped at the wheel in her pilot house. He had suffered a heart attack and died before the tug could reach a dock.
I always liked Captain Sheehan a great deal. He was an excellent boatman, one who seemed to truly enjoy his chosen profession. In a sense, it was fitting his time should come at the pilot wheel of a tugboat while underway on his beloved Hudson 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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