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 December 12, 1971.
Back in the days before boatmen were unionized, steamboatmen would go to work as soon as the ice broke up in the spring and work continuously until their boat was layed up when the river froze over in December.
In those days of long ago, almost all of the steamboats had wooden hulls and as soon as the river would freeze, all navigation would cease. The ice would raise havoc with those wooden hulls. New ice in particular was dangerous. It would be as sharp as a knife and as a steamboat went through the new ice, the ice would take the caulking right out of the seams and cause the hull to leak.
When I was a deckhand on the tugboat “S. L. Crosby” of the Cornell Steamboat Company in 1930, I recall Harry Conley, the pilot, telling me about the time in the 1890’s when he was quartermaster on the “City of Troy,” one of the steamboats between New York and Troy.
When the first snow of the season would come, the crew would be happy because they knew then that it wouldn’t be long before the ice would be forming and the “City of Troy” would be laying up for the winter. After the men had been working since early spring, with no time off, they would welcome their winter time vacation.
He would tell me how with the first real cold snap, they would leave Troy and the crew would listen for the first sounds of fine ice forming. On a still, bitter cold, clear December night you can hear the snap and crackle of the new ice. It is a sound a boatman never forgets. Generally, the new ice would begin to first form in the river around Esopus Meadows Lighthouse.
Then, the crew would be all smiles, knowing in a few days orders would come for the last trip of the season and the “City of Troy” and the crew would have a two or three months rest. The would go home, Harry to Schodack with about one hundred dollars saved from his wages and live real good. During the winter, most of them would work at one of the ice houses, harvesting the winter’s crop of ice.
I still look forward to the first snow of the season, despite the fact today the tugboats all have steel hulls and many work all winter long.
How different the river shores look all covered with the first snowfall. It seems like only yesterday the wild flowers and purple loose leaf were blooming all along the up river shore line. Now everything looks cold and bleak.
With snow on the shores and hills, one can see paths going up from the river that you cannot see in the summer when the foliage is thick on the trees. Also houses and stone walls stand out in startling clarity. How a snow storm changes the landscape into a wonderland when the river becomes locked in winter’s cold embrace!
The first snow storm also changes other things. A few years ago I remember leaving Coeymans right after the first snow. As we were leaving, my deckhand said, “Bill, this sure makes us think what we did with our summer earnings, doesn’t it?”
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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