Last Trip of the Skillypot
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 October 15, 1972.
Of all the steam propelled vessels that have floated upon the waters of Rondout Creek, probably the one that was best known locally in her day was the ungainly little ferry boat that used to cross the creek from the foot of Hasbrouck Avenue to Sleightsburgh. Known throughout the area as the “Skillypot,” she made her last trip from Rondout to Sleightsburgh on Oct. 14, 1922 — exactly 50 years ago yesterday.
“Skillypot” - reportedly a corruption of the Dutch word for tortoise — wasn't even her right name. It was the “Riverside,” a name that many would-be patrons often changed to where she usually was found - the “Otherside.” She may not have been loved as was the “Mary Powell” or admired as were many other steamboats, but she certainly was well known, and almost universally as the “Skillypot.”
Her fame on both sides of Rondout Creek rested securely until the opening of the 9-W highway suspension bridge in 1921 - the only way in her latter years to get across the creek, unless of course one owned or rented a rowboat or wanted to walk to Eddyville. She played an important part in the daily lives of many area residents, especially when the Rondout section of Kingston was important to the business and social life of the community.
Wherever there has been a natural barrier such as a river or a creek, people it seems have always wanted to get to the other side.
A Scow Was First
At Rondout, the first recorded vessel to regularly cross the creek was a small scow that was sculled across by hand from Sleightsburgh and could carry one wagon and a team of horses. This means of transportation existed until the spring of 1855 when the small steam ferryboat “J. P. Sleight” made her appearance.
Built by the sons of John P. Sleight and named for their father, the new ferryboat had two slide valve steam engines connected by cog wheels to two large steel drums. The drums were connected to a chain which was secured to both sides of the creek, a distance of about 440 feet. The drums would rotate and pull the ferry back and forth across the creek on the chain. The chain was of sufficient length to rest on the creek bottom except where it passed around the drums.
In March 1870, a severe freshet caused by melting snow and rain caused the ice in the upper creek to let go. The ice coming down the creek carried the “J. P. Sleight” right along with it. At the mouth of the creek, the “Sleight” smashed into the lighthouse that then stood on the south dike. Mrs. Murdock, the keeper of the light, caught a line from the ferry, but it parted and away went the “J. P. Sleight," drifting with the ice floes down the river.
In a few hours, the Cornell ice breaking towboat “Norwich” got underway and, breaking her way through the heavy ice fields off Esopus Meadows lighthouse, spotted the “J. P. Sleight” in another ice field down off Esopus Island. The “Norwich” brought the “Sleight” back to Port Ewen, where it was found her light hull had been damaged beyond repair. Her owners decided to build a new ferryboat which became the “Riverside.”
Contract to Washburn
Abraham and Isaac Sleight gave a contract for the new ferryboat to Hiram and John Washburn. When she was launched, the “Riverside” measured 55 feet long and 20 feet wide. Her engines came from the old “J. P Sleight" and were installed by John Dillon of Rondout.
The new “Riverside” was a success from the start. Upon the death of Isaac Sleight, ownership of the ferry passed to Herbert A. Starkey, and then in 1903 to Albert Norris who operated her until 1906 when Josiah Hasbrouck became the owner. It is not known at what, point in time the “Riverside” became better known as the latter name by which she was known far and wide in Ulster County.
As time went by and the automobile came along, new highways were being built along the banks of the Hudson. It soon became evident a bridge was badly needed across Rondout Creek. As a matter of fact, it was long overdue. After World War I on summer weekends, automobiles would be lined up on the Sleightsburgh side almost to the middle of Port Ewen and on the Kingston side to the top of Hasbrouck Avenue. Then, the “Riverside” really was a “Skillypot."
On summer weekends when automobiles were backed up on both sides of the creek, enterprising Sleightsburgh boys would earn money by showing unknowing motorists how to get across the creek by going across the bridge at Eddyville.
Pilots for a Fee
For a fee, they would get in a waiting car and “pilot” the motorist through New Salem and Eddyville to Rondout. There, they would reverse the process by taking a motorist from Hasbrouck Avenue through Eddyville to Port Ewen.
At times in some winters the “Skillypot” would be the only steamboat in operation on the upper Hudson. To keep her operating, men would cut a channel through the ice using ice saws and pike poles to shove the cakes of ice under the solid ice or, if it seemed easier, pull them up on top of the ice. During the summer, when the ferry “Transport” would come over from Rhinecliff, the swells from her paddle wheels would carry up the creek. Then how the “Skillypot“ would rock back and forth sideways and cause concern to some of the passengers.
The “Skillypot” always made her last trip of the day at 10:30 p.m. She would land at her Sleightsburgh slip and blow one blast on her small, clear, shrill whistle, signifying her toils were over for that day. Then if people still wanted to get across the creek, they would have to take a small scow, sculled by a single oar by Lyman Perrine.
Finally, the long awaited day came when the new bridge was open to traffic. The “Skillypot” still continued to operate for a period, but foot passengers even took to walking over the new bridge to save the two cents fare. So on Saturday night, Oct. 14, 1922, a Saturday then as it was this year — the “Skillypot” at 10:30 p.m. blew her final one long shrill whistle. As the echo died, so did she “Riverside.”
No More Chains
On Monday, Oct. 16, the two engineers, Charles Van Leuven and Charles Becker, and Peter Shoemaker, the deckhand, started to lay her up. They drained the water out of her boiler, disconnected the chains that connected her to each shore for so many years, and stowed ashore other equipment like lanterns and life preservers.
Then on Oct. 18, 1922, at 4 p.m. when the tide was high, they pulled the “Riverside” by hand to the east of the Sleightsburgh slip and beached her high on the shore. Just as they were about to pull her out of the slip, Richard Sleight, one of the brothers who operated J. Sleight’s Sons general store next to the ferry slip, ran out and jumped aboard, saying he wanted to have one last trip on the “Skillypot." She stayed on the beach at Sleightsburgh until Oct. 20, 1923 when she was towed to South Rondout after being purchased by former Alderman John Fischer. There, by a quirk of fate, she was put inshore alongside the remains of the famous “Mary Powell," then being dismantled. To this day, at low tide, parts of her old bones may be seen on the shore east of the railroad bridge.
Many an old riverman and Town of Esopus resident saw duty on the “Skillypot.” In addition to her final crew of Charles Van Leuven, Charles Becker and Peter Shoemaker, the roster included Elmer Marsh, David Relyea, William Sleight, James Devoe, Theodore Relyea, Andrew Taylor, James Rodman and Isaac C. Sleight.
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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