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 April 30, 1972.
In the days when the Hudson River was relatively pollution free, every spring shad fisherman could be found with their nets from New York City north to Castleton. Shad fishermen would frequently venture far from home, going to a spot on the river that was particularly to their liking and there set up their operation. One of these was Bernard “Nod'' Washburn of Sleightsburgh.
When I was a boy, "Nod" Washburn was a neighbor of ours. He was then an old man. and would fascinate me with the recounting of his shad fishing experiences. “Nod” also impressed me as a boy with an expression he would use when something especially caught his fancy. He would say, “By the handle of the great horned spoon!,’’ an expression I never heard anyone else use.
In the 1880's, 1890's and the early years of this century, “Nod" and his father always fished for the spring run of shad at Cranston’s, later known as Highland Falls. The steamboat landing at that point was then known as Cranston’s after the large hotel then located there.
The hotel later became what is now Ladycliff Academy, just south of Highland Falls village.
A Portable Shanty
With the coming of spring, “Nod” and his father would load their round bottom shad boat with nets, floats, supplies and a portable shanty to live in. They would then leave Sleightsburgh and row over to the Romer and Tremper steamboat dock at Rondout.
There, their boat and gear would be hauled aboard either the “William F. Romer" or the “James W. Baldwin.” Leaving Rondout at 6 p.m., they would then sail down the river, as the old timers would say, on the “night boat.”
On the way down river, the Washburns would sleep right in their shad boat that was being carried on the freight deck. Being known by the crew, they would have their supper down in the crew's mess room. “Nod" told me he always preferred to go down on the “Romer” because he knew the steward, Henry Bell, would always give them a good supper. In return, the Washburns always saw to it that Steward Bell and his family received their share of fresh shad for the season.
They would arrive at Cranston's about 2 a.m. in the lonely morning hours, after making all the landings between Rondout and Highland Falls. "Nod" said they couldn't get much sleep because at every landing there would be the noise of loading freight, the rumble of the hand freight trucks, and the mate hollering at the freight handlers to hurry up so the steamer could get away on time.
Leaving the ‘Romer’
After the “Romer” left the dock at Cranston’s, she would pull out in the river and stop, swing out her forward davits, lower the Washburn's boat and all its gear in the river, and then continue on her way to New York City. "Nod" and his father would then row over to Boat House Point on the east shore, pick out a good location and set up their shanty. They would then get their fishing gear ready "to get on the make" with the first flood tide.
If the tide was right, they would make their first drift at about 8 or 10 a.m. Sometimes they missed the first flood tide, and after getting things all set, would be so tired they would sleep until late morning. They camped and fished off Highland Falls yearly from about the first of April until Memorial Day.
On nights when the Washburns had shad to ship to New York, they would raise a red lantern to let either William Mabie, the pilot on the “Romer" or Abram Brooks, the pilot on the "Baldwin” know there would be shad to be put aboard the steamer. When put on the steamboat, the shad were packed in long boxes filled with ice on the freight deck, and the mate would see to it they were well taken care of. “Nod" and his father preferred the Romer" as their friend "Billy" Mabie[,] the pilot, would always drop a copy of the Kingston Daily Freeman in their boat to be read when drifting with their nets on the flood and ebb tides.
When the steamboat reached New York, a representative of the New York markets would meet the boat at the Franklyn Street pier and buy the shad. The mate Henry Kellerman of the “Romer" or the mate of the “Baldwin" did all the financial transactions in the big city. When the steamboat came back up the next night, the fishermen would have to be over at the dock at Cranston's to collect their money, which was always right to the penny. Then they would settle their account with the mate.
‘True Blue’ Mate
Washburn said never once was anything written on paper. Everything was left to the honesty of the mate. Always he was ‘‘true blue," as a boatman would say.
As spring wore on and it came to the latter part of May, changes would come to the river. The south wind of summer would begin to blow up through the Highlands, bringing with it the smoke from the chemical works at Manitou; the “Mary Powell” would commence her daily runs to New York; the mosquito[e]s would rise from the marshes in back of Conn's Hook; the water would start to get warm and the shad would start to get soft.
One morning, “Nod" Washburn's father would say, "Well 'Nod', who comes up tonight?” “Nod" would answer, "Well, Pop, it’s the ‘Romer,’ she went down last night."
His dad would say, "We are going to get her up tonight. I’m getting homesick for Sleightsburgh. When I get aboard, I am going up in the pilot house and shoot the breeze with ‘Billy’ Mabie and find out all that we missed since we've been away from Sleightsburgh and Port Ewen. When we get home tomorrow, I can sleep all day."
Back in Rondout
When their boat was put off the "Romer" in Rondout Creek, the Washburns would just row across the creek to the shore by the old sleigh factory that used to be east of the shipyard, pull their boat up on shore, and go up the hill to their home and go to sleep. Then, later, they would go back down, unload their boat, and put their shad nets away for another season.
Back in those days, "Nod" said you could leave your boat down on shore with all supplies in it and nobody would touch a thing — even if it sat there for a week. So ended another long ago day of shad fishing in the lordly Hudson.
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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