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 November 26, 1972.
The lives of some steamboats are like people. They venture far from the land of their youth, never to return. This was the case with the steamboat “City of Kingston" which left the Hudson River to go all the way to the Pacific coast.
The “City of Kingston” opened the season of 1889, as she had in her former years of service on the Hudson River, with a run up-river to Rondout shortly after the river was clear of ice. In 1889 this became possible on March 19. As events turned out, it was to be the start of her last season on the Rondout to New York run.
During the summer of 1889, Captain D. B. Jackson, operator of the Puget Sound and Alaska Steamship Company, came east looking for a “propeller” suitable for his service. Apparently, the “City of Kingston” caught his eye and he made an offer to the Cornell Steamboat Company for her.
The Price Was Right
Cornell, it would appear, originally had every intention of operating the “City of Kingston" for many years more on her original route — and had made plans for a number of alterations to the steamer, including a new glass-enclosed dining room aft on the top deck. However, in those days of unfettered free enterprise, the Cornell Steamboat Company was not adverse to selling anything — if the price was right. The price apparently was right for at the end of September it was announced the “City of Kingston” had been sold for service on Puget Sound.
The “City of Kingston", always a great favorite with Kingstonians, left Rondout at 6:05 p.m. on Sept. 30, 1889 on what was supposed to be her last trip.
It was reported that a particularly large crowd gathered on the dock and gave her a hearty farewell. All the way down the river, her whistle was kept busy answering three blast - salutes of farewell from other steamboats. The following night, however, she came back in Rondout Creek briefly to unload supplies — and then went to Marvel's shipyard at Newburgh to be readied for her long voyage to the Pacific.
At the shipyard, the red carpeting of the “City of Kingston’s” saloon was taken up and her furniture stowed. Her guards were reinforced with iron braces and heavy wooden slats to break up the force of ocean waves. Her open bow was enclosed, windows boarded up and water tight partitions installed on the main deck. Two large masts were stepped and rigged for sails.
Before the Canal
Finally, on Nov. 18, 1889 the “City of Kingston” passed New York City for the last time and headed down Ambrose Channel. Since 1889 was long before the digging of the Panama Canal, it meant the steamboat had to go down the entire coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan at Cape Horn, and then up the west coast of South America, Central America, Mexico and all of the United States to reach her destination of Puget Sound.
The “City of Kingston" arrived at Port Townsend, Washington, Feb. 27, 1890 after a safe and apparently relatively uneventful voyage. She had been 61 days at sea and her best 24 hour run had been one of 327 nautical miles. The remaining 30 days of her voyage had been spent in various ports taking on coal and supplies and at Valparaiso, Chile for engine repairs.
Entering service on the west coast on March 15, 1890, her principal run was on the route between Tacoma, Seattle, Port Townsend and Victoria, B. C., although on occasion she also made runs to Alaska. The “City of Kingston” was to run successfully in this service for nine years.
Early on a Sunday morning, April 23, 1899, the “City of Kingston’’ was inbound for Victoria from Tacoma, running through a light fog. At 4:35 a.m., just a few miles short of her destination, she was in a collision with the Scottish steamship "Glenogle’’ outbound for the Pacific. The “City of Kingston’’ was struck on the starboard side, aft of the fireroom and sank in three minutes. Boats from both vessels were put over and all 12 passengers and 60 crew members were saved. Her wooden superstructure, broken at two by the collision, floated off.
A number of the “City of Kingston's” crew members when she was in service on the Hudson River went to Puget Sound and served on her there. One of these was John Brandow, second pilot on the steamer on her first trip to Rondout on May 31, 1884. By a quirk of fate, he was the pilot at the wheel at the time of her fatal collision 15 years later. Also, strangely, the steamboat's name remained unchanged during her years on the west coast. The steamboat named for the fine colonial city on the Hudson River proudly carried the name “City of Kingston” to ports 3,000 miles away and in service never envisioned at the time of her launching.
After she sank, several of her crew members who had gone to the west coast returned to Kingston. One of them brought with him several small sections of her joiner work salvaged from the saloon of the sunken steamboat.
The Cornell Steamboat Company, the “City of Kingston's” original owner, had several of these small panels put in oak frames and gave them to former officers of the steamer when she had been in service on the Hudson River. One of these was given to former First Pilot William H. Mabie. It is now in the possession of his grandson and my good friend, Roger Mabie of Port Ewen.
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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