How to Become an Ice Breaker
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 January 16, 1972.
During the early years of the 1900’s, there was a stone quarry at Rockland Lake, a few miles south of Haverstraw. The Cornell Steamboat Company towed the stone from the quarry on scows to the metropolitan New York market.
The winter of 1912 was very severe with heavy ice in the lower river. Cornell tugs, however, continued their efforts to break the ice so the stone could be towed to New York for use by the construction industry.
One one particular day that winter, the Cornell tugboats "S. L. Crosby” and "Hercules" were in the river off the quarry breaking ice — trying to get into the dock to break out the loaded scows that were frozen in. First, one tug would slam into the ice, which at the time was seven to eight inches thick, until she was stopped cold by the solid ice. Then that tug would back off and the other tug would slam into the track until she was stopped dead. Gradually, the two tugs were working their way towards the dock.
Two Good Tries
On one try the “Crosby” went ahead a short distance and stopped. On this try, however, she made a good crack in the ice. Next, the “Hercules" came up astern, hit the crack the “Crosby” had made, and plowed her way right up to the dock.
The general manager of the Cornell Steamboat Company was standing on the dock at the time. And, admiringly, he said, “What a great ice breaker we have in the “Hercules”!” Quite obviously, he had not noticed the crack in the ice made by the “Crosby.”
When spring came, Cornell had the "Hercules" sent to the Cornell repair shops at Rondout and ordered extra stout oak planking and steel straps put all around her bow. From that point on, the “Hercules" was thought to be the greatest ice breaker of them all. For years after, whenever ice was to be broken, the “Hercules” was sent out to do the job.
At the time of the ice breaking at Rockland Lake, Aaron Relyea of Bloomington was the captain of the "Crosby” and Mel Hamilton of Port Ewen was captain of the "Hercules.” Nearly 20 years later, I worked for Captain Relyea as a deckhand on the "Crosby" and he was the one who related this incident to me. Captain Aaron A l w a y s maintained the “Crosby” was the better tug of the two in breaking ice.
In later years, I also talked to Captain Hamilton about that day at Rockland Lake. Captain Mel said, "Aaron was right. Between the two tugs, the “Crosby” was the best in the ice. But,” he added with a wink, "never argue with the boss.”
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.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.