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 September 9, 1982 in the "Ulster County Gazette".
By William O. Benson as told to Ann Marrott
SLEIGHTSBURGH — Labor Day on the Hudson signified the last runs of the excursion steamers for the summer — especially for the people who had come up from New York City to spend the summer around the Catskill Mountains and Kingston.
It always seemed that on Labor Day, people didn’t appear so happy — especially the children. When you saw the boats come up in early June or July, the children would be so happy. But when getting on the boats going back Labor Day Weekend, they would all be nice enough, but there would be no joy.
Labor Day was one holiday I hated as a boy, because the next day I had to go to school. The Hudson River Day Line would run extra boats on Saturday and Sunday and Labor Day. And if you were out on Kingston Point on that holiday there would be a number of boats coming out of New York to bring the people back. Everyone wanted to get home the day before school started. All those boats would be loaded going to Bear Mountain. The Central Hudson Line would be running boats up to Beacon, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie. Labor Day was also the last excursion of the “Homer Ramsdell” and it would be advertised in the papers.
Now, if you brought the New York World back then you would see two whole pages full of steamboat listings. There would be steamboats listed there that people today have probably never heard of, such as the “Grand Republic,” the “Commodore,” the “Benjamin Franklin” and the “Sea Gate.” The “Sea Gate” could carry 500 to 600 people. But the bigger boats you would see would be the “Benjamin E. Odell,” the “Robert Fulton,” the “Albany,” the “Onteora,” and the “Clermont.” Some of the big Day Line boats could carry 3,000 or 4,000 people. The “Washington Irving” could carry 6,000 people.
I remember one Labor Day on the “Albany.” A lot of people got off her at Bear Mountain and this poor, stout woman came rushing down the pier, screaming and yelling. Her children were on the boat and it was already leaving. So the mate yelled back to her, “We'll put them off at Newburgh in charge of the dockmaster there. You'll have to get them at Newburgh.” Anyway, the purser took them under his wing and when they got to Newburgh the dockmaster took care of them. I’m not sure how they made out, but I’m sure they were fine. You used to see that all the time!!
The[n] after Labor Day the boats would get back to their regular schedules. Most of the captains on those boats, especially George Greenwood, the captain of the “Benjamin B. Odell,” were always glad to see Labor Day come. George was always worried with so many people on the boat during the summer excursions, of a fire starting in the staterooms. Some of the boats did run after Labor Day on a Saturday or a Sunday to carry passengers to Bear Mountain or an excursion out of Kingston, but they wouldn’t have the big crowds.
I looked forward to Labor Day, too, when I worked on the boats. You knew the boats were going to only run another day or two. Then she was headed for the Rondout Creek to tie up for the winter and you could go home. All during the summer you never got home much on those boats.
Whatever boats were the most expensive to run were tied up first — right after Labor Day. The Day Line, after the holiday, operated only two boats. Sometimes for two weekends in September they would have, for example, the “Robert Fulton” ready to come out for a fall excursion to see the Hudson River fall foliage.
When the boats were tied up we worked on them until the first of November cleaning the boat and painting her. Then of course you were laid off for the winter. In those days if you saved $150 to $200 during the summer you would have it made. You could live very comfortably all winter long. Some of us would get jobs ashore, which I used to do. I always looked forward to spring, when I could get back on the boats.
After Labor Day — during the fall and winter — was the busiest time for workmen in the Cornell Steamboat Company shops. When the river was freezing over and navigation was closing, that’s when they started to repair and clean up the boats. Sometimes they would employ 400 or 500 men during the winter. They had the boiler gang, machinists, sawyers, painters, blacksmiths, the coaling gang and the bull gang—they did all the heavy work. They also had a lot of white collar workers. Everyone worked to get the boats ready for the next season.
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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