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 August 6, 1972.
One Saturday afternoon back in August 1926, the Cornell tugboat “Edwin H. Mead” relieved the tug “George W. Washburn” of the down tow off Yonkers. The “Washburn” was to run back up river light to the Cornell shops at Rondout to lay in and have some repairs made to her guards.
While the “Washburn” was running slow to pull in her towing cables, Jim Dee, her captain, and John Osterhoudt, her chief engineer, noticed the “Homer Ramsdell” of the Central Hudson Line steaming up river on her regular Saturday afternoon run to Kingston. The “Washburn’s” captain and chief decided to have some fun.
Chief Osterhoudt said to his firemen, “Get her hot. I want to show Howard Eaton, the chief of the ‘Ramsdell,’ what the old ‘Washburn’ can do.” The “Washburn” had exceptionally fine hull lines for a tugboat and was probably the fastest tug in the Cornell fleet.
When the “Washburn” hooked up, the “Homer Ramsdell” was almost a half mile ahead. Evidently Jess Travis, captain of the “Ramsdell,” and Howard Eaton, her chief, could see what the men in charge of the “Washburn” had in mind and they, too, decided to join in the fun and maintain their lead. The “Homer Ramsdell” was a fine steamboat and no slouch when it came to speed.
Up through Tappan Zee the “Washburn” chased the “Ramsdell,” neither gaining or losing ground. North of Tarrytown, Chief Osterhoudt of the “Washburn” decided to try some “strategy.” As used to be the case on all coal burning steamboats, the fires in the boilers had to be periodically cleaned and the ashes removed. When this would take place, the steam pressure would drop and then after the first were cleaned the steam pressure would build up again.
Chief Osterhoudt said, “I’ll wait until Chief Eaton of the ‘Ramsdell’ cleans his fires at Rockland Lake. I’ll let mine go and then we’ll get alongside of her.” By watching the ‘Ramsdell’s’ smokestack and when he saw the grayish white dust coming out, he knew the ‘Ramsdell’ was cleaning fires. He then opened up the ‘Washburn’s’ throttle a little more and the “Washburn” began to gain.
On the “Washburn” they could see Chief Eaton of the “Ramsdell” come out in the gangway and look back to see if the “Washburn” was gaining, the chief of the “Ramsdell” thinking the “Washburn” would clean fires also, which she didn’t.
When they were just north of Haverstraw, the “Washburn’s” bow was even with the “Ramsdell’s” stern. That is the way they stayed for nearly 10 miles – past Stony Point, around Jones Point, and past Iona Island, Anthony’s Nose and Conn’s Hook. Finally, the “Homer Ramsdell” had to slow down for the landing at Highland Falls and the “Washburn” sped by.
It must have been quite a sight, the “Washburn” hanging just off the “Ramsdell’s” stern, the “Ramsdell” belching black smoke from the soft coal she burned and the “Washburn” trailing the bluish haze from her stacks from the anthracite she burned during that period. It was a sight to bring joy to the heart of any boatman. Two old timers of the Hudson having it out through the Highlands in the twilight of their lives, all forgotten about now except by aw few who remember the days gone by and never to return.
This incident was related to me by Fred Parslow, a long time Hudson River tugboat pilot and captain, in 1931. At the time of the “go” he had been pilot on the tugboat “Hercules” and was sailing to Rondout on the “George W. Washburn” as a passenger.
The “Homer Ramsdell” left the Hudson River in 1930 after the Central Hudson Line went out of existence and went to Boston. At Boston she was renamed “Allerton” and used as an excursion steamer, running to Nantasket Beach until the early 1950’s. The “George W. Washburn” continued her towing career on the Hudson River until the mid 1940’s. Both vessels were broken up, the “Washburn” in 1950 at Staten Island and the “Ramsdell” at Bordentown, N.J. in 1953.
(In [this] article, "Ramsdell and Washburn Have Some Fun," the chief engineer of the "George W. Washburn” was given as John Osterhoudt. It should have read Harold (Zeke) Herdman of Kingston.)
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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