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 July 8, 1973.
Since railroad trains have been operating along the east shore of the Hudson River for virtually its entire length between New York and Albany since 1851 and along the west shore of the river from Haverstraw to a point below West Park since 1883, Hudson River boatmen have had plenty of opportunity to observe the changes that have taken place over the years in railroading.
One big change, of course, was the disappearance of the steam locomotive and its replacement by perhaps the more efficient but much less colorful diesel engine. I well remember the end of steam locomotives on the old West Shore Railroad.
Late April 1953 marked the end of passenger trains on the West Shore pulled by the previously reliable iron horse. The morning of the last stem [sic] runs, shortly after sun-up, I was on the tugboat “Callanan No. 1" bound north with a tow. We were just south of Crum Elbow, in close along the west bank of the river to get out of the tide. Along came what we used to call the "paper train," the passenger train out of Weehawken with the New York newspapers for the communities all along the river.
It was a cool April morning with a north east wind and the sun shining very bright out of the east. As the train was going up the West Park hill, black soft coal smoke was pouring out of the locomotive’s stack. I knew it marked the end of an era:
As the train pulled abreast of us, I blew a one long, one short blast on the whistle which the locomotive engineer answered. Then I blew the traditional three long whistles of farewell.
I can still see in memory of the three white plumes of steam from the train’s whistle as the engineer answered.
As the train charged up the incline and out of sight, the wheels of the locomotive pounding, and black smoke and steam belching from the short, stubby, stack, I was reminded of the words of an almost forgotten poem of old, “Pulling up along the track, with the choo choo of the stack, how I love to watch the local as it comes along the track; Pulling up along the track, with the choo choo of the stack, up, up along the lonely track.”
Another change in railroading caused by the passing years, was the disappearance of the track walkers. For many, many years, the railroad used to employ men to make regular foot patrols of their trackage, especially in the vicinity of rock cuts along the river’s shore. It was their job to watch for fallen rocks and to make regular inspections of the rights of way.
For years, boatmen at night would see the track walkers on their lonely patrols carrying a lantern and later with a good flashlight. This was especially true in the Hudson Highlands from Stony Point to Cornwall where there were extensive rock cuts.
In the lonely morning hours around 2 or 3 a.m., when seeing a track walker, I would always turn our searchlight on and blink it or raise it up and down. In return, they would waive their lanterns back to us. It was a friendly greeting at that hour. I used to think that it must have been very lonely for them walking along those tracks in the dark.
A train would come roaring along if a passenger train or rumbling along if a freight, making a great deal of noise, and then it would be all peace and quiet again. You would see the track walkers going into their little flag shanties along the tracks to get warm and then go out again in another hour for another patrol.
During the middle 1950’s there was a big stock proxy contest for control of the New York Central Railroad. A group, headed by Robert R. Young, won control and shortly after that the new management made a lot of changes in the operation of the company. One of the changes was to do away with the jobs of the track walkers. After that, no more did boatmen see their friendly lanterns moving back and forth as the track walkers walked their solitary way in the night looking for broken rails, loose spikes or rock slides.
Before the days of radar on tugboats, when the boats were running in fog, the track walkers were a blessing to the boatmen. Sometimes we would be running pretty close to shore and see dimly the friendly light of their lantern. They probably over the years, unbeknown[st] to them, saved many a steamboat or tugboat from running on the shore or rocks.
On other change is the demise of the hoboes or knights of the road. Either our affluent society has done away with the hobo or, if there are any left, they must have all taken to the highways.
Back during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when on the tugboats we would be bucking the tide with a large tow, we would get close to shore so the tide wouldn’t have such an effect on our tows. Then, when a freight train of 90 or 100 cars would come along we would try and see how many knights of the road we could count. Sometimes there would be as many as several dozen. Times change. Today, when the freight trains go by one never sees anyone riding the rails.
Also, in those depression years, boatmen would see the fires of hoboes burning along the rails or in culverts under the tracks. If a box car were standing along the tracks on some isolated siding and if we threw our searchlight beam on it, you would frequently see someone slip out the other side or come to the half closed door and peek out.
Like the seasons and the tides of the river, things along the Hudson are continually changing. Hopefully, the hoboes of yesteryear have all found the destination they were seeking and surroundings more hospitable than that formerly provided by the "water level route” of wooden ties and steel rails.
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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