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 May 6, 1973.
For many decades in years past, one of the true harbingers of spring locally was the annual run of shad in the Hudson River. The shad fishermen would lay their nets and, to many residents, the first shad was a happy event.
Generally, the relations between boatmen and the shad fishermen were amicable. The shad nets wound frequently drift across the channel and the boatmen would do their best to avoid them. On occasion, however, due to conditions of tide and wind - the boatmen would have no recourse but to run over the nets. Then, the relationship would be somewhat strained. At times the results were not without a touch of humor and, at other times, a bit bizarre.
One time back in the, 1920's the tug "Victoria" of the Cornell Steamboat Company was going down river with several loaded scows for New York. She was bucking a flood tide off Highland and shaping the tow up for the cantilever span of the railroad bridge.
The pilot on watch was getting close to the [b]ridge when he noticed he was going to run over a shad net. On looking over to the Highland side of the river, he saw a row boat coming out with an outboard motor and two men in it. Obviously they were the shad fishermen.
He quickly blew one short blast on the whistle for the deckhand to come to the pilot house. When the deckhand came up, the pilot said, "Here, watch her, I’ve got to go below for a minute."
Going down to the main deck, he went to the galley and put on the cook’s apron and hat and stood in the galley door as the shad fishermen came alongside.
When they were within shouting distance, one of the fishermen hollered over, "What the devil are you running over my nets for?” and added a few more choice words of admonition. Of course, the deckhand in the pilot house didn’t know what to say since he was a new man and green at the game.
The pilot, dressed like the cook, stood in the galley and laughed at the poor deckhand taking the bawling out. Then, to add insult to injury, he looked at [t]he fishermen, shaking his head and pointing up at the pilot house — as if he was in sympathy with the fishermen and perhaps not thinking much of the “pilot” steering the tugboat.
On another occasion shortly after World War I, the steamboat "Trojan" of the Albany Night Line was on her way down river and, when off Glasco at about 11 p.m., ran over some fisherman's shad net. The fisherman yelled up to the pilot house of the passing steamer from his rowboat, "The next time you do that, I'll shoot you."
About a week later as the "Trojan” was coming down past Crugers Island, a shad net was again stretched across the channel. Due to the nature of the channel at that point and the way the tide was running, the pilot bad no alternative but to run over the net. All of a sudden, [a] fellow in the rowboat stood up and fired a shot in the direction of the "Trojan."
Fortunately, the shot missed the pilot house, but did hit the forward smokestack, putting a small hole in it.
The later incident was related to me by the late Dick Howard Jr. of Rensselaer who was quartermaster on the “Trojan” at the time.
Actually a sidewheeler, like the "Trojan,” would do little damage to a shad net by running over it. Despite their size, the side-wheelers were of exceptionally shallow draft and almost always would pass right over the net itself suspended beneath the surface. The only damage would be to have a couple of the net's surface floats clipped off by the turning paddle wheels. A propeller driven vessel, on the other hand, with its deeper draft, could do considerable damage to a shad net by snagging it and chewing up part of it by the revolving screw propeller. Most boatmen though, whenever possible, when passing over a shad net - would stop their boat’s engine and drift over it so as to avoid damaging the net.
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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