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 June 18, 1972.
When the intercollegiate crew races used to be held at Poughkeepsie every year during the latter part of June, the Cornell Steamboat Company would indirectly be involved.
Both Frederick and Edward Coykendall were graduates of Columbia University and always had a great interest in the crews of their alma mater. During the 1930’s and 1940's, Frederick Coykendall was also chairman of Columbia Board of Trustees.
As a result of their interest in Columbia and rowing, the Coykendalls would use one of their tugboats to transport Columbia's shells to Poughkeepsie; on occasion would have an invited party of guests at the boat races on one of their tugs; and would maintain an old canal barge that on boat race day was used as the "finish boat.”
The crews of the various colleges used to train for the races on the river at Poughkeepsie for a week or two prior to the regatta. For years, one of the Cornell helper tugs used to take the Columbia shells from their boat house on the Harlem River in New York up the Hudson to the Columbia boat house, which was located north of Highland on the west shore just below Krum Elbow. Then a day or two after the regatta, a tug would take the shells back to New York.
On boat race day, particularly before the Depression, the river at Poughkeepsie used to be filled with all types of spectator steamboats, yachts and sometimes Navy destroyers with midshipmen aboard to watch the regatta. Generally, there used to be two Day Liners, at least one boat of the Central Hudson Line, and others.
One year, when Judge Alton B. Parker was still alive and maintained his estate "Rosemont" at Esopus, the Coykendalls had the large Cornell tugboat "George W. Washburn” ready to take their families and friends to Poughkeepsie to see the boat races.
On the way down river from Kingston, Edward Coykendall said to Al Hamilton, captain of the "Washburn," "Captain, stop at the Esopus landing and pick up Judge Parker and his family. We are going to take them along with us.”
Captain Hamilton said, "Mr. Coykendall, there’s not enough water at that dock for this boat. We might break our wheel.” Coykendall replied, “Get in there any way you can. I want to pick them up as they will be waiting for us.”
So, Captain Hamilton put the “Washburn” into the dock at Esopus, and when he went to back down, clip went the wheel on a rock and bent two of the propeller's flukes: However, when the “Washburn” left Esopus for Poughkeepsie — instead of shaking all over as normally would be the case with a bent propeller — she went as well, if not better, than when the propeller was in good condition. Everybody thought the flukes must have been broken off, but when she was put on drydock, the flukes weren’t broken but only bent.
I heard Coykendall relate this story himself one day in 1939 in the pilot house of the "Jumbo."
Also, for years, the Coykendalls would furnish the “finish boat,” an old D. & H. canal boat they maintained just for this purpose. The little barge would be anchored fore and aft with two anchors at the finish line of the races. A large board would be mounted on the deck of the barge and, after a race, would give the order of finish and the official times. The information on the board would be visible to the people on shore and those on the observation train that used to move along the West Shore railroad tracks as the crews moved down river from the starting line to the finish line.
The Rob's Job
The Barge would be painted at the Cornell shops and at dawn on boat race day, the tug “Rob" would tow the “finish boat" from Rondout to Poughkeepsie and anchor it at the proper place. After the last race, the anchors would be pulled up and the “Rob” would tow the canal boat back to Kingston for other year.
John Lynn of Port Ewen, captain of the "Rob," used to invite friends of his and their families to watch the regatta. These people would go out to Kingston Point and take the down Day Liner to Poughkeepsie.After the Day Liner left, the "Rob" would come chuffing into the finish line where she would stand by the "finish boat." These people probably had the best view of the end of the races of anyone at the regatta.
After the last race, all the boats at the regatta would get underway at once and almost all of them headed for New York. Almost all except the “Rob,” which with the "finish boat" alongside would head for Rondout Creek where she would arrive at about 11 p.m.
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 April 8, 1973.
Photographer capturing the Cornell Steamboat Company tug and towboat fleet after the freshet of 1893 washed the fleet out into the Hudson River. The freshet is a flood due to melting snow and rain. This one caused a late winter flood that broke an ice dam on the Rondout Creek and pushed the boats out into the Hudson River. Donald C. Ringwald Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum
The month of March has frequently been known for its capricious pranks of weather. On two occasions in particular —March 13, 1893 and March 12, 1936 — madcap March weather brought considerable excitement locally. On both dates, freshet conditions in Rondout Creek caused the ice covering the creek’s surface to go out with a rush, carrying everything in its path out towards the Hudson.
