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 Contributing Scholar Carl Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published February 13, 1972.
Back in 1929 when I was a deckhand on the steamer “Albany” of the Hudson River Day Line, I thought maybe I’d like to go quartermaster on one of the boats of the Saugerties Evening Line.
I walked from the 42nd Street Pier of the Day Line down to Pier 43, North River, at the foot of Christopher Street—where the Saugerties boat would be tied up during the day. I wanted to talk to an old friend of my brother’s from their days on the “Onteora.’’ He was pilot on the steamer ‘‘Robert A. Snyder” and his name was Harry Grough.
As we sat in the Snyder’s pilot house talking and looking out over the harbor, we could hear all kinds of steam whistles from all sorts of floating equipment— including tugboats, ferries, ocean liners and sidewheel steamboats. I told him I thought I would like a quartermaster’s position if one was open.
He said I would have to see, the captain, Richard Heffernan. The captain, however, was not aboard that afternoon as he had gone downtown to get the boat’s papers renewed, and would not be back until just before sailing time.
Harry said to me, “If I were young like you, Bill, I would go over to Jersey and get a job on the railroad tugs. That’s where the business is. This business is dying out every day.”
Then, we went down on the freight deck. Harry said, “Look, here it is almost 3:30 p.m. and we only have a few boxes and bags on board. A few years ago at this time, this deck would have been piled right up to the carlings with all kinds of freight.”
Harry continued, “Tonight, we’ll be lucky if we have a half dozen passengers. The passengers used to start to come on board at 2 p.m. and, by now, the staterooms would be sold out. Tonight, you could take your pick of almost anyone you’d want. This Line can’t go on like this very long. When the company doesn’t make a dollar, then we don’t have a job either. No, Bill, you will be better off going on the tugboats.”
He Was Right
Over the years, I found out for myself Harry was right.
The Saugerties Evening Line boats were the ‘‘Robert A. Snyder’’ and the ‘‘Ida.” Every night, one would leave Saugerties, sail out Saugerties Creek and make landings at Tivoli, Barrytown, Rhinecliff and Hyde Park on its sail to New York.
When the “Snyder” and “Ida” were operating back in those long ago days, every night at about 7:30 of 8 p. m. one would hear one or the other blow three long whistles for the Rhinecliff landing to take on freight and passengers. Between 1 and 2 a.m. in the lonely morning hours the up boat would be heard blowing her whistle for Jim Conroy, the dock master at Rhinecliff, to take its lines.
To the tugboatmen, the night boats were like old friends. During the long night and early morning hours, it was indeed pleasant to see the night boats approaching in the distance and hear the slap, slap of their paddle wheels in the stillness of the night.
A Glittering Crown
Then, as they passed by, they would often blow a low salute on their whistle. As they faded into the night, their deck and cabin lights would blend into a glittering crown of light reflecting on the water.
I remember on several occasions Dan McDonald, the pilot on the “Osceola,” telling me how he would be coming down river with a large tow off Germantown, and on a clear night look down the river at about 3 a.m. and see one of the Saugerties boats coming up off Crugers Island; then turn and show her green starboard light as she went into Saugerties Creek. He would remark how nice it must have been at that hour to get tied up and go to your room in the pilot house block and sleep until you felt like getting up and then look out on the quiet and peaceful dock at the fine little village of Saugerties. No worries about morning fog, how the tow was going to follow, or old leaky brick or stone scows in the tow.
The “Robert A. Snyder” was layed up for good in 1931 at her dock on Saugerties Creek. As there was only enough business for one boat, the “Ida,’’ since she had a steel hull and was the younger boat, continued for one more year. Then in 1932 she was quietly layed up.
Strangely, the Saugerties Evening Line, serving Saugerties and small villages on the upper Hudson, outlasted all the other night lines on the river except the big night boats to Albany. The Central Hudson Line, serving Kingston, Poughkeepsie and Newburgh went out in 1929 and the last boat of the Catskill Evening Line stopped for good in 1931. Finally, in 1932, the automobile and the Great Depression took their tolls of the last night boat from Saugerties.
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!
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.