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 23, 1977.
Tugboats in some respects are like people. Some have long lives, some short ones. Some during the course of their lifetime change greatly in appearance. And some seem to be more accident prone than others.
All tugboats, especially in the old days, had their share of mishaps, which were caused by any number of things. River traffic was greater then, and there were fewer buoys, beacons and other navigational aids. It was a time of no radar, which today permits the pilot to “see” where he is in the fog, blinding snow or rain storm. In addition, of course, there were and are always those mishaps caused by human error or folly.
The debacles that befell the tugboat “Hercules” of the old Cornell Steamboat Company are perhaps typical. Some of the incidents were not without a touch of humor. Others have a bit of pathos.
The “Hercules” — a good name for a tug — was a member of the Cornell fleet during its heyday. She was built in 1876 and remained in active service until 1931. "Herk," as they often called her, was smaller than the large tugboats that used to pull the big flotillas of barges, but also larger that the helper tugs that regularly assisted every big tow. As a result, she was used for a lot of special tasks: towing dredges, expressing special barges or lighters, pulling steamboats from winter lay up to a shipyard, etc.
"Herk" also had a reputation as an ice breaker and was used often for this purpose - particularly in the spring. To help her in the ice, she had extra stout oak planking and steel straps all around her bow.
One day in the summer of 1917, the "Hercules" was running light to Rondout. Her pilot was off watch, asleep in his bunk, and the captain was dog tired. Since it was a clear summer’s day, the captain decided to grab a nap and let the deckhand steer.
After he went below for his nap, a heavy thunder shower came up off Esopus Meadows lighthouse. The decky altered course, and — thinking he was on the proper heading — kept her hooked up.
A few minutes later, "Herk" came to a slow stop and raised partly out of the water. When she listed, the captain woke up and ran to the pilot house. But the heavy rain was coming down in sheets. He couldn’t see a thing. All he knew for sure was that his tug was aground and the tide was falling.
When the rain stopped a few hours later, the problem was obvious. The deckhand had turned too much towards the northwest, going aground directly off the old Schleede’s brickyard at Ulster Park. The “Hercules” had plowed right over the Esopus Meadows, coming to rest with her bow on the north bank and her stern on the south bank, straddling the cut channel between the Meadows and the brickyard.
The tide was ebbing and, unsupported as she was in the middle, her crew was afraid the Herk would either break her back or roll over on her side. But as the water fell, she listed only a trifle and sat there— just as she had run aground. “Herk" must have been made of good stuff to stand that ordeal.
The next high tide, Cornell sent down the tugs “Harry", “G. C. Adams” and “Wm. S. Earl” and pulled her off, none the worse for the experience. The deckhand who put her there lived in Port Ewen. For years afterward, he took a lot of ribbing for trying to put his tug up in his own backyard.
Two years later — in 1919 — the “Hercules" had another mishap. For this one, her pilot was fired.
At that time, "Herk" was expressing a coal boat from New York to Cornwall. She was off
Jones Point at about 1:30 in the morning, when the pilot, who used to so some fishing, said to the deckhand, “Steer her a little while. I’m going down to the galley and knit on my fish nets.”
While the pilot knitted, the decky dozed off at the wheel, and the “Hercules” hit a rock near Fort Montgomery. It put a sizable hole in her hull, she sank in 45 feet of water.
The salvage company later located her by her hawser, which was still attached to the coal boat, and floated her like a big buoy. “Herk” was raised and repaired, and she ran for another 12 years.
After the accident, the president of the Cornell Steamboat Company is said to have called the pilot into his office to ask him how it happened. The pilot was truthful, telling him where he was and what he'd been doing, whereupon Cornell’s president is supposed to have said: “Well,”(calling the pilot by name),"now you can go home for the rest of your life and knit nets to your heart’s content." And he never worked on a Cornell tugboat again.
In 1924, the “Hercules" had another near accident— but this one ended on a happier note. The tug was running light in the upper river on her way to Albany. It was the era before three crews manned each boat, and the captain was off for the weekend. Peter Tucker, the pilot, was in charge and standing a double watch.
At the time, it was early morning and breakfast was ready. The cook claimed he had a Hudson River pilot’s license and came up to the pilot house saying, "Now Pete, go down and enjoy your bacon and eggs. I'll steer for you.”
Pete said, “‘Are you sure you know the channel?", to which the cook replied, "Yes, yes I know all about it." So pilot Tucker went down to the galley to have his oatmeal, bacon and eggs.
At that point, "Herk” was off the Stuyvesant upper lighthouse. A little while later, she was at the junction of the Hudson and Schodack Creek. Given a choice, the poor cook thought he was to go up the shallow Schodack, instead of west and up the Hudson.
Ned Bishop, the chief engineer, came out of the galley just in time to see where they were heading. Yelling to pilot Tucker, he said, “Pete, where is this guy going?"
The pilot looked out of the galley, and there they were, headed up Schodack Creek. Pete started to run up the forward stairway to the pilot house, hollering to Ned Bishop as he ran, "Full speed astern!" The chief reversed the throttle just in time. The "Hercules" slid up on the bank and right off again. If he hadn’t been so quick, "Herk" would probably be there yet.
Going into the pilot house, Pete said to the cook, “I thought you knew the river." The cook (rather sheepishly) replied, "Well, that’s the way I always went.” The pilot retorted, "What’s the use? Go down and start dinner. Now!”
And so ended another incident of the many in the long life of the "Hercules."
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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