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 March 25, 1973.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, the Cornell Steamboat Company of Rondout was the largest and most progressive marine towing organization in the country. In 1902 they had built what was to be their largest and most powerful tugboat. When completed, it appropriately bore the name “Cornell.”
By whatever standard of measurement, the “Cornell” was a most impressive tugboat. At a few inches less than 150 feet in length, she was 25 feet longer than any of Cornell’s other big tugboats. Her 1,400 h.p. engine exceeded by over 500 the horsepower of other units of the fleet.
Boatmen used to refer to her as the "Big Cornell" and her two big boilers had a ravenous appetite for coal to make enough steam for her powerful engine. As a result, she had the reputation of being a very hard boat to fire. Many boatmen from Hudson River towns one would talk to in the early 1920’s would almost always say how at one time or another they had fired on the “Big Cornell.” Some would stay only a few hours, some a few days and rarely would she end the season with a fireman who had started out on her in the spring.
On Lower River
Because of her size and deep draft, she was used almost exclusively on the lower river. During her service on the Hudson, the channel north of Athens had not been dredged for deep draft vessels like it is today. During her career, the “Cornell” made only one trip to Albany and this trip was her most notable exploit while carrying the colors of the Cornell Steamboat Company. It took place in early March, 1910.
The winter of 1910 had been an old fashioned winter with plenty of ice in the river. During late February and early March the weather turned unseasonably warm, causing high water at Albany as the result of the melting of the winter’s snow and ice in the Mohawk River. A huge ice jam formed in the river below Albany which caused the water to back up and flood the waterfront areas of Albany and Rensselaer. Fears were also expressed that the ice crowding the Albany railroad bridges might move them off their abutments.
In order to relieve the ice and flood crisis at Albany, the federal government was asked to take action. The government's plan was to use dynamite on the ice jam to break it up and to charter the most powerful vessel they could find to go up river to break up the river ice so the broken ice could move down river. The “Big Cornell” was chosen for the job.
The “Cornell" left Rondout Creek on March 3, 1910 with the tug “Rob" to follow and assist in any way possible. I have been told the whole operation was in charge of Captain Ulster Davis, Cornell’s agent at Rensselaer, and the regular crew of the “Cornell” whose captain was Tim Donovan and pilot Irving Hayes. Although the upper Hudson was at flood stage, the “Cornell” carried minimum amounts of coal and water in order to keep her draft at a minimum so she would have clearance over the shallow spots north of Athens.
Very Heavy Ice
The “Cornell” encountered very heavy ice from Kingston to Athens, sometimes as much as two feet in thickness.
The ice was so heavy, the “Cornell’s” steel hull plating was scalloped inward between her frames at the water line forward caused by her smash into the rock-like ice.
At Athens, the "Cornell” went up the wider Athens channel rather than the deeper Hudson channel along the east shore, since men going ahead on foot had determined the ice in the west channel wasn’t quite as thick. She passed Athens through 15 inches of ice on March 5. All along the river, men and boys would come out on the ice to watch the “Cornell” go by.
The “Cornell” arrived at Rensselaer on March 6, the river opened and the ice jam broken. Once the ice jam was broken, I have been told one could literally see the water begin to drop at Albany. Although the crisis to Albany was over, a new problem arose for the “Cornell.” The Company was afraid the water might drop so fast, they would not be able to get their big tug back down river in time to clear the up river sand bars and ledges.
An Early Start
The “Cornell” took on coal, fresh water and grub at Rensselaer as fast as she could. Due to the strong current in the river, when they started to turn the "Cornell” around for her return trip, the tug “Rob” had to push wide open against her stern in order to get the “Cornell” headed down stream. At first, they were going to wait for daylight all the way, but because of the falling water decided to start down as soon as possible.
When they started back for Rondout, I have been told it was a clear, cold March night. The water in the river was running down stream so fast, they ran the “Cornell's” engine dead slow — just enough to keep steerage way. They were reluctant to run her any faster as they did not want to scrape or hit bottom and possibly smash her rudder shoe or break her propeller.
They had had such good luck so far, they didn't want to tempt fate any more than necessary.
Everything went fine until the two tugs came to Dover Platte Island off Coxsackie. Captain Donovan of the ‘'Cornell’’ knew there had always been a sand bar there and figured the freshet in all probability might have built up the bar higher than usual. When they reached that point, they stopped the “Cornell's” engine and just let her drift. Sure enough she fetched up on the bar, stopped and rolled over very slightly to port. To be sure there was only sand, they sounded all around with pike poles.
Over the Bar
Once they were certain there were no rocks on the bottom, they decided to have the “Rob” go up ahead and put a hawser on the “Cornell's” bow — and then to open up both tugs full throttle and to try and “bull” the ‘‘Cornell’’ over the bar. When all was in readiness, the “Cornell” gave the signal for full speed ahead and for the “Rob” to start pulling. I can readily imagine on that cold March night the load “chow chow” of the “Rob's” high pressure engine.
They tell me when the “Cornell’’ hooked up, she lay down on her port side, her propeller part out of the water for a few moments. Some of her crew thought her towering smoke stacks would topple over, the starboard guy lines being incredibly taut and the port ones having about two feet of slack. However, in but a few minutes the ‘‘Cornell’’ had inched her way over the bar.
Once she cleared the sand bar, though, the ‘‘Cornell’’ leaped ahead so fast before they could stop her engine she almost ran over the “Rob’’ pulling on her bow.
Quick action by a deckhand on the “Rob” saved the day. By wielding a fast, sharp axe he cut the connecting hawser. From that point back to Rondout Creek they encountered no more difficulties. From Athens south, the river ice still held, but by following the channel they had previously made going northward the going was relatively easy.
The difficulty in keeping firemen on the “Cornell” continued to plague her and led to the end of her career on the Hudson River. Shortly before World War I she was sold to the Standard Oil Company of Louisiana. Her new owners renamed her “Istrouma,” converted her to an oil burner, and operated her on the Mississippi River out of Baton Rouge where she remained in service until the late 1940's.
I have been told the Cornell Steamboat Company always maintained it was not feasible to convert the “Cornell” to an oil burner, since it wouldn't be possible to install sufficient oil storage capacity aboard her. It is my understanding before purchasing her, the Standard Oil people, unknown to Cornell, sent some men to Cornell who hired out on her as firemen. The masquerading firemen thoroughly examined the “Cornell” and apparently concluded she could successfully be converted to oil firing. In any event, she was — and remained in service for another 30 years.
Many years later, during World War II, my friend Roger Mabie was the commanding officer of a submarine chaser in the U.S. Navy. One day his ship was in a shipyard at Algiers, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans. There, in an adjacent dry dock was the “Istrouma,” the old “Cornell.” He went aboard.
Her shell plating forward was still scalloped between frames from her bout with Hudson River ice in 1910. Her brass capstan caps were still inscribed “Cornell.” In her engine room, her steam and vacuum gauge faces still were etched ‘‘Cornell,” Cornell Steamboat Company, Rondout, N.Y.
A few days later, Roger told me his ship was leaving New Orleans to go back to sea. Out in the river, the old ‘‘Cornell” was going upstream. He blew her a whistle salute, which the former “Cornell” answered with her old deep steam whistle. I thought it was a nice gesture, both a greeting to an old work horse from the Hudson River and a sort of salute to the maritime greatness that was once Rondout’s.
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.
The tug/fireboat "Istrouma" was scrapped in 1949. If you've seen a large red tugboat named "Cornell" on the Hudson River or New York Harbor, it's not the same as this "Cornell," but nearly as big! She was built the same year the "Istrouma" was scrapped. Learn more.
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