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 October 13, 1974.
Ever since the rumble of summer thunder in the Catskills was attributed by Washington Irving to a form of bowling by his merry little men, the Hudson Valley has had a certain renown for its thunder and lightning storms. Many a boatman has been a witness to spectacular lightning displays, primarily because his boat has been in the middle of the river and he had, as a result, a particularly good vantage point.
There have been a number of instances where river boats have even been struck by lightning, although I don’t know of a single instance where a boat has been seriously damaged as a result. This has probably been due, I suppose, to the fact the boat has been effectively grounded by the water on which it floated.
When boats have been struck by lightning, almost always the target for the lightning bolt has been the flag poles. In some instances, a flag pole has been split right down the middle. In others, a flag pole has been snapped off like a matchstick. Events, such as I describe, I know have occurred to the Day Liners “Alexander Hamilton," "Hendrick Hudson" and “Albany.”
Since the beginning of steamboating, steamers have always carried flagpoles and generally, a generous display of flags and bunting. If nothing else, the flags gaily flapping in the breeze helped attract attention to the steamer.
Even at night or in the dreariest weather, one would always find a pennant or a wind sock flying from the forward flag pole, for this would help tell the pilot from which direction the wind was blowing.
The Day Liners, in particular, always had a lot of flag poles. The big sidewheelers carried eleven flag poles — one at the bow from which on a good day would fly the union jack, one in back of the pilot house from which would fly the house flag, one at the stern from which would fly the national ensign, and eight side poles from which would fly smaller American flags.
During their profit making years, a Day Liner would start the season with a complete set of new flags for sunny days, a complete set of older flags for rainy days, and a set of pennants for windy days. Prior to World War I, the side poles used to fly the flags of foreign countries, allegedly as a tribute to the diverse population of New York City and its reputation as the nation’s “melting pot," not to mention the possibility of perhaps attracting the people of these diverse backgrounds to ride the steamers.
When lightning would strike a steamer’s flag pole, the jack staff - the one at the bow - seemed to be the greatest attraction. One one occasion in the 1930's, the “Alexander Hamilton” was in the lower river when she ran into a severe thunderstorm. The passengers scurried for cover. Shortly thereafter a bolt of lightning struck the jack staff, snapping it off. The pilot later related a ball of fire appeared to roll down the edge of the deck from the broken jack staff to about opposite the pilot house and then roll overboard, with no visible damage other than the broken bow flag pole.
The "Hendrick Hudson” had a similar experience but without the accompanying fire-ball. The lightning bolt that struck the "Albany” did so in August 1926 while she lay along the Day Line pier at the foot of 42nd Street, New York during a heavy thunder shower. The lightning in this case struck the stern flag pole and split it down the middle so it lay open like a large palm. In both cases there was no other damage whatever.
Perhaps the most spectacular damage from a thunderstorm to a river steamer occurred on June 20, 1899 to the well-known “Mary Powell.” Here, however, the damage was caused by tornado like winds accompanying the storm and not by lightning. Captain A. E. Anderson at the time said it was the worst storm he had encountered in his then 25 years of steamboating.
The “Powell” was on her regular up trip from New York to Rondout. Going through Haverstraw Bay, there appeared to be two thunderstorms, one to the southwest and one to the north, both accompanied by generous displays of lightning. Near Stony Point the two storms appeared to meet with the “Mary Powell” right at the center. A cyclonic funnel of dust laden wind seemed to move out from the west shore straight toward the graceful steamboat.
The wind caught the "Mary Powell” with great force and listed her sharply to starboard.
The starboard smoke stack came crashing down toward the bow onto the paddle box, the stack’s guys snapped and the supporting rods twisted. A very short time later, the port smoke stack also toppled over athwart in this instance the aptly named hurricane deck. The resulting shower of sparks was doused by a deluge of rain that accompanied the storm.
In about 15 minutes the storm abated and it was all over. In addition to the toppled smoke stacks, a sliding door had been blown in, the life boats had been lifted from their chocks and the davits bent, and quite a number of folding chairs had been blown overboard.
The “Powell's” engineers started her blowers and the steamer continued on her way, making her regular landings at Cranston’s (later Highland Falls), West Point, Cornwall, Newburgh, New Hamburg, Milton, Poughkeepsie, Hyde Park and Rondout. At the time of the great storm, the "Mary Powell” had aboard approximately 200 passengers. Fortunately, none were injured although many were probably shaken by their experience.
The “Mary Powell” must have presented a strange appearance as she steamed into Rondout Creek with her fallen smoke stacks. Repair crews had been alerted and as soon as she docked, the workmen commenced work. A gang of men worked throughout the night and it is said the steamer left Kingston the following morning for New York on her regular schedule.
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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