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 July 17, 1977.
In the long ago days of Hudson River steamboating, almost every city and larger village along the river had its own steamboat line to New York. Each line would have at least two boats to maintain daily service — each boat going down one day and back the next.
The steamers of the lines north of Newburgh were known as night boats, since they usually departed in the late afternoon or early evening and arrived at their destination in the early morning. All would carry freight on their main decks, and on the deck above were staterooms which offered sleeping accommodations for passengers.
Generally, travelling on the night boats was an extremely pleasant way to make a journey to or from New York. The river was always attractive in the evening and almost always one could count on a good night’s sleep. The exceptions were when the steamer ran into fog and the pilot had to blow the boat’s whistle, or if one had a stateroom right next to the paddle wheels.
Saugerties was one of those towns that had its own steamboat service. The company’s name was the Saugerties and New York Steamboat Company and it was operated by mostly hometown men. During its last 20 years or so of service it was promoted (and known) to the travelling public as the Saugerties Evening Line.
Shortly after World War I, the outfit had two small, smart sidewheelers named “Ulster” and “Ida.” On one particular trip the Ulster left Pier 43, North river, in New York at her regular time. She had freight for all her landings, which in those days were at Hyde Park, Rhinecliff, Barrytown, Ulster Landing and Tivoli. She ended her journey at Saugerties. Most of her staterooms were also occupied.
She made very good time until she reached Crum Elbow, just south of Hyde Park, when it started to get foggy. At the time, she was overtaking the Catskill Line freighter Storm King. Of course, the fog signals had to be sounded on both steamers. A Cornell tow was also on its way down the river, blowing the one-long-and-two-short whistle signal - indicating they had a tow underway. The helper tug back on the tow, as a matter of courtesy, was also blowing its whistle, since it was back a good 500 feet from the towing tug.
What a racket of steam whistles that must have been in those early morning hours off Hyde Park! I suppose Franklin D. Roosevelt, if he was at home, the Vanderbilts and the great naturalist John Burroughs were awakened by all those steamboat whistles. Then, on top of all that, the big night boats out of Albany and Troy came along, sounding their whistles in the fog.
The passengers on the Ulster sure had a tough time trying to sleep. Some were up complaining about all the whistling. Others just stayed in their staterooms and put up with it. Then, a short while later after things got reasonably quiet again, came the landing at Rhinecliff with the organized confusion of unloading freight. There would be the sound of the hand freight trucks going on and off the gangplank, and the mate sounding off to the freight handlers to get the freight off so they could get out on time.
After leaving Rhinecliff, all was serene for a few moments except for the periodic blowing of the fog signal. However, off Astor’s tunnel they met a canal tow which was crossways in the channel and this caused more whistle blowing. After the tow was cleared came the landing at Barrytown with the noise of the freight trucks and an argument between two freight handlers, which was brought to a stop by the authoritarian voice of the mate.
The Ulster then headed across the river to Ulster Landing. As was the custom on the night boats, a hallman would knock on the door of the stateroom of a passenger getting off at a particular landing about 10 minutes before docking, and announce the landing. Sometimes, a passenger would have to listen pretty closely, for some of the hallmen were like some of the conductors on the old West Shore Railroad — they had an odd way of pronouncing the names of the stations or landings.
In any event, the hallman knocked on the door of the stateroom of an Ulster Landing passenger and called out, “Ulster Landing, Ulster Landing.” A lady passenger bound for Saugerties, in a stateroom or two away, also heard the knocking and the announcement “Ulster Landing.” After all the whistle blowing since Hyde Park and the noise at Rhinecliff and Barrytown, she in all probability had been sleeping fitfully and in her half-awake state thought the knock was at her door.
When the lady heard the announcement “Ulster Landing," she may have reasoned that she was on the Ulster, and if the steamer was landing it was time to get off. In any event, she got up, got dressed and when the steamer ghosted through the fog into the dock at Ulster Landing, she was at the gangway. As soon as the gangplank was put out, she walked ashore.
There was very little freight for Ulster Landing, so the gangplank was taken in and the Ulster was on her way for Tivoli in but a few moments. As the steamer disappeared into the fog, it must have come as a rude shock to the lady to find herself virtually alone:on a-river dock before dawn. It sure wasn’t Saugerties!
After the Ulster left the dock, there was only one kerosene lantern for light and everything was so dark and still. The only other person around was the dockmaster who was an elderly man and very hard of hearing. He got all shook up with this well dressed lady alone in the freight shed. Finally, she got him to understand the mistake she had made. The dockmaster then got a chair for her to sit in until daylight, when he got a friend of his with a horse and wagon to take her on to Saugerties.
I often wondered if she ever made the trip to Saugerties again by steamboat.
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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