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 August 14, 1977.
Almost from the beginning of steam navigation, there have been shipyards along Rondout Creek. Probably the biggest day in the creek’s history occurred on September 30, 1918, when the largest vessel built along the Rondout hit the water for the first time.
Back in World War I, steel was in short supply and the federal government decided to build oceangoing freighters of wood. Four of these were to be built at the shipyard on Island Dock. The first ship to be launched was named “Esopus” and the event, based on estimates made by the Daily Freeman at the time, was witnessed by 15,000 people — more than half the population of Kingston and the immediate surrounding area.
In that era of nearly 60 years ago, Rondout Creek was a busy place. In addition to the ocean freighters being built at Island Dock, the C. Hiltebrant Shipyard at Connelly was building submarine chasers and the other yards were busy building barges to carry the Hudson’s commerce. The creek echoed with the sound of caulking hammers, the whine of band saws, and the whir of air drills and hammers.
The "Esopus” was the largest vessel, then or since, to be built along the Rondout, and her size, together with the intensity of the war effort, created a great deal of local interest in the ship. It had been rumored the launching would take place in mid-September. When it did not, this only piqued the interest of area residents.
Finally, it was announced in the Freeman that September 30 was to be the day. Spectators began to arrive early and crammed all vantage points. Grandstands had been erected and benches set up for the people lucky enough to get on the Island Dock. Up on Presidents Place and in the area known as the “Ups and Downs” at the end of West Chestnut Street, there were large groups of people to get a birds-eye view. Along the South Rondout shore, people were in rowboats and the steam launches and yachts of old. Even the abutment on which today stands the south tower of the Rondout Creek highway bridge, completed just prior to World War I, was crowded with people. It is my understanding there were even some doubting Thomases among the estimated 15,000 spectators. Some were of the opinion the "Esopus” was so big she would stick on the launching ways, while others thought she might tip over on her side when she hit the water, or go right across the creek and hit the South Rondout shore. I have heard there were even small bets among some people that one of these possibilities would occur.
As the launching hour approached, the sound of music from the Colonial City Band, on hand for the occasion, filled the early autumn air. The music was punctuated by the sound of workmen’s mauls driving up wedges to remove the last remaining blocks from beneath the ship. The launching ways had been angled with the creek’s course to gain additional launching room.
When all was in readiness, Miss Dorothy Schoonmaker, daughter of John D. Schoonmaker, president of the Island Dock shipyard, broke the traditional bottle of champagne on the ship’s bow, and the “Esopus” started to slide down the greased ways. As soon as she started to move, the gentle September breeze caused the ship’s flags and bunting to wave, and bedlam broke loose. It seemed as if every steam whistle along Rondout Creek was blowing at once.
The Cornell tugboats “George W. Pratt,” “Rob” and “Wm. S. Earl" were on hand to take the “Esopus” in hand when she was waterborne. The steam whistles of this tugboat trio led the noisy serenade, together with the shipyard whistles at Island Dock and Hiltebrant’s, and the shrill whistles of the small old-time steam launches present for the event. The steeple bells of Rondout’s churches were also ringing and added to the festive air. It was a perfect launching and an impressive sight.
It seemed that even nature smiled that day — so long ago that few today remember — for the weather was perfect. Even after the whistles quieted down, from way down the creek where the Central Hudson Line steamer "Homer Ramsdell” lay at her berth near the foot of Hasbrouck Avenue came the sound of her soft steam whistle still blowing a salute of good luck to the “Esopus.” And the ferryboats “Transport” and the little “Skillypot” were joining in. Finally, the “Pratt,” “Rob” and “Earl” had the "Esopus” securely moored at Island Dock, and peace and quiet returned to Rondout. As the crowds of people began to disperse, the band saws and air drills could again be heard as the shipyard workers resumed their work, both on the “Esopus” and on her sister ship that was to be called the “Catskill.”
After several more weeks of completion work, the time came for the “Esopus” to leave the Rondout Creek forever. This occasion also drew crowds of people to the creek to witness her departure. The ship was completed at Kingston except for the installation of her engine and boilers. She was to be towed to Providence, Rhode Island, where these components would be installed and the vessel readied for sea.
