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 on September 10, 1972.
The largest steamboat ever built for service on the Hudson River was the “Berkshire” of the Hudson River Night Line, built to run in overnight passenger and freight service between Albany and New York. Because of her imposing size, most boatmen referred to her as the “Mighty Berkshire” rather than by her mountainous name alone.
The “Berkshire” was some 440 feet long overall, making her 13 feet longer than her one time running mate, the “C.W. Morse,” and nearly 26 feet longer than the “Washington Irving.” the largest steamer of the Hudson River Day Line. The late Francis “Dick” Chapman of New Baltimore, her last captain, was later a pilot with me on the the Cornell tugboat “Lion” and related to me a number of incidents about the big Night Liner.
One night back in July 1935, the “Berkshire” was preceding down river on her regular run from Albany to New York. As they were passing Saugerties at about 11 p.m. the steam steering gear broke. The men in the pilot house immediately shifted to the big hand steering wheels.
How Wheels Worked
The steam gear had a small pilot wheel at the front of the pilot house which the pilot could turn with ease with one hand. This small pilot wheel was in turn connected to an auxiliary steam engine which actually turned the rudder. The hand steering wheels, on the other hand, were huge affairs located in the middle of the pilot house to be used in times of emergency. They were connected directly the the rudder and when in use were turned by brute strength.
The engineers, unfortunately were unable to make repairs to the steam steering gear, the usual means of steering the steamer, and the pilots took her all the rest of the way to New York steering her by the hand gears. It took four men to constantly man the two big hand steering wheels and, except on straight courses, they had to run dead slow in order to get the rudder over.
The sharp turns in the river at Magazine Point, West Point and Anthony's Nose were particularly troublesome. In order to make the sharp turns, the “Berkshire” had to be backed a couple of times to get the rudder over so the turns could be made. When she finally got to New York they had to get tugboats to put the “Berkshire” in her slip. There the repairs were made to the steam steering gear and she was able to leave on her regular up trip as usual.
The “Berkshire” also had a close call on her very last trip down river from Albany. The year 1937 was the “Berkshire’s” last season in service and her final sailing from Albany for New York was made on the night of Labor Day.
All the way down the river the weather was hazy. When the “Berkshire” was off Esopus Island, fog set in thick. At Crum Elbow they could hear a bell being run [sic] rapidly at minute intervals, meaning something was anchored ahead. On the “Berkshire” they were running slow on time courses and sounding her whistle.
Suddenly, through the fog, the pilot house crew of the “Berkshire” dimly saw two white lights high in the air dead ahead, which they realized was a large anchored ship.
They passed the ship so close the guards of the “Berkshire” rubbed along the ship's side. Since it was ebb tide and because of his position, Captain Chapman was afraid to back down because he thought his steamer might back across the bow of the anchored ship. So what could have been a terrible accident, turned out all right for the mighty “Berkshire” on her last trip down the Hudson under her own power.
The “Berkshire’s” career on the Hudson River from the time she entered service in 1913 until her final season of 1937, in general, was a placid one and relatively uneventful. Her beginning and ending, however, were a little unusual.
Launched in 1907
The huge steamboat was launched on September 21, 1907 from the yard of the New York Shipbuilding Co. at Camden, N.J. with the name “Princeton” painted on her bows. Launched in the midst of the panic of 1907, funds apparently were not available for her completion. With engine and boilers installed but with no superstructure, the uncompleted vessel was layed up and not completed until six years later. When finally completed, her launching name of ‘‘Princeton” had been changed to “Berkshire.”
The “Berkshire” arrived at Albany on her first trip on the morning of May 23, 1913. The very next day, the “Washington Irving,” the new flagship of the Hudson River Day Line, arrived at Albany on her inaugural trip. Thus by a turn of fate, the largest night boat ever built for service on the Hudson River and the largest day boat ever built for service on the Hudson both made their first trips to Albany within hours of each other. It was a big weekend for big steamboats at Albany.
After the ‘‘Berkshire’s” final trip in 1937, she was layed up at Athens. With the coming of World War II, the big steamer was acquired by the federal government and at the end of January 1941 was towed by the Coast Guard through the ice to New York harbor.
In June, she was towed to Bermuda where she was used as a floating barracks for construction workers engaged in the building of U.S. World War II bases on the island. After the war was over, the “Berkshire” was towed back from Bermuda to Philadelphia where she was finally broken up.
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 enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.