On both occasions, the conditions were similar. The preceding winter months had been severe with heavy ice. During early March the weather turned warm causing runoffs from melting snow into the Wallkill River and upper Rondout Creek. Water and broken ice cascading over the dam at Eddyville backed up behind the solid creek ice creating considerable pressure. Finally, the solid ice below Eddyville began to crumble. Once the ice started to move, its movement accelerated rapidly, rushing down the creek with great force and speed. Anything in its path was swept along downstream. In both instances, this was mostly the fleet of the Cornell Steamboat Company.
Those who witnessed the moving ice described it as an awesome sight. Mooring lines were snapped like strings. Vessels in the path of the grinding ice moved like ghosts down the creek and out into the Hudson River where they came to a stop in a jumbled mass against the solid ice of the river. In both instances, despite damage to the vessels involved, surprising there was only one reported personnel injury in 1893 and none in 1936.
The freshet of 1893 was probably the more spectacular since more vessels were involved, including at least eight big side-wheel towboats. All told, approximately 50 vessels were swept out of the creek. In addition to the big side-wheel towboats, these included at least 15 Cornell tugboats and two dozen canal boats and barges.
In 1893 melee of ice and boats set adrift occurred in the late afternoon on Monday, March 13. At about 4 p.m. a huge ice jam above Wilbur let go and the uncontrolled movement down Rondout Creek commenced.
A Freeman reporter described the scene as follows: “It was a scene that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed the outgoing vessels, as they jammed against one another and against the docks, the noise of parting lines and cracking timbers being plainly heard a block or more away. The shouts of the men on the boats who like maniacs hauling in the lines, endeavoring to make the boats fast, and the cries of warning from people on the docks to the boatmen added to the excitement and the scene was one that words cannot picture.”
At the time, the ferryboat ‘‘Transport’’ was coming across the river from Rhinecliff and was just inside the dikes of the creek when she was met by the outgoing ice and army of drifting vessels. She was enveloped by the advancing fleet and swept back into the river. Some of the ferry’s passengers were reported to have been panic stricken and to have leaped across floating blocks of ice to the solid ice of the Hudson. Apparently, they all successfully made it.
The only reported injury was to Captain Charles Post of the Cornell tugboat “H. T. Caswell." His right foot was broken when caught between a mooring line and a cleat. A Dr. Smith and a Dr. Stern made their way across the ice in the river to the tugboat where they treated the injured boatman. He was later carried in a blanket across the ice to shore.
In 1936 freshet was probably the more damaging since the Cornell tugs “Rob,” "Coe F. Young” and “William E. Cleary” were sunk and eight others fetched up along the south side of the creek opposite Ponckhockie, whereas in 1893 virtually all of the boats involved had floated out into the Hudson.
The 1936 marine spectacular started at about 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 12. At that time, the ice started to move out of the creek below Eddyville and rapidly built up force and momentum as it moved toward the Hudson. As the ice surged past the C. Hiltebrant Shipyard at Connelly, it took along with it a small passenger steamboat, two tugboats, a derrick boat, and three or four barges and lighters that had been in winter quarters at the yard. Two scows tied up at Island Dock were swept away by the grinding ice and joined the growing armada of vessels moving downstream.
The tug “Rob” had been tied up west of the Rhinecliff ferry slip on Ferry Street. A drifting barge caromed off the side of the “Rob,” heeled her over and sent her to the bottom of the creek. Eleven Cornell Tugboats that had been moored at Sleightsburgh all were set adrift by the advancing ice and started on their way down by the Rondout Creek.
The Foggy Mark
At the Cornell shops at Rondout, eleven out of twelve tugs tied up there were swept away. Snapping mooring lines sounded like guns going off. A heavy fog enveloped the area: and added to the ghostly appearance of the scene. At that point, some 30 tugs, barges and other vessels were moving down the creek and disappearing from sight into the foggy murk enveloping the creek and river.
At the Sunflower dock at Sleightsburgh — further down creek — lay nine more Cornell tugboats and a steam derrick. The ice and moving vessels swept by these tugs and miraculously they remained in place. The outboard tug at the head of this group, however, the “Coe F. Young,” was holed and sunk and possibly this saved the remaining tugs from also moving along with the others. Two days later, the tug “William E. Cleary’’ — tied up with this group — rolled over and sank.
When the fog lifted shortly before noon on March 12, eight of the tugboats that had been swept along from the neighboring Baisden shipyards at Sleightsburgh were strewn grounded along the south shore of the creek opposite the old Central Hudson gas house. All of the others were jumbled together out in the Hudson River off the Rondout lighthouse against the solid river ice.
