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 March 14, 1972.
Up until the time the Cornell Steamboat Company acquired the diesel tugboats “Lion’’ and “Jumbo” in 1924, all of their tugboats were steam propelled. As steamers, all the tugs burned coal and taking on coal - or coaling up - was a regular event of day to day operations.
For many decades, Cornell maintained a coal pocket at the easterly end of its property on East Strand. Coal would be transferred by conveyor from railroad cars on an adjacent siding into large bins in the coal pocket. The coal pocket itself was located right next to the dock and the tugboats would berth at the coal pocket and take on coal from large shutes direct from the bins.
When I was a boy growing up along Rondout Creek, it was quite a sight watching the big Cornell tugs taking on coal at the coal pocket. As the tug would come in the creek, she would tie up at the coal pocket and first take coal on the starboard side. As the coal went aboard, the tug would lay over on her side and it seemed the large smokestacks would be only a few feet from the upper part of the coal pocket. Then seeing the tugs turn around with their starboard guards and main deck rail part under water, one would think they were going to turn over on their sides and sink.
There I used to watch the “Pocahontas,” “Osceola,” “George W. Washburn,” “Edwin H. Mead,” “Perseverance” and the smaller helper tugs take on coal and wonder what kept them from rolling over.
Always I would watch, thinking in my young mind I was going to see something happen that no one had seen before. But, they always got around, took coal on their port side, came back to an even keel, and went back out to the river.
As the years rolled on, the day came when I was to do the same thing with many of the same tugboats at the same coal pocket that the men of my youth had done. Now, however, the steam tugs are all gone as is the coal pocket.
Once, in May 1935, one tug did sink at the coal pocket and as far as I can recall this is the only time it happened. The small tug ‘‘Empire’’ was coaling up. Her starboard guard caught on a broken spile [sic] under water which held her up. The men in the engine room and the pilot house thought she could take a little more coal and put some more aboard.
Then, when they went to turn her around, she slipped off the spile and really lay over on her side. They wound her around and when the port side hit the dock, she went over just enough more for the water to pour in her deck scuttles — and down she went. In a few days a Merritt, Chapman and Scott derrick was brought up from New York and raised her.
The Cornell Steamboat Company tug “Pocahontas” was built in 1884 and acquired by Cornell in 1901. The “Pocahontas” had a sister tug, the “Osceola.” This large and handsome tug operated on the Hudson River until 1939. The Hudson River Maritime Museum has a nameboard from the “Pocahontas.” Donald C. Ringwald Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum
Always A Hazard
Since coal burns, fire was always a hazard to a coal pocket. The Cornell Steamboat Company lost two of theirs by burning, the first time in 1907 and the second time in 1936.
The fire in 1907 — on November 3, a Sunday — totally destroyed the coal pocket, several hundred tons of coal, and almost destroyed the big tugboat “John H. Cordts.” The “Cordts’’ was tied up at the dock adjacent to the coal pocket. The fire broke out in the coal pocket and got a good start before it was discovered.
The fire spread rapidly and soon the forward part of the “Cordts” was also aflame. The burning coal in the coal pocket made an incredibly hot fire. Although the coal pocket and most of its contents were total losses, the Kingston Fire Department was able to save the “Cordts” — not however before the forward half of the tugboat had been burned away and the tug had been purposely sunk at the dock. The “Cordts” was subsequently raised, rebuilt and continued in service for nearly another 20 years.
After the 1907 fire, Cornell built a new coal pocket at the same site, somewhat smaller in size. Once during the mid 1920’s, the big tugboat “George W. Washburn” came into the Cornell shops and tied up at the coal pocket dock. During the night a fire broke out on the tugboat and spread to the coal pocket. Prompt action by the Kingston Fire Department, however saved both the “Washburn” and the coal pocket.
Finally, at 2 a.m, on Thanksgiving morning 1936, this coal pocket again caught fire and this time the fire got such a start it was impossible to save it. The fire which was a two alarmer, completely destroyed the coal pocket and about 50 tons of coal.
The 1936 fire marked the end of steamboat coal pockets on Rondout Creek. By this time, the Cornell fleet was considerably reduced in size due to a decline in towing on the Hudson River and diesel tugboats were taking the place of steam tugs. And so another era — the age of coal — came to a close along the banks of the Rondout.
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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