This week we've got something a little different! Here's a fun story about the bell of the Mary Powell, as told by Captain William O. Benson.
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 on June 4, 1972.
When the "Mary Powell” was of being broken up at Connelly in the early 1920's, there was great interest among Hudson Valley residents in mementos from the old steamboat. It seemed that almost anything that came from the steamer, whether it was a section of joiner work, a flag pole, a deck chair, or even a baggage check or spike, found a ready buyer.
Many items acquired by people interested in souvenirs from the old “Queen of the Hudson” were genuine. Others, however, were not. One of the latter that even today occasionally appears are bells reputed to be the bell of the “Mary Powell." I have seen locomotive bells, farm bells, big bells and small bells, all supposed to be the bell that graced the forward spar of the steamer during her career on the Hudson River. All are fakes, for the real one was removed before the steamer was sold for breaking up, for awhile was installed at Bear Mountain, later at Indian Point, and is now at the New York Historical Society Museum in New York City.
In the fall of 1919, when the “Mary Powell” was sold to be broken up, she lay aft of the steamer “Albany” at the Sunflower Dock at Sleightsburgh on the south side of Rondout Creek. Just before she was sold, orders came from the New York office of the Hudson River Day Line to Michael Rafferty, the mate of the "Albany”, to remove the bell from the "Powell” and put it aboard the "Albany.”
Transferred to “Albany”
That winter my father was doing carpenter work on the “Albany” and on Saturdays, and other days when I was not in school; I used to take his lunch over to him. After the bell of the "Powell" was taken down from the mast in back of her pilot house, it was put on a large hand truck and placed on the deck in the after port gangway of the "Albany.”
One day when I was on, the “Albany,” I stood alongside the bell thinking how big it looked sitting there on the hand truck. Alongside the bell on the deck was a chipping hammer, one end round and the other end like a blade. Being a young boy of nine and not thinking, I picked up the chipping hammer and started to hit the bell to hear it ring.
I must have pounded the bell 15 or 20 times when Mr. Rafferty came along and said in a very nice way, “Here, here, William, you are putting marks in that soft metal. Use this.” And he handed me a wooden fid [sic]. When I hit the bell with the fid, though, it only made a dull sound, so I didn’t bother anymore.
That spring of 1920, when the “Albany” went into commission, the “Mary Powell’s” bell went down the river with her and was put ashore at Bear Mountain. There, it was installed high on the hill above the boat landings. Today, in that same location, there is a very large cast bronze deer’s head in its place.
When the Hudson River Day Line built its own recreation park at Indian Point, just below Peekskill, the "Powell’s” bell was moved from Bear Mountain and installed on a wooden frame adjacent to the line’s steamboat landings.
This was in 1923 or 1924. When one of the line’s steamers would come around Jones Point, the bell would be rung to let people at the park know one of the Day Liners would be landing in about five minutes.
When I was a deckhand on the "Albany" during the seasons of 1928 and 1929, we lay at the Indian Point pier one day with a charter. I went over and looked at the bell from the “Mary Powell” and sure enough there were the dents I had put there many years before with the chipping hammer.
Mike Rafferty, the man who removed the bell from the “Mary Powell,” was a fine man to have as a mate. He was very aristocratic looking, very strict, but fair with everyone with whom he came in contact — whether you were an old hand or a green deckhand in your first season. He had once been a chief in the Kingston Fire Department, before it became a paid department in 1907.
On to New York
After the Day Line sold the Indian Point Park in the mid 1950s, Alfred V. S. Olcott, the old Day Line’s president, had the "Mary Powell" bell taken to New York. There, he presented the bell as a gift to the New York Historical Society on Central Park West, New York City. When he made the presentation, there was a photograph of him and the bell in the New York newspapers. The old Indian Point Park is now the site of Consolidated Edison’s nuclear electric generating station.
So, the bell that was heard and carried on the “Mary Powell” for all those years — from the time she was built until she turned her last wheel — and then placed at Bear Mountain and Indian Point, now has reached her final port.
Also at the same museum is the "Powell’s" soft, sweet-sounding whistle. The “Powell’s” whistle, after the “Queen” was withdrawn from service, was installed on the Day Liner "Robert Fulton.” When the “Fulton" left New York for the last time, the whistle was acquired by William H. Ewen, Sr. of Hastings-on-Hudson, a former president of the Steamship Historical Society of America, and he, in turn, donated it to the same New York Historical Society.
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.
Of course, that wasn't the end of the bell of the Mary Powell! After the Hudson River Maritime Museum moved to its present location in 1983, the bell of the Mary Powell was brought to the museum on long-term loan from the New York Historical Society.
If you'd like to visit the bell in-person, and even ring it (it's very loud!), you can visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum. And if you'd like to learn more about the Mary Powell, check out our new exhibit, "Mary Powell: Queen of the Hudson," available in-person and online.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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