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 9, 1972.
In General Grant's last term as President, the Citizens' Steamboat Company of Troy built a new and elegant steamboat called the "City of Troy." She was launched to take the place of the steamboat "Sunnyside," sunk the previous fall in the ice at West Park.
The "City of Troy" was an overnight steamer designed for the New York to Troy run and made her first trip on June 15. 1876. The following year, the Citizens' Line brought out a sister steamboat named "Saratoga" -- and for 30 years these two steamboats provided overnight passenger and freight service to the collar city of the upper Hudson.
The "City of Troy" and "Saratoga" partnership was to come to an abrupt end the evening of April 5, 1907 — 65 years ago last Wednesday. On that fateful evening on her regular up trip, the "City of Troy" caught fire and was totally destroyed alongside a -dock at Dobbs Ferry.
The Last Trip
At the time of her last trip, Charles Bruder of Schodack Landing was the captain, William Van Woert of Athens was first pilot and William Fairbrother of Port Ewen was chief engineer. On that April night in 1907, the steamer left her pier as usual at 6:15 p.m. She had on board 90 passengers and a good load of freight.
Going north through the crowded New York harbor, both pilots and the captain were in the "City of Troy's" pilot house. After the steamer passed Fort Washington Point, First Pilot Van Woert retired to his room in the pilot house block to sleep. As was the custom, he would rest until Poughkeepsie was reached — it being the half way mark — and then he would take over until the steamboat arrived at Troy.
The fire was first discovered on the freight deck forward about 7:30 p.m. when the steamer was off the northern end of the Palisades. In those days whenever an accident occurred, the Steamboat Inspectors would make an investigation, somewhat similar to today's investigations of commercial airplane accidents by Civil Aeronautics Board inspectors. The late Robert Fairbrother of Port Ewen, son of the "City of Troy's" chief engineer, gave me his father's copy of the findings of the investigation — and the report gives an excellent account of what occurred
The decision of the investigation was "That there is no cause of action against any of the officers for failure to do their duty. Captain Bruder deserves great credit for the good judgment used in placing his steamer alongside of the first dock he could reach after the fire was discovered, and the fight made by himself, officers and crew to save the vessel."
Under remarks, the report states, "The Supervising Inspector of the 2nd District considers the conduct of the Captain, officers and crew of this trying occasion, so splendid, that he gives below further details in the hope that these examples may stimulate others to do as well.
"The Captain. Charles H. Bruder, being told of the fire, went to the place where it appeared to be and found two streams already playing on the fire — and men cutting a hole in the deck above.
He woke up the first pilot and told him to make a good dock at Dobbs Ferry. He then went back to the fire and had some cargo shifted, so they could cut another hole in the deck above it.
"He approved the Engineer's suggestion to get out the gang plank while they could see. He approved the Purser's arrangements for calling the passengers and having them ready to land when he gave the word.
Last to Leave
"While the passengers were being landed the Captain was fighting the fire forward. He was the last man to leave the forward end of the boat.
"The first pilot, William Van Woert, being called by the Captain, went to the pilot house and headed the steamer, then off the Palisades, for the east shore. He conferred with the second pilot, Mr. Bundy, and decided to make Gould's Dock, because there are no buildings there to which the fire might spread.
"The pilots and quartermaster fought the fire for-ward after the steamer was made fast, until they were ordered ashore. They had then to climb down outside and walk ashore on one of the mooring hawsers by the aid of a line thrown to them.
"The Chief Engineer, W. R. Fairbrother, when the fire was reported and he was told that the mate had one stream already going, gave additional steam to both pumps, and in five minutes there were three streams. Shortly afterwards there were seven streams at work.
Outside Line of Duty
"While he does not mention it, the Captain acted on Mr. Fairbrother's suggestion about the gang plank, and other officers testify to his rendering valuable assistance outside of his regular duty.
The Purser, Charles G. Ambler, when notified of the fire, saw that the fire extinguishers were being properly used, and then went about among the passengers quieting them.
"When the boat was made fast, he took his passenger list and went to each room telling the passengers to dress and get ready to go ashore with their baggage.
"He then reported to the Captain, who told him to wait orders before having the passengers landed. He then made a second round of the rooms.
All Passengers Ashore
"When the gang plank was ready, lights were placed all along to the dock, and the Purser and freight clerk, Mr Greenman, assisted the passengers ashore.
"Afterwards, Mr. Ambler went all around aft calling "All ashore," got his way bill from his office and, with the steward and three porters who were assisting him, started to go ashore. The smoke was too thick and they got out a small boat and rowed ashore, taking with them a passenger who had not heard the last call.
"The testimony of the mate, Mr. Egnor, was not taken, but the Captain says the mate had two streams of water playing on the fire by the time he got there and men cutting a hole in the deck.
"All testimony shows that he put his men at work immediately and maintained good discipline. His efficiency is demonstrated by the work done.
Copies Were Sent
"A copy of this bulletin will be sent to the Hon. Oscar S. Straus, Secretary of Commerce and Labor, and to the Supervising Inspector-General, as well as to the Associations of the Masters, Mates and Pilots and Marine Engineers in Albany-and New York."
Bulletin No. 56, as the report was titled, was signed by Captain Ira Harris, Supervising Inspector, 2nd District. And so ended the career of the steamboat "City of Troy" on the Hudson River.
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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