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 10, 1974.
“Steamboat racing was once a way of life ... when racing was banned due to accidents friendly ‘goes’ became popular.”
Back in the 19th century, steamboat racing was a way of life. After a number of accidents traced directly to racing as the cause, steamboat racing was prohibited. This, however, didn’t prevent latter day steamboats from time to time having a friendly "go" if the conditions were right. One such incident took place in June 1922 between the "DeWitt Clinton” of the Hudson River Day Line and the “Benjamin B. Odell" of the Central Hudson Line.
The story of the “race” was related by Lester “Happy” Diehl who was then the 1st Assistant Engineer of the "Odell.” At the time, I was coming across Rondout Creek on the "Skillypot" with my brother Algot who was home for a few days from his job as Chief Mate on the steamer “Onteora." We had gone to Rondout to get a copy of the old New York World, the newspaper my father always liked to read.
"Happy" was also a passenger on the "Skillypot" and, on seeing my brother, said "Hey, Algot, you ought to see what we did to the "DeWitt Clinton" coming up on Sunday." As he told the story, I was all ears.
It had been a beautiful summer’s Sunday. As boatmen used to say, both boats were crowded to the guards. The "Odell" was a soft coal burner in those days and the “Clinton" burned hard coal to make her steam. As the “DeWitt Clinton” was leaving her pier at Yonkers, the “Odell" was just a little ahead. A south wind was blowing making the flags, while underway, hang limp from the flag poles. The black smoke from the “Odell” went straight up in the air, as did the blue smoke from the "DeWitt."
The "Clinton" was about one length of open water astern of the "Odell." Sometimes her bow was only fifty feet off the "Odell's" stern. But try as she would, she couldn’t get out of the "Odell's" back swell. Up the river they went, both dragging deep in the shallow waters of Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay. The only slow down for each steamer was, when passing a Cornell tow, and in those days there were plenty going up and down.
At that time the "DeWitt Clinton" in her second year on the river was a very hard boat to keep steam on with hard coal. On the other hand, the "Odell" was always ready to blow off steam. Nevertheless, like a dog chasing a cat the two steamboats sped up the Hudson. Passengers on both steamers got into the spirit of the occasion, cheering their boat on when one or the other would gain slightly. At times, a slight shift in the wind would cause cinders from one to drop on the other.
A fellow later told me he had stood on the dock at Haverstraw when they went by. How the Cornell tugs “Engels” and “H. D. Mould,” that were tied up there over Sunday, rocked and pulled on their lines from the drag of both these big steamers racing up through the bay. Some of the brick scows that were at the brick yards were only half loaded, otherwise he said they would have swamped.
When arriving at Bear Mountain, the "DeWitt Clinton" had to temporarily give up as she had the landing to make. The "Benjamin B. Odell”, however, had a landing to make at Highland Falls. When the "Odell" was leaving Highland Falls, the “Clinton" was already underway and coming up fast. By the time the "Odell" was up to speed, she as a scant length in front of her adversary. Captain Greenwood of the "Odell" gave his engineer of the watch, "Happy" Diehl, the extra hook up signal to get around West Point and Magazine Point ahead of the Day Liner.
Of course, when they got off the Military Academy both steamers had to slow down to get around West Point. By pure chance, the pilots of both steamboats blew their whistles at the same instant — the one prolonged blast required by the rules of the road when approaching a sharp bend in the river. Both boats had beautiful sounding steam whistles. How that pleasant sound must have pealed up through those old Highlands on that long ago day.
As the two steamers came up to Little Stony Point north of Cold Spring, there was a Cornell tow on the way down in charge of the tugboat “Edwin H. Mead" with her helper tug the "R. G. Townsend." When they passed the tow, both steamboats had to go dead slow, it was such a big tow. The "Odell" passed to the west of the tow and the "Clinton" to the east. The "Odell" slowed a little more than the "Clinton," so by the time they were clear of the tow the two foes were neck and neck up through Cornwall Bay.
Both steamboats were scheduled to make landings at Newburgh and off New Windsor both began to slow down. As they did, both steamers started to blow off steam since the engineers on both the "Clinton" and “Odell” had their steam pressures at the upper limits. What a racket that must have made over Newburgh Bay and the streets of Newburgh.
When the “Benjamin B. Odell" landed at Newburgh, Mr. Herbert R. Odell, General Manager of the Central Hudson Line, was on the dock and came aboard. He asked Captain Greenwood not to do that again. When he gave his admonition, however, Mr. Odell did so with a smile on his face.
Years later I was talking to Jim Malia of the Cornell tug "R. G. Townsend" and asked him if he had been on the "Townsend" at that time. He said he was and remembered the incident well, as the “Clinton” did not slow down enough when passing on the port side in the tow and had done some damage to a canal boat in the tow owned by his uncle. Some chocks had been pulled out and other minor damage.
Actually the “race" between the "DeWitt Clinton" and the “Benjamin B. Odell” from Yonkers to Newburgh had been pretty much of a draw, a brush between two evenly matched steamboats. The following winter, allegedly because of her reputation as a hard steamer, the "DeWitt Clinton" was converted from coal firing to oil burning, the first Day Liner to be so converted. After that, the single screw “Odell" with her 2,500 h.p. engine was no longer a match for the "Clinton" with her twin screws and 4,000 h.p.
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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