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 August 27, 1972..
When I was a boy of nine, my father took me to spend a weekend on the steamboat “Onteora" on which my older brother, Algot, was the mate. The visit was made during the last weekend of August 1920 and made a tremendous impression on me. I kept notes on the trip, and made a list of every steamboat I saw. At that time, the "Onteora" made a round trip daily between 125th Street, New York, and Bear Mountain — and was in her first year of excursion service. She previously had been a night boat of the Catskill Evening Line.
We crossed Rondout Creek from Sleightsburgh on the old chain ferry "Riverside," better known as the "Skillypot," which was still in service awaiting the opening of the then new Rondout Creek bridge. From Rondout we took the open trolley car to Kingston Point where we talked to Phil Maines, the dockmaster, who had formerly been the mate of the “Mary Powell" when my father was her ship's carpenter. While waiting for the down Day Boat, my father remembered he had left his cigars in Jacobson’s store on the Strand and hurried back on the trolley to get them. I thought sure we would miss the boat, but he got back just as the “Robert Fulton” was landing.
As we were passing Esopus Island, I saw the wreck of the steamboat "Point Comfort" on the north end of the island where she had piled up the previous September.
South of Crum Elbow, we passed the "Hendrick Hudson” of the Day Line on her way to Albany and after leaving Poughkeepsie, down off Camelot, we passed the “Benjamin B. Odell” of the Central Hudson Line going to Poughkeepsie.
Down at Newburgh, I remember seeing the steamboats "William F. Romer” and “M. Martin” in the process of being broken up. Off West Point, we passed the Cornell tugboat "George W. Washburn” going up with a large tow and the tugs "W. N. Bavier" and "Hercules" helping her. The ferry "Highlander" was crossing the river to Garrison.
When we approached Bear Mountain, the steamboats “Mandalay,” "Seagate" and "Sirius" were lying at the pier to be used by the “Robert Fulton.” They all pulled out into the river so the "Fulton" could land. The other pier at Bear Mountain was also crowded with steamboats and, as a little boy, I could not take my eyes off them. At the spiles [sic] that had been put in specially for the "Mary Powell” during her last years in service, lay the "Onteora.” I thought what a wonderful boat she was. It was the first time I had ever seen her. At the pier were the steamboats “Grand Republic,” "Trojan," “Highlander,” “Clermont” and "Monmouth.” There were hundreds of people all around and bands playing on some of the steamers. It was a sight never to be forgotten.
Then we went aboard the "Onteora" and met my brother. The way he looked to me in his uniform, I thought he was greater than the President of the United States!
When we left Bear Mountain that night on the "Onteora" at about 7:30 p.m. all of the other steamboats had already departed. Later, as we were down off Haverstraw, eating our supper in the dining room, my brother said, "Look out there, Bill."
When I looked out the starboard windows, there was the Day Liner "Albany" passing us, the big walking beam reaching, reaching and reaching, her white paddle wheels splashing the water — a truly wonderful sight to my boyish eyes. I still can remember Mike Rafferty of Kingston, the mate, standing in the gangway and waving his hand.
As we were nearing Yonkers, I must have fallen asleep on the leather upholstered locker in the pilot house because the next thing I remember we were tied up at the 125th Street pier. Ike Schermerhorn, the pilot, let us have his room in the pilot house block on the top deck but I slept hardly a wink all night. The 125th Street ferries running back and forth to Edgewater would blow their whistles as they left their slip right next to our pier and kept me wide awake.
The next morning how good that breakfast tasted to me. My brother let me get down and have my breakfast in the deckhand's mess hall with Henry Emmick and Horace Lehman, two of the deckhands from Kingston. Then he took me across the pier to see three of the Coney Island boats of the Iron Steamboat Company that were tied up there — the “Cepheus,” “Perseus” and “Taurus.”
I can remember the “Washington Irving," the flagship of the Hudson River Day Line, landing at the end of the pier on her way to Albany. Next came the “Trojan” of the Hudson River Night Line landing at 132nd Street on her Sunday trip to Newburgh. Then came my pride and joy, the big "Benjamin B. Odell,” to land at the end of the pier for her Sunday excursion to Highland Falls, Newburgh, Beacon and Poughkeepsie.
I could see the lookout come out and hook open the pilot house door, so Captain George Greenwood could stand outside the pilot house to ring bells to the engine room to land her. After she left with a full load of people, in came the "Mandalay” and did the same thing.
Next, the “Albany" came in on her way to Poughkeepsie. I can remember I was standing in the "Onteora’s” pilot house, my brother having told me to stay there. I suppose he was afraid I would get lost among all the people. I hollered over to Mike Rafferty, the mate, who was standing in the “Albany's” gangway. When he hollered back,”Hello, William, are you having a good time?” it made me feel very important. Ike Schermerhorn, the “Onty’s” pilot, said, “How do you know him?" — and I answered, “I go over on her in the winter when she is tied up in Rondout Creek. My father does the carpenter work on her."
Next came the "Poughkeepsie,” but she did not stop and went right on by. A few minutes later we were blowing to let go and started for Bear Mountain. As we were leaving, the “Grand Republic” was coming up the harbor, getting ready to land at 132nd Street on her way to Bear Mountain.
As we were passing Fort Washington Point, I saw the Cornell tug “Eli B. Conine” coming down light, probably on her way to Edgewater. Later off Tarrytown we passed the tugboat “J. C. Hartt" with the down tow, the Cornell tugs “J. G. Rose” and “Ellen M. Ronan” helping her. The “Hartt” blew one long, one short and the “Onteora” answered with one long and two short blasts on her whistle. The captain of the “Onteora” was Ben Hoff, Jr. and his father, Ben Hoff, Sr., was captain of the “Hartt.”
When we arrived at Bear Mountain, the “Mandalay” was already there as was the “Seagate,” the “Seagate” having an excursion from Poughkeepsie. That afternoon, my father said, “Well, Bill, I guess it’s about time to go home.” So we boarded the West Shore train at Bear Mountain for the trip to Kingston. As we passed over the bridge that spans Popolopen Creek, just above Bear Mountain, there was the replica of the “Half Moon” that had been used in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909, snuggled between the high hills bordering the creek.
And, so, a great time for me came to an end, one I shall never forget.
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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