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Tug Museum

Tug Museum on the Rondout: A Place to “Shake Hands with Dead Guys”

Sitting on the mantle above the fireplace in my living room is a painting I bought four or five years ago at a local junk shop. It’s signed by an artist I’ve never heard of, and looks unfinished. It’s not a great work of art, not even terribly well-painted. It looks around 100 years old, and I believe the junk seller was right when he said it depicted a local landscape: the shape of the mountains is clearly reminiscent of the Catskills, and the grayish-blue of the water is undoubtedly that of the Hudson River. The painting shows a bend in the river, a mysterious, half-built bridge, and a black-and-white tugboat with a red stack, docked at a dreary-looking grey building. Despite its flaws (or perhaps because of them), I love the painting. I have always thought about tugboats as the little-river-engines-that-could, quirky in design and each with its own personality: cute, quaint boats, if you will, pushing or pulling enormously heavy barges up and down the river. And before a few weeks ago, this represented my complete A-to-Z knowledge of tugboats. Then I talked to Steve Trueman.

For the past ten years Steve has been battling to save historic tugboats from becoming sunken relics of times-gone-by or from being cut up for scrap metal which will eventually be magnetically separated, melted down, and shipped off, probably to China where it would be reconfigured into some piece of merchandise and shipped back for us to buy at Wal-Mart. Captain Steve (the title he prefers) is a retired commercial diver who for most of the past decade has lived with his dog on a tugboat on the Rondout Creek in Kingston. The tug is the K. Whittelsey, a 1930 vessel designed by Daniel Whittelsey for his company, the Oil Transfer Corporation of Baltimore. The dog is Stoker, a coal-black companion named after the old crews who used to stoke the old coal-powered steam engines on tugboats.

The K. Whittelsey was primarily used during summers on the Hudson River, Erie Canal & Great Lakes. She was one of the first diesel-powered tugs of her day. Before being rescued, she had been sunk in New Jersey. All her brass had been stolen, the engine was seized up, and the interior had been destroyed. Steve purchased her in 1992 for scrap value. Today, the K. Whittelsey is 70 percent restored, thanks to Steve and his tug-rescuing partner, Jack Schatzel, who lives locally and is a retired police officer. Steve and Jack have used their own monies and extensive know-how to resurrect and restore some of these tug jewels.

More than a hobby
Restoring historic tugboats is more than an ambitious hobby for Steve Trueman. It’s also a passion and a moral imperative. It’s a quest to preserve a significant bit of maritime history. “Everybody is upset that there are no huge old steamboats like the Mary Powell and the Alexander Hamilton anymore. They were left to rot. Nobody tried to save them. I don’t want the same thing to happen to the tugs.” It would be as if there were no antique cars left; except restoring one old tug would be equivalent to restoring hundreds, possibly thousands, of antique cars. Steve wants to do more than just preserve the old-fashioned tugboats. His vision is to create what he describes as a “large Mystic Seaport of iron; a museum-based, functional shipyard.” In other words, a museum as well as a repair facility for historic vessels. The boats would be repaired using the same equipment and techniques that were originally used on the vintage vessels—a trade knowledge that has all but disappeared. A surrounding galley would be built so that Museum visitors could safely watch craftsmen repair historic vessels using historic techniques. It would serve a unique function, since, as Steve explains, there really is no place to take old boats for repair these days.

After searching Google I was surprised to learn just how many folks are “into tugboats.” I learned about several tugboat restoration talks that have been delivered locally, and that tugboats can be listed on the Registers of Historic Places; that there is a Tugboat Enthusiasts Society; and that there are tugboat festivals, such as the Annual Tugboat Festival at New York City’s Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum where they hold nose-to-nose pushing contests, races, a parade of tugs, and even, believe it or not, a spinach eating contest. Another annual tugboat event is the Tugboat Roundup in Waterford Harbor, just north of Albany, where the Champlain and Erie Canals meet.

Built to survive
When I mentioned all these tidbits of tugboat information to Steve his reaction was first to pause, then reply: “Well, it’s not just about tugboats or even about preserving tugboats. It’s about preserving an important piece of history and a set of values. These boats come from a time that, when a man shook your hand, it meant something.” He went on to say, “Working on these tugs, I feel like I’m shaking hands with the dead guys who built them. When you get inside and begin repairs, you get to know the guy who built the tug. It’s really amazing how well these things were built. They cared about craftsmanship in a way that’s rare today. They did things to the nth degree, even in places where you can’t see. They built them to survive even the worst of storms.”

