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 volunteers Carl and Joan Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published November 7, 1971.
Tugboat "Primrose" with crew on New York State Barge Canal in 1927. Here she is on the Barge Canal with her pilot house lowered to the main deck and smokestack cut down to permit passage under the canal's many low bridges. Look closely to see the poodle and cat eyeing each other warily. Hudson River Maritime Museum collection.
Back in the 1920's, the Cornell Steamboat Company owned a tugboat that went by the flowery name of Primrose. For two long months at the time of which I write, the crew had been working and working hard without a day off.
Tired of the continuous running, the men were beginning to complain among themselves. Some tugs that seemed to have "pull" with the dispatcher were getting a Sunday lay up, but not the Primrose. So the crew lodged a formal complaint with the office.
The dispatcher seemed sympathetic. "Well," he said, "Sunday night I think the work will be caught up and you'll probably lay in to Monday night."
Couldn't Be Spared
But when Sunday came, he said they couldn't spare the tug and she'd have to work. The orders at that time were coming from Cornell's New York office at the old 53rd Street pier on the Hudson River.
The crew didn't argue; just took the orders and picked up a loaded coal barge at the D. L. and W. R. R. coal trestle and took it to Staten Island. Once arrived, the captain had an idea.
"Let's go to Newark," he said. "I know the channel and we can take a couple of days off. Let them find the tug themselves."
So away they sailed to Newark, N.J. — taking Sunday night off. Business was so busy that weekend at Cornell, the office didn't even notice that the Primrose hadn't called in for orders yet — and here it was Monday afternoon.
Police Scoured Harbor
When the office finally awoke to the fact it had a missing tugboat, it had everybody at Cornell looking for her. Police boats scoured the harbor, and Cornell's own people looked high and low for the missing Primrose - but nobody could find her.
Along about Tuesday afternoon, someone from Newark called the New York custom house. "There's a nice looking tugboat that's been tied up at our dock since Sunday night," he said, "and nobody s on her. She's all painted up, nice and clean, red with yellow panels, black stack, yellow umbrella, and white trim. Her name's Primrose and she's out of Rondout. Everything seems to be in order, but no steam on her and nobody aboard."
The custom house put in a call to the Cornell office to ask if their tug Primrose was over at Newark. Cornell admitted she was the subject of a search; surmised as how the crew must have stolen her since the office had given no orders to go to Newark.
Cornell's superintendent of operations, Robert Oliver, along with Terry Minor and Mr. Broad from the company's office, eventually arrived in Newark to find the tug all tied up shipshape, fires pulled, kitchen tidied up, but no crew.
Home to Kingston
Thundered Oliver: "I'll fire the whole clew from top to bottom!" Observed Broad: "How are you going to fire the crew when they ain't even here? That gang quit Sunday night and they're probably up in Kingston right now."
And that's where they were, all right. After their night off on Sunday, they figured they might just as well go on home the following morning, since they hadn't been home for two months.
They also figured Cornell would give them all another job anyway. They figured right but not completely. Eventually, Cornell hired all of them back again -- but never again was that same crew to be together on the same boat. The men were always kept separated on different tugboats.
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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