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 30, 1973.
Fog, that natural phenomenon so prevalent on the river in the fall and spring when the seasons change, has constantly been a problem to boatmen. Obviously, there is always the danger of collision or grounding.
Today, the electronic marvel of radar has done much to lessen the danger of the boatmen’s old foe. Prior to World War II, however, there was no radar. Then, the boatmen had nothing to rely upon except their boat’s compass, the echo of their boat’s whistle off the river bank, and their own knowledge of the river with all its tricks of tide, wind and twisting-channels. Few people on shore, unless they at one time had worked on the river, ever realized how extensive and uncanny this knowledge was.
Years ago, probably the best men on the river in fog were the captains and pilots of the Cornell Steamboat Company’s big tugboats - the tugs that pulled the big tows of that era, sometimes with as many as 50 or 60 barges and scows in a tow. They had to be good. A steamboat pilot could almost always anchor. But on the big tugs, when the fog would close in with the tide underfoot with a big tow strung out astern and no room to round up and head into the tide, they had no choice but to keep going.
One time, back around 1930, there was a company in New York harbor that specialized in the towing of oil barges. Their tugs would push oil barges up the Hudson River and through the New York Barge Canal to cities like Utica, Syracuse and Buffalo.
One day one of their tugboats was pushing an oil barge up the river, destined for Buffalo, when off Tarrytown it began to get very foggy. At the time they were overtaking a big Cornell tow in charge of the tug "J. C. Hartt.” As the fog was getting thicker, the captain of the small tug pushing the oil barge went up to the tail end of the Cornell tow and put a line from the oil barge on to the last barge in the ‘‘Hartt’s” tow. He held on until the fog cleared up near Bear Mountain and then let go and went on his way.
About two weeks later, when the canal tug and its oil barge got back to New York, the tug captain’s boss came down to the dock and said, “Cap, were you holding on a Cornell tow about two weeks ago?” The tug captain was sort of flustered and sputtered, "Why, why when?”
“Well,” replied the boss, “we've got a bill from Cornell here for $65 for towing from Tarrytown to Bear Mountain,” and he then mentioned the times and the date.
The oil barge tug’s captain knew his boss had the goods on him, so all he could say was, “Yes, that’s right. I was caught in fog off Tarrytown when they were going by. And you know those Cornell men know the river in fog better than anybody. I knew I'd be safe hanging on and sailing along with them.
The boss said, “Well, I guess we'll have to pay it, but don't do it again.”
I am sure many other canal tugs did the same thing, some getting away with it and some not. As they used to say along the river, the men on Cornell's steady pullers were the best compasses on the river.
Now, those able boatmen, men like Ira Cooper, Al Hamilton, Ben Hoff, Sr., Jim Monahan, John Sheehan, Jim Dee, Albert Van Woert, John Cullen, Dan McDonald, Barney McGooey, Larry Gibbons, Howard Palmatier and a host of others, have long since steered their last tugboat through a fog. And those big, powerful steady pullers, tugboats like the “J. C. Hartt,” “Geo. W. Washburn,” "John H. Cordts,” “Edwin H. Mead,” “Pocahontas,” “Osceola” and “Perseverance” have all towed their final flotilla of scows and barges. Gone forever are the big tugboats with their red and yellow paneled deck houses and towering black smokestacks with their chrome yellow bases.
The only thing that remains constant is the River with its changing tides. And the fogs of spring and autumn.
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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