So why did so many of the historic tugs end up being scrapped or sunk in the first place? Basically it comes down to economics: the old tugs were no longer cost effective for large companies to operate. Newer tugboats are much more powerful, with up to 20,000 horsepower (tugs in the 1930s had a maximum of 1,000 horsepower). Older tugs were made of iron, and required more time-consuming riveting, compared to the welding used on the steel of new tugs. Also, the hulls on older tugs were designed completely differently: the focus was on reducing any drag in the water. Today, not only can tugboats move much larger barges, carrying significantly more weight, but they can move in any direction—even sideways. The older tugs required a crew of six to eight to shovel the coal, hand-lubricate the engines, and make continual repairs. These days, tugboats are often computerized, and an engineer will stay in the main office watching the engine and its readings on a computer screen. Since the large corporations could no longer afford to keep old tugs, they sold them to smaller companies that couldn’t afford a newer boat, and the smaller companies in turn often ran them into the ground, and then the boats were nearly beyond repair.

Largest collection in the world
Though not yet open to the public aside from some tours for school children, the Tugboat Museum currently has the largest collection of historic towing vessels in the world. The oldest tug there is the Susan Elizabeth, which was launched in 1886. Also in the collection is the 1896 Steam Tug Catawissa; the K. Whittelsey; and most recently, the 1938 tug Chancellor, entrusted to the Museum by John and Theresa McHugh, descendents of the original owners. One unusual facet of the Museum is the 1916 Cadel Dry Dock, originally built in Kingston at the Hildebrandt Shipyard. The dock is 131 feet long and 66 feet wide and was originally designed to lift 1200 tons. Another historic item in the Museum collection is the Pennsylvania Railroad Barge, built by the American Bridge Corporation for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The barge will eventually be used for exhibit space and lectures, events, etc.

When asked how old sunken tugs are retrieved from the bottom of the water, Steve replied, “Well, taking up boats is hard work. You do it with a series of cranes, cables, airbags, and a bunch of other tools nobody’s ever heard of. Each boat—each situation—is different.”

I was starting to get a feel for what motivates Steve Trueman and wasn’t surprised to later read in an archived Daily Freeman article by Bonnie Langston about the rescue of a tug in South Carolina. Steve’s partner Jack Schatzel recalled that the rescue was “just one nightmare after the other.” Schatzel said that he was ready to quit after the first three or four days. “But,” Schatzel said, “Steve was not of that ilk.” I began to see that it was Steve’s “ilk” that has kept him going over the past decade, fighting against very difficult odds to realize his vision. “I almost scrapped the whole project last fall,” he said. (I learned afterward that there had been some run-ins with the Army Corps of Engineers and the DEC.) “I’m a mechanic,” Steve told me, “and I’m not good with bureaucracies.” By what Steve perceives as a lucky twist of fate, Rob Iannucci, a real estate developer in Brooklyn, has joined the project as “facilitator.” Rob will oversee the fundraising aspects, dealing with the “bureaucracies,” and he’ll put together a board of directors for the Museum.

At this point, a parcel of land urgently needs to be secured on which to house the Museum and repair facility. Steve very much wants the Museum to be located in the Rondout Creek in Kingston, where his tugs are presently docked. He told me that Port Ewen has more tugboat families than practically anywhere, since the Cornell Company, one of the largest tugboat manufacturers in the world, used to be located there. Cornell went out of business in 1970, but descendants of tugboat workers still comprise a large part of the population. In fact, at an old Catholic Church in Port Ewen, there is a statue that overlooks the river: a stone carving of the Blessed Mother holding a small tugboat!

“When did tugboats first start traveling the Hudson River?” I asked Steve. Not having a precise answer at his fingertips, he said, “I’m a mechanic, not a historian,” then proceeded to tell me about “schooner barges” from the late 1800s: old schooners with their masts taken down, then piled high with whatever cargo had to be moved up or down the river, and towed behind a tug as if it were a barge.

Steve told me another story from much more recent history, about the John J. Harvey, an old fire tugboat that Rob Iannucci was involved in helping rescue. “On 9/11,” said Steve, “when all the roads in and out of the City were blocked and nobody could get in or out, they took the John J. Harvey down there and set her up. She pumped water for three or four days to help put out the fires. So you see, sometimes it’s actually pretty useful to save some of these old vessels.”