On the day of departure, people had started to gather at daybreak at vantage points along the creek and on top of the buildings along Ferry Street, for the newspaper had said she would leave early. However, it wasn’t until about 9 a.m. that the Cornell tugs “Rob” and “Wm. S. Earl” were seen heading up the Rondout to take the “Esopus” in tow. This pair of tugboats was to take the ship to the river, where the big Cornell tugboat “Pocahontas” was to take her to New York.
The “Earl,” in charge of Captain Chester Wells, put her hawsers on the bow of the “Esopus” to pull her, and the “Rob,” in charge of Captain George “Bun” Gage, lay along her starboard quarter to both push her and act as a sort of rudder. As they pulled away from the yard of the builder of the “Esopus,” the steam whistle of the Island Dock began to blow farewell. Over in Connelly, the steam whistle of the Hiltebrant shipyard joined the serenade.
As the “Esopus” moved sedately down Rondout Creek toward the Hudson, all the vessels along the creek with steam on their boilers joined in whistle salutes of goodbye and good luck. At the Central Hudson Line wharf between the foot of Broadway and Hasbrouck Avenue lay the big steamer “Benjamin B. Odell.” The “Odell’s” pilot, Richard Heffernan, was on top of the pilothouse as the “Esopus” passed, pulling on the cable connected to the large commodious whistle and he kept pulling it to the whistle’s full steam capacity. Even the trolley cars along Ferry Street were ringing their bells.
At that time, Rondout Creek sort of resembled a home for old steamboats. At the foot of Island Dock lay the big sidewheel towboat “Oswego” built in 1848. At the Abbey Dock, east of Hasbrouck Avenue, lay the old Newburgh-to-Albany steamer “M. Martin,” which at one time during the Civil War had served as General Grant’s dispatch boat. Farther down the creek at the Sunflower Dock lay the old queen of the Hudson, the “Mary Powell.” Now, on all three, after over half a century of service on the Hudson, their boilers were cold and their whistles were silent.
As the "Esopus" neared Ponckhockie, the large whistle on the U.& D. Railroad shops and the whistle of the old gashouse blew long salutes of goodluck and happy sailing. Finally, as she approached the mouth of the creek, Jim Murdock, the keeper of Rondout lighthouse, rang the big fog bell in a final farewell to the “Esopus." When she reached the Hudson, the “Pocahontas” took the “Esopus” in tow and started the trip to New York.
Years later I was pilot on the “Pocahontas,” and her chief engineer, William Conklin, told me about the 1918 trip down the river. Chief Conklin was a great man for detail. He said that when they got to the Hudson Highlands, between Cornwall and Stony Point, it was the time of evening when the nightly parade of nightboats made its way upriver — the passenger and freight steamers bound for Kingston, Saugerties, Catskill and Hudson, Albany and Troy, as well as tow after tow. That was when the Hudson River was really busy with waterborne traffic.
Bill went on to tell me the “Esopus” towed like a light scow, following the “Pokey” without any trouble at all. They arrived in New York in the early morning and a big coastwise tug was waiting for them at Pier 1, North River, to tow the “Esopus” out Long Island Sound. The orders from the Cornell office were for the “Pocahontas” to stay with the tow up the East River through Hell Gate and then call the Cornell office for further orders. After passing through the Gate, the "Pocahontas” let go, saluted the "Esopus" three times and returned to the Hudson.
After that, I never knew for sure what became of the “Esopus.” It would be nice to be able to say she had a distinguished career in war and a long, profitable one in peace. Ships like the “Esopus,” however, had been an emergency measure. World War I was over before she saw much service and apparently they found little use in the years that followed. It is my understanding the “Esopus” was the only one of the four to be built on Island Dock that was completed. Her sister, the “Catskill,” was launched but never finished, and construction of the other two was stopped and they were dismantled.
In the 1920’s and early 30’s there used to be ships like the “Esopus” in the backwaters of New York harbor lying on flats and abandoned, but I never saw any names on them. Gradually they rotted away with only a few watersoaked timbers remaining. If one of these should have been the bones of the “Esopus,” it would have been a sad end for a ship that was cheered by some 15,000 people when she was launched on Rondout Creek nearly 60 years before.
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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