Brutes of Baltimore: the humble tugboat

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The sweep of urban renewal continues to cleanse, change and regenerate Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and neighboring waterfront properties into a safe business and residential haven. One symbol of local maritime history survives: the cherished tugboat, a modernized icon of the past that remains an unchanging presence on the water, carrying out the same duties that helped drive the growth that built this city.Some 5,000 oceangoing ships will visit Chesapeake Bay ports this year, and nearly all will seek docking assistance from tugboats to deliver cargo by truck, rail and air.

The Cape Henlopen emerges from the fog, returning to Fells Point after a long day's work.

I have fond memories of a colorful but doomed Baltimore harbor before the urban renaissance of the early 1960s was under way, but I can usually find a tug chugging melodically at work whenever I return for a nostalgic visit. Tugs are powerful brutes, indeed, and although their numbers are diminishing in the harbor, they continue to exude a traditional charm as they big-shoulder barges up and down the Bay and manhandle ships arriving from around the world.

My particular fascination with tugboats was revived with the recent release of “Gentlemen of the Harbor: Stories of Chesapeake Tugboats and Crews.” This slim, soft-cover book was assembled by former licensed captain William Eggert, an assistant principal of Broadneck High School in Anne Arundel County, Md., and a longtime tugboat enthusiast who owns a Ranger Tug 25. His self-published book is not an erudite history of the family of tugs operating and being built in Chesapeake waters but rather an anecdotal collection of tugboat tales and snapshots of tugboat history.

Eggert, 65, an amateur photographer and maritime historian, operated water taxis in the harbor for many years, and this gave him an opportunity to become friends with colorful tugboat captains and crews. He has assembled some wonderful black-and-white images of tugboats working the harbor, including some by the late Hans Marx, a dashing, old-school press photographer who was on the staff of the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine. He worked with A. Aubrey Bodine, his more famous colleague, who was known to “enhance” his images in the photo lab. While both men shared a passion for steam-powered vessels and trains, Marx said his principal aim was to “record those vignettes as I stumble upon them or they upon me. Contrived pictorialism I have never been guilty of — to my way of thinking that is not the true function of the camera.”

The book also features tugboat shots by Sun photographers Robert Kniesche, William Klender, Richard Stacks, Clarence (Curly) Garrett, Paul Hutchins and Bodine, as well as Eggert. I worked with those newspapermen in the early 1960s as a young reporter on The Evening Sun before moving on to the Washington Star in 1962. But because the nation’s capital is barren of a working waterfront worth the name, I was often drawn back to the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin over the years to report on its quirky ways, oddball landmarks and unique locals who provided good copy.

Eggert salutes tugboats as the “all-important middlemen of the shipping business,” transporting energy supplies and feeder barges and taking unwieldy oceangoing ships under control in close-quarters docking maneuvers. Boaters familiar with the ways of the Chesapeake regularly encounter tugs towing and pulling barges, and they stay clear for reasons that should be obvious, even though there’s a strong temptation to get a closer look.

The best place to watch tugboats in action is in the Fort McHenry Channel of the Patapsco River below the Francis Scott Key Bridge, where tug captains take control of docking and undocking inbound and outbound ships. “By virtue of modernization and invention, the numbers of tugboats stationed in the harbor has dropped dramatically,” writes Eggert. “During the first half of the 20th century there were sometimes up to 75 tugs active in the port. Today, the McAllister, Moran and Krause towing companies account for a dozen large (home-berthed) harbor tugs in total, supplemented by the smaller boats of independent owners.” Many ships now have thrusters to assist in docking and require fewer tugs.

Another surprise from the past was finding in Eggert’ book a two-page spread on the independent Sadowski Towing Co., a vanishing father-and-son business expected to end its third-generation run this year. James Sadowski, 82, is retired, and son Marty, 58, his first mate, saw the writing on the wall 22 years ago when I interviewed them for my book project on Maryland’s vanishing ways of life, with black-and-white photographs by Edwin Remsberg.

The Sadowskis are now down to one tugboat, the Gar-Den-S, a 70-footer with a 900-hp diesel that was built of steel in 1951 and is listed for sale at $175,000. They lead my entries in “Maryland’s Vanishing Lives,” published in 1994 by Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University Press. Even back in the early 1990s Jim was telling me, “We can’t compete with the big tugboat companies. When they finish their work there’s not much left over for little guys like us.” To which Marty added, “You might say we’re dead in the water.”

Eggert got to know some of the most colorful tugboat characters, including Capt. Herbert Groh, who died last year at the age of 92, and Capt. Ralph Ford, who wore a cowboy hat and lived in a house trailer perched atop a barge alongside a rotting pier in Canton until his death in 1992 at the age of 70. Eggert devotes a chapter to a short workday with Groh aboard the tug Cape Henlopen in 1980, shortly before the captain retired in 1982 after a notable 46-year career — during which he was named the Port of Baltimore’s senior docking pilot. Another chapter on the legendary captain is titled “Hell of a Tugboat Man.”

Typical of family-owned and operated tugboat operators in Baltimore harbor was the unlikely mom-and-pop team of George and Blanche Rogers. With no experience in the business, they bought a sunken tug in the early 1930s for $500 and had it repaired and modified as a tanker to carry 18,000 gallons of fuel oil. (Incidentally, the remains of sunken tugboats are still visible in the dumping-ground waters of South Baltimore’s Curtis Creek.)

Their first contract, with Standard Oil, was to deliver a load of home heating oil to the freezing residents of Leonardtown, Md., when parts of the Potomac River were frozen. The Rogerses saw their ice-breaking tug off and drove to the Potomac River to supervise the delivery. Capt. John Rowe joined Rogers Harbor Towing Co. in 1933 at a Depression-era wage of $1 a day. The company grew and purchased a junked boat every few years. “George would hire the ‘smokehounds’ off Pratt Street (the Inner Harbor’s skid row) to man his boats,” according to Rowe. “He made them take a bath and put them to work, but the majority made one trip and got fired upon returning to port.” It was a cutthroat survivor’s way of life, to say the least.

But the competitive family way of the tugboat life has survived through modernization and adapting to change, adding more horsepower while cutting back on manpower. “Gentlemen of the Harbor” ($24.95) is distributed by the author/publisher. For information, go to www.gentlemenoftheharbor.com.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

February 2014 issue