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 March 19, 1973.
To a boatman, particularly a steamboatman, there was always something special about getting ready to go into commission in the spring of each year.
In the days of long ago, all steamboats and most tugboats would be layed up for the winter season as the river froze over in December. In spring, when the days got longer and the ice broke up, the boats would get ready to go back into operation. Then, it was a new season — you knew spring had really arrived.
On a tugboat, the crew would report aboard in the early morning. All the new lines, supplies for the galley, mattresses, blankets and sheets and other supplies for the new season were brought aboard. The cook would be rushing around getting the galley ready and cooking the first meal, which usually had to be prepared quickly. Generally, he would go over to Planthaber’s on the Strand in Rondout and order his supplies for the first few days. When these came down to the dock, they always looked as if they would last a month.
Then the tug would go down to the coal pocket and coal up. The smell of dryed [sic] new paint in the fireroom and on top of the boilers, the soft hiss of the steam, and the pleasant aroma of the soft coal smoke made one so hungry, he could eat almost anything that was put before him.
Outside, the freshly painted cabins and coamings, the big shiny black smokestack with its yellow base, the glistening nameboards, and the new pennant on the jackstaff gently waving in the clean spring air suddenly made everything right with the world.
Then when the tug started away from the dock for the first time, to feel and hear her softly throbbing engine, and the gentle wake of the water around her bow and stern were all sounds a boatman never forgets.
Down off Port Ewen, the tug would generally blow a series of salutes on the whistle. It seemed there was always someone in the crew from Port Ewen. Often you could see someone on shore or from the upper window of a house waving back with a towel or maybe even a bed sheet. How clear and pleasant the whistle would sound in the early spring evening. It was great to be back in commission!
That First Meal
And the first big meal— generally steak. The table would be set with a fresh red and white checked table cloth and the cook would be wearing a big white apron—probably the cleanest it would be all year! The meal never tasted better.
And then to go to sleep on the first night in a comfortable bunk with nice, clean fresh sheets and blankets in a newly painted cabin was indeed pleasant. Of course, after a hard day of getting lines and equipment all aboard, I am sure one could have slept soundly on a bed of hard rock!
It was much the same on the steamboats. All the clean white paint, the fire and boat drills, old friendships renewed among returning crew members, the freshness of it all. Somehow on that first day she went into commission — for that one day at least — if you were a deckhand you would completely forget all the white paint you would have to scrub, all the brass you would have to polish, all the decks you would have to wash down, all the lines at all the landings you would have to handle, and the thousands of deck chairs you would have to fold up and stow before the new season would come to its end in the fall.
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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