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 volunteers Carl and Joan Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published January 9, 1972.
Fog, snow and ice were always tremendous hazards to the steamboatmen who plied the Hudson shortly after the turn of the century. Before the days of radar and other electronic aids to navigation, boatmen had little to rely on but their own acquired knowledge of the river – and the tricks played by wind and tide.
With the always heavy river traffic and narrow channels, accidents were bound to occur, especially in fogs and snow storms. One of the more spectacular groundings took place in 1903, when the big tugboat Osceola of the Cornell Steamboat Company ran up on the old dock at Piermont.
In the winter of 1903, the Cornell tugboats Osceola and John H. Cordts were both bound up river with separate tows, both of them very large. The Cordts was about a mile ahead of the Osceola. Off Yonkers, a heavy snow storm set in with a raging northeast gale.
Was It Irvington?
When the Osceola was off what the crew believed to be Irvington, the captain said to the pilot, “I think we had better round up and head into the tide.”
The pilot suggested, “Let’s go on, the Cordts did.” But the captain still thought differently and rounded up. However, by going around to the west, they lost the echo of the whistle on the east shore and could not pick it up again.
Feeling their way along, they felt a slight jolt and a slight list to port.
But it was snowing so hard they couldn’t see anything, or could they pick up any echoes at all of the whistle. And, attempt after attempt to back off from whatever they had hit proved fruitless.
By Morning’s Light
When morning came, they understood why. The Osceola was perched right on top of the old dock at Piermont!
The Piermont dock had originally been built by the Erie Railroad back in the 19th century when the State of New Jersey refused the Erie permission to run trains in that state. As an alternative, the railroad proceeded to build a long pier out into the river at the southern most point in New York State on the west shore. The trains would be run out on the pier and passengers were taken from there to New York City by steamboat.
By 1903 the pier was no longer used and the end of the dock had fallen into ruin. At the time of the grounding, the tide was much higher than usual because of the winter storm, and the Osceola went right up on top of the old dock.
And there she remained, with her bow all the way out of the water, for some two weeks before workmen were successful in getting her off. Still, she came through her misadventure surprisingly well and continued towing on the Hudson River until October 1929.
A Zipped Lip
At the time of her "climb the round up and head into the dock caper," it was rumored that the chief engineer and the captain were not speaking to each other. The chief is supposed to have said later that he saw the spiles that were known to be about 500 feet north of the dock through the engine room door as the boat passed them. But he said nothing. Let the captain see them, he thought. That’s his job.
The captain, of course, did not see them and, consequently, the Osceola rode up on the dock in an inevitable accident.
And when the news about the unreported sighting of the spiles eventually worked its way into the Cornell office, that was the end of the chief engineer’s tenure of employment with the Cornell Steamboat Company.
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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