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 17, 1973.
Last summer a rather ramshackle old building on Abeel Street, directly opposite the Fitch bluestone building so recently and magnificently restored by James Berardi, was demolished. It was known as the Santa Claus Hotel and, at the time, questions were asked as to where the building had gotten its odd name. As far as I can determine, the old hotel was named after the steamboat “Santa Claus.”
Way back in the 1840's, the community of Kingston was located inland where the uptown area of the city is today. Access to the Hudson River on Rondout Creek was over three roads. The longest road went through a swamp to what later became Kingston Point. Another came down a steep hill to the small but bustling hamlet of Rondout. The third, shortest and least steep was the road to Wilbur.
Starting in 1848, a steamboat with the rather improbable name of “Santa Claus” began operating as a day steamer between Wilbur and New York. Since the steamer left Wilbur early in the morning, I have heard some enterprising individual shortly afterward built a hotel opposite the steamboat landing to provide accommodations for the travellers [sic] coming from inland to board the steamboat. Because ground transportation was primitive at best, many travellers would arrive the night before and stay at the hotel before embarking on their down river journey.
Whether the fancy of the hotel's owner was caught by the steamer's name, or if the name was chosen solely to promote business is hard to say. In any event, it is my understanding the hotel was named for the steamboat.
St. Nick Paintings
The steamboat “Santa Claus” had been built in the early 1840's and first ran as a day steamer between New York and Albany. In 1847 the steamboat was used in a service between Piermont and New York, and then briefly returned to her old Albany run before starting her service from Wilbur in 1848. An unusual decorative feature of the steamboat were paintings of St. Nick himself going down a brick chimney with a bag full of all kinds of toys of the era which appeared on her paddle wheel boxes.
During the early 1850's, the local landing of the “Santa Claus" was shifted from Wilbur to the fast growing and lusty village of Rondout. Operated by Thomas Cornell and commanded by David Abbey, Jr., she now ran as a night boat on opposite nights to the steamer “North America,” commanded by Jacob H. Tremper. The “Santa Claus" would leave Rondout for New York on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights at 5 p.m. and return the following nights.
During the latter part of the 1850 decade, Thomas Cornell withdrew the "Santa Claus” from the passenger trade, removed the passenger accommodations and converted the steamer to a towboat. During the winter of 1868-69, she was thoroughly rebuilt at South Brooklyn. When she came out in the spring of 1669, the name “Santa Claus" disappeared and on her name boards instead appeared the name “A. B. Valentine," in honor of the man who was the New York agent and pay master for the prospering Cornell Steamboat Company.
Down River Tows
As the "A. B. Valentine,” the sidewheel towboat was first used to pull the down river tow between Rondout and New York. But as some of the older boatmen told me their father had told them, she was not quite powerful enough for the large tows that were coming out of New York — sometimes with over a hundred canal boats and barges. Cornell then put more powerful side wheelers on the lower river and shifted the “A. B. Valentine" to towing between Rondout and Albany.
On the upper river the “Valentine" ran opposite one of the best known towboats of them all, the old faithful sidewheeler “Norwich." I have been told their helper tugboats were the sister tugs “Coe F. Young” and “Thomas Dickson," the “Young” working mostly with the “Norwich” and the “Dickson" with the “A. B. [Valentine."]
For many years a man lived in Sleightsburgh by the name of Fred Cogswell. He had been the pilot on the “A. B. Valentine" in her latter years. At the time the “Valentine” was withdrawn from service, Mr. Cogswell was a man well along in years and I am told S. D. Coykendall pensioned him off on a pension of $7 a month. He passed away in the early 1920's well into his nineties.
At the turn of the century, the “A. B. Valentine" had outlived her usefulness and was layed up at Sleightsburgh at what later became known as the Sunflower dock. In the late fall of 1901 she was sold for scrapping. By a quirk of fate, on the day she was sold, the man for whom she was named, A. B. Valentine, died after serving as the New York superintendent of the Cornell Steamboat Company for half a century.
The steamer left Rondout on Dec. 17, 1901 for Perth Amboy, N.J .where the steamboat built as the “Santa Claus” was finally broken up.
Although there are a number of photographs of the steamboat as the "‘A. B. Valentine,” I know of no photos of her as the “Santa Claus,“ probably because during service under her original name photography was in its infancy. However, during the early 1930's there was a saloon on Abeel Street, just off Broadway, that had a lithograph of the "‘Santa Claus.” It was a broadside view with her Rondout to New York schedule imprinted on the sides. To my knowledge, this was the only likeness of the old steamer as the “Santa Claus." Now, this too, has long since disappeared.
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.
If you'd like to learn more about the steamboat "Santa Claus," check out this extensive Wikipedia article.
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