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 December 16, 1973.
In today’s jet age of airplane travel, and human nature being what it is, some people seem to take a perverse delight in recounting incidents where their flight — because of adverse weather conditions — was diverted to an airport other than that of their original destination, or now of delays encountered because of the energy crisis. In the simpler age of steamboat travel, there were also on occasion unforeseen delays.
In that long ago era before the advent of the automobile and the airplane, virtually every trip of more than a few miles was made either by railroad or, if the destination was adjacent to navigable water, by steamboat. Travel by steamboat was generally leisurely and delightful. However, you always didn’t get to where you were going when you expected to.
One such incident was related to me years ago by Captain Ed Van Woert of the Cornell tugboat “G. C. Adams.” In December 1913, Captain Van Woert had to go to New York to testify in a lawsuit being held there pertaining to damage to a schooner that occurred while being landed at Hudson some months before. He thought he would take his wife along for the trip.
On this particular day, Captain Ed left the ‘‘Adams” at Athens and went home to get ready. That evening, he and his wife boarded the steamer “Onteora” of the Catskill Evening Line at Athens, expecting to be in New York the following morning.
After going aboard the “Onteora” and getting their stateroom, they had a leisurely supper in the steamer’s dining room.
After eating, Captain Ed said to his wife, “I guess I'll go up in the pilot house awhile and talk to my friend the pilot.”’ At this point, the “Onty” was approaching the landing at Cheviot and a snow storm had set in.
On leaving Cheviot, the "Onteora" headed for County Island to get over in the main channel. The snow storm had increased in intensity and visibility had decreased almost to zero. The pilot held her on the west course a little bit too long and she went hard aground just north of County Island, with her bow in about five feet of water and her stern in deep water. They backed and backed, but she wouldn’t come off.
The tide was falling and at daybreak the next morning the "Onteora" was still hard aground. Captain Van Woert and his wife got off in a small boat and after being rowed to shore, walked through two feet of snow to the nearest railroad station to catch a train for New York. The “Onteora” got herself off on the next high tide and was back on her run — although nearly 12 hours late — none the worse for her mishap.
Another incident that took place about the same period, although this time during the summer, was related to me by my old friend George W. Murdock, an old time Hudson River steamboat engineer who died at his home in Ponckhockie in 1940, well into his eighties.
On a Saturday summer’s afternoon, Mr. Murdock boarded the “William F. Romer” at her New York pier for the run to Kingston. At that time, the “Romer" of the New York to Rondout night line regularly would leave New York on Saturday in the early afternoon and arrive at Rondout in the early evening. Mr. Murdock’s brother-in-law, Joel Rightmyer of Ponckhockie, was the “Romer's" pilot. On this particular trip, the “Romer” was bucking a strong ebb tide from the time she left her New York pier.
The wind, like it so often does during the summer, was blowing straight up river out of the south. Worse yet, what breeze there was was blowing at about the same velocity as the “Romer’s" speed through the water, so that while underway the “Romer’s” flags hung limp on their poles. Underway, it was hot, humid, virtually airless and, because of the strong ebb tide, the steamer was running later and later with each passing hour.
Past the Palisades and up through Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay, the “Romer” plodded her way up river. It wasn’t much of a day for steamboating. Finally, the "Romer" reached the Hudson Highlands and as she approached the landing at West Point, Mr. Murdock noticed a West Shore passenger train chuffing away from Highland Falls. He decided to leave the steamer and catch the train for the rest of his trip to Rondout,
As he was leaving the steamboat, Mr. Murdock said to his brother-in-law, “Joel, I don’t think you'll get to Kingston by nightfall." Replied Pilot Rightmyer, “Well, George, if we don’t get there today, we’ll get there tomorrow.”
Mr. Murdock boarded the train at West Point, thinking he’d get home well ahead of the steamer. However, as luck would have it, there was a freight train stuck on the West Park hill where the tracks make their incline from the river and head inland. His train, on the same track as the freight, stood on the tracks for what seemed like an eternity in the hot summer air.
Finally another locomotive was sent down from Kingston and got the freight train ahead moving. Eventually, Mr. Murdock got to Kingston and took the trolley car for Rondout. As he was walking up Abruyn Street to his home in Ponckhockie, he glanced over his shoulder — just in time to see the top deck of the “William F. Romer” gliding past on her way in Rondout Creek to her berth on Ferry Street!
During the 1950’s the Cunard Line had a great slogan — “Getting there is half the fun.” Generally it was. Sometimes, though, as it is in all forms of travel, the fraction was wrong.
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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