By a quirk of fate, the Cornell tugboat ‘‘J. C. Hartt” was the “hero” of both the 1893 and the 1936 freshets. In 1893 she was swept out into the Hudson and was one of the first tugs to get steam up and return the others to their berths. In 1936, after being set adrift, she moved down the creek stern first close along the Rondout docks. At Gill’s dock in Ponckhockie she hit a brick scow moored there.
The scow captain jumped aboard the “Hartt,’’ ran forward and was able to get a line ashore and end her unscheduled voyage at that point.
Fortunately, at the time the “Hartt” was being made ready for the coming season. In short order, steam was raised on the tug and she soon was able to get underway and start the task of corralling the run-away fleet. By March 15, virtually all of the run-aways were back at their berths. The sunken “Rob” and “William E. Cleary” were subsequently raised. The sunken “Coe F. Young,” however, never was — and to this day what is left of the old tug is still on the bottom of Rondout Creek off the old Sunflower Dock where she met her end in the freshet of March 12, 1936.
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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 October 31, 1971.
A Riverman’s Log’ New Tempo Feature
TEMPO begins Sunday publication with several new features. And, proud as we are of all of them, the one that promises to become our own personal favorite is a regular column by Captain William O. Benson.
You’ll find the first offering by Capt. Benson taking up a full page spread in this week's issue, complete with nostalgic photos of the tugboat Lion and the steamboat M. Martin, and appearing under the banner headline “Whistles Salute Two Presidents.”
Captain William Odell Benson is a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. As captain of the tugboat Peter Callanan, he retains memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River; has long known the waterway’s steamboats and the men who manned them. The perfect choice then to author about steamboating on the Hudson in years past.
40 Years on River
Bill Benson's reminiscences on Hudson River life and lore now join this magazine as a regular feature; will be culled from his 40 years of working, will appear weekly for a long time to come.
A river boatman his entire working life, he was closely associated with the Hudson and its steamboats long before he took to the tides himself. His father was ship's carpenter of the famous in-legend Mary Powell; held the same position for the Central Hudson Steamboat Company and the Cornell Steamboat Company. His older brother, Algot J. Benson, before his death in 1923, served as chief mate and pilot of the steamboat Onteora, had been a deckhand and quartermaster on the Mary Powell, and a quartermaster of the Long Island Sound steamers Plymouth, Concord and Naugatuck.
TEMPO’s new contributor can lay claim, as well, to having been named after a Hudson River steamboat. His middle name, “Odell,” derives from the steamboat Benjamin B. Odell, the largest steamer of the old Central Hudson Line, which entered service on the river the year Capt. Benson was born.
The wealth of anecdotes at your columnist’s recall date back to his school days at the old District No. 13 School, Port Ewen. Education completed, he left school in 1927 to work for the Hudson River Day Line at Kingston Point. The years of 1928 and 1929 saw him serving as a deckhand on the old Day Line steamer Albany. Then came a long period (1930 to 1946) as a deckhand, pilot and captain on the tugboats of the Cornell Steamboat Company.
Served on Many Tugs
Those Depression to post-World War II years saw him serving on the Cornell tugs S. L. Crosby, Lion, Jumbo, Bear, Pocahontas, Perseverance, George W. Washburn, R. G. Townsend, Edwin Terry, J. G. Rose, Cornell, Cornell No. 20, Cornell No. 21, Cornell No. 41, John D. Schoonmaker, Rob, and William S. Earl.
During 1946 he captained the tugboat maintained at Poughkeepsie to assist tows to pass safely through that city’s bridges. Since 1947 he’s been pilot and captain on the Callanan Road Improvement Company's tugboats Callanan No. 1 and Peter Callanan, and other tugs that from time to time have been chartered by the Callanan Company.
The steamboat columns we've received in advance read like a riverman’s log of humor and heritage. Suffice it to say that we're looking forward to each new Benson column with as much enthusiasm as any other TEMPO reader. We welcome the captain aboard with a salute of three whistles; look forward to pleasurable hours of reading about the men and the boats of the Hudson's past in the months ahead.
Tug "Callanan No. 1" a Kingston, N.Y. tug at Troy, N.Y., June 25, 1954, 12:30 p.m. Left to right in Pilot House: W.O. Benson (Sleightsburgh, NY); Peter Tucker, (Kingston, NY); Ed Carpenter, cook (Ulster Park, NY); Bud Atkins, deckhand (Port Ewen, NY); Chris Mancuso, deckhand (Greenpoint, NY); Jim Malene, 1st Assistant Engineer (Kingston, NY);Teddy/Theodore Crowl, 2nd Assistant Engineer, (Farmingdale, NY).
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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