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 June 18, 1972.
When the intercollegiate crew races used to be held at Poughkeepsie every year during the latter part of June, the Cornell Steamboat Company would indirectly be involved.
Both Frederick and Edward Coykendall were graduates of Columbia University and always had a great interest in the crews of their alma mater. During the 1930’s and 1940's, Frederick Coykendall was also chairman of Columbia Board of Trustees.
As a result of their interest in Columbia and rowing, the Coykendalls would use one of their tugboats to transport Columbia's shells to Poughkeepsie; on occasion would have an invited party of guests at the boat races on one of their tugs; and would maintain an old canal barge that on boat race day was used as the "finish boat.”
The crews of the various colleges used to train for the races on the river at Poughkeepsie for a week or two prior to the regatta. For years, one of the Cornell helper tugs used to take the Columbia shells from their boat house on the Harlem River in New York up the Hudson to the Columbia boat house, which was located north of Highland on the west shore just below Krum Elbow. Then a day or two after the regatta, a tug would take the shells back to New York.
On boat race day, particularly before the Depression, the river at Poughkeepsie used to be filled with all types of spectator steamboats, yachts and sometimes Navy destroyers with midshipmen aboard to watch the regatta. Generally, there used to be two Day Liners, at least one boat of the Central Hudson Line, and others.
One year, when Judge Alton B. Parker was still alive and maintained his estate "Rosemont" at Esopus, the Coykendalls had the large Cornell tugboat "George W. Washburn” ready to take their families and friends to Poughkeepsie to see the boat races.
On the way down river from Kingston, Edward Coykendall said to Al Hamilton, captain of the "Washburn," "Captain, stop at the Esopus landing and pick up Judge Parker and his family. We are going to take them along with us.”
Captain Hamilton said, "Mr. Coykendall, there’s not enough water at that dock for this boat. We might break our wheel.” Coykendall replied, “Get in there any way you can. I want to pick them up as they will be waiting for us.”
So, Captain Hamilton put the “Washburn” into the dock at Esopus, and when he went to back down, clip went the wheel on a rock and bent two of the propeller's flukes: However, when the “Washburn” left Esopus for Poughkeepsie — instead of shaking all over as normally would be the case with a bent propeller — she went as well, if not better, than when the propeller was in good condition. Everybody thought the flukes must have been broken off, but when she was put on drydock, the flukes weren’t broken but only bent.
I heard Coykendall relate this story himself one day in 1939 in the pilot house of the "Jumbo."
Also, for years, the Coykendalls would furnish the “finish boat,” an old D. & H. canal boat they maintained just for this purpose. The little barge would be anchored fore and aft with two anchors at the finish line of the races. A large board would be mounted on the deck of the barge and, after a race, would give the order of finish and the official times. The information on the board would be visible to the people on shore and those on the observation train that used to move along the West Shore railroad tracks as the crews moved down river from the starting line to the finish line.
The Rob's Job
The Barge would be painted at the Cornell shops and at dawn on boat race day, the tug “Rob" would tow the “finish boat" from Rondout to Poughkeepsie and anchor it at the proper place. After the last race, the anchors would be pulled up and the “Rob” would tow the canal boat back to Kingston for other year.
John Lynn of Port Ewen, captain of the "Rob," used to invite friends of his and their families to watch the regatta. These people would go out to Kingston Point and take the down Day Liner to Poughkeepsie.After the Day Liner left, the "Rob" would come chuffing into the finish line where she would stand by the "finish boat." These people probably had the best view of the end of the races of anyone at the regatta.
After the last race, all the boats at the regatta would get underway at once and almost all of them headed for New York. Almost all except the “Rob,” which with the "finish boat" alongside would head for Rondout Creek where she would arrive at about 11 p.m.
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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