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 September 17, 1972
The "Point Comfort" wrecked on Esopus Island. When the steamer ran aground, she was headed due south. The ebbing tide, before the steamboat finally settled on the bottom, pivoted the vessel around 135 degrees — until she faced in a north-easterly direction. Donald C. Ringwald Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum
On the night of Sept. 17, 1919 —53 years ago tonight — the steamboat “Point Comfort" ran aground on Esopus Island and became a total loss. Her wreck remained there until it was finally removed in the early 1930's. On the night of the accident, the steamer had been bound for Catskill and her presence on the river was due to a great reduction in service by the Catskill Evening Line.
The Catskill Evening Line was one of the first of the Hudson River steamboat companies to run into financial difficulties. In early 1916, control of the steamboat line was acquired by the Hudson River Day Line, which operated the company until the end of the 1917 season. During 1916 the Line's passenger steamers "Onteora’’ and “Clermont” ran to Troy and in 1919 were layed up, one steamer at Catskill and the other at Athens.
The Catskill Evening Line did remain in business at a greatly reduced level, operating a single freight steamer — the “Storm King.” Some businessmen at Catskill, however, were dissatisfied with the service. They wanted service every night, which the "Storm King" by herself could not do. The group of businessmen banded together and chartered a steamboat from the Keansburgh Steamboat Company in New York harbor called the “Point Comfort."
The “Point Comfort’’ had originally been named the “Nantucket" and had been built in 1886 for the route between New Bedford, Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. She operated on that route for 26 years, year round, and she had a reputation of being a very good boat in salt water ice. In 1913 she was purchased by the Keansburgh Steamboat Company, which changed her name to “Point Comfort” and — until 1919 — she was operated in and around New York harbor.
A Trim Sidewheeler
When purchased by her new owners in 1913, her second deck was extended out to the bow stem and other alterations were made to the steamer. She was a trim looking sidewheeler, looking somewhat like the Hudson River steamer “Jacob H. Tremper," with about the same speed.
When the “Point Comfort” was chartered by the Catskill people in September 1919, she made one round trip to Catskill before her fatal accident. On her second trip, on Sept. 17, 1919, she left New York with a large load of sugar and other freight for Catskill and Athens.
As told to me by a man who was on board the “Point Comfort” that fateful night, the day was one of those of late summer that had been very clear, the sun warm, but quite cool in the shade. On such a day, rivermen usually predict that after midnight banks of fog will start to appear where creeks run into the river and around flats.
When the “Point Comfort” left the harbor, the other river night boats were also underway for Albany and Troy and the Central Hudson steamers to Newburgh, Poughkeepsie and Kingston. Being much faster, they soon left the “Point Comfort” astern.
As it was related to me, banks of fog were encountered in the Highlands north of West Point and the night turned very cool. At first, the pilot house crew of the “Point Comfort" thought they would tie up at the recreation pier at Newburgh. At Newburgh, however, the weather cleared and they decided to keep on going. When they reached Crum Elbow, the steamer ran into another fog bank and they thought about tying up at the Hyde Park steamboat dock. The river, though, was up to its old tricks and off Hyde Park it again cleared. They keep going.
Off Esopus Island the “Point Comfort" again ran into fog. About a half mile above the island, a decision was made to turn around and go back to Hyde Park until the fog lifted, since a good echo from a steam whistle is hard to get on going around Esopus Lighthouse, the lighthouse being so far from shore. On turning around in the fog, on board the steamboat they thought it was still flood tide. Instead it was slack water.
On the way back down the river, it was the intention of the men in the “Point Comfort's” pilot house to pass to the west of Esopus Island. Because of the slack water, they were further downstream than they thought. They were also too far to the east. Going along at about 10 miles per hour reduced speed, the steamer piled up on the rocky reef just off the north end of the island. At the time they were headed due south. When the steamboat's stern settled in deep water and the ebb tide started to run, the tide turned her so bow pointed east, as if she had been going across the river instead of down stream.
No one was injured in the mishap and the crew put over a life boat and rowed to Hyde Park. The ‘‘Point Comfort" lay in the position she ran aground and her wooden superstructure gradually disintegrated. Parts of it were removed by salvage men, some of it was later burned and the rest was chewed away by drifting winter ice.
The “Point Comfort’s” boiler, remains of the engine and paddle wheels remained on the rocky ledge until about 1930. It was right off "Rosemont," the estate of the late Judge Alton B. Parker at Esopus, and was a recognized eyesore. At that time, Mrs. Parker wrote a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Governor of New York State, to ask if something could be done to remove the remains of the wreck. He was able to influence the Army Corps of Engineers to take action on the request. Gov. Roosevelt's reply to Mrs. Parker is, I believe, in the Governor's Room of the Senate House Museum on Fair Street.
The Army Engineers removed the visible remains of the wreck of the “Point Comfort” and took them up to the Erie Barge Canal. There they were dumped behind Lock 10 at Cranesville, far from the salt water those old paddle wheels had churned in summer and winter on the old “Nantucket's” trips between Nantucket and the mainland of New England. Still today, at very low water, one can see parts of her old strong ribs, part of the keel and iron rods from her spars rusting away between the rocks on the north end of Esopus Island.
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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