Anyone Want to Restore a Tugboat?

Monday, April 05, 2004

By Don Sutherland

You'd think it would be easy to start a tugboat museum. First, get an old tugboat. Clean-up some rust with a pad of coarse steel wool, slap-on a coat of paint, and presto, you're ready to sit in the booth and sell tickets.

Everyone would applaud your efforts because, first, everyone loves tugboats and all they represent - solid construction and earnest purpose, hard work and benevolent contributions to civilization. And second, because old tugboats, all spiffied-up, are handsome sights, an alluring environmental decoration wherever they're found. And third, because the design of tugboats, like most of society's tools, has undergone great change, and the old ones are dying-off fast. You'd think everyone would support your labors at preserving a noble cultural heritage. You'd think it would be simple to tie-up your ninety-footer, and quietly set about its repairs. You'd think, in a nation of coasts and banks by the thousands of miles, there would be plenty of room to moor an old boat where folks could come and admire. You'd think all those things till you asked around, among people who've tried it. Restore an old tugboat? These are not bathtub toys. They're complex mechanical systems with all sorts of moving parts. They're steam. They're diesel. They're electrical. They're hydraulic. They utilize tanks and winches and generators, demand a thousand skills, sciences, and arts. "Anyone who knows enough to restore an old tugboat," someone once told us, "knows enough not to."

The someone is Steve Trueman, whom we quoted over two years ago ("Save the Tugs," MN, February 25, 2002). Capt. Trueman, who besides a tug pilot is a hard-hat diver, welder, and salver, has famously ignored his own advice. His activities since 1992 have centered upon the acquisition and restoration of not "a" tugboat, but five tugboats. Five tugboats, a covered wooden barge, a massive wooden drydock, a few dozen smaller exhibits, and off on a siding not far away, an old railroad dining car. What has a dining car to do with tugboats? Nothing directly, except Capt. Trueman thinks it would make an excellent restaurant for his proposed North River Tugboat Museum, when it finds a home. You'd think it would be nothing for such a museum to find a home.

Museum in Transit

Capt. Trueman's undertaking is well known indeed, and widely supported in the vicinity, vast as it is, of the Hudson River. Two of the museum's exhibits have attended waterfront festivals as far north as Waterford and south as Yonkers. They're the wooden barge No. 399, built in the 1930s style for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the tug Frances Turecamo, a 1957-built single-screw canaler with retractable pilot house.

The pair has figured into a program called "Fresh off the Barge," designed to exploit the economies of waterborne transport, bringing upstate produce, dairy products, even wines to waterfront farmers' markets at ports anywhere along the Hudson. Communities as far south as Saint George, Staten Island, in the Big Apple itself, have both waterfronts and existing farmers' markets. It was the addition last year of the Frances Turecamo, acquired from Moran Transportation, that brought the museum the mobility Capt. Trueman intends for it. Rather than static displays, more of a living museum is in the business plan. Do people know where to go to learn, for example, riveting? "I'm interested in building small scale shops - working with cooperage, rope, riveting, a small foundry to pour some of the parts you have to make in a restoration," Capt. Trueman told us. "All over the country you have maritime restoration projects where people have to feel their way through what they're doing. Each of them is doing it for the first time. I'd like to compile all that information and have it available for any restorer at the museum." Toward that end, the museum has received its 501(c)3 tax status, enabling it to operate as a not-for-profit entity.

Besides the technical issues, there's a philosophical one in an age when popular perception makes a college degree and white-collar job the true emblems of respectability. "I want to instill in a guy who's going to be a welder the pride that he has a past," said Capt. Trueman, a minister's son, "a tradition, a family, a place in the world that has always mattered and continues to matter." And then there's the drydock. It wasn't acquired for its good looks. True, it's expected to be added to the National Register of Historic Places (three of the museum's tugs are already thus recognized) as one of the last wooden floating drydocks in working condition. But to Capt. Trueman, "working condition" is the operative clause. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of maritime preservation projects within easy sailing distance of Rondout, in Kingston, New York, where the museum has its toehold. And few preservation projects are so flush that they can easily afford drydocking at commercial rates. Capt. Trueman's plans include making the drydock available to all maritime preservation projects, at cost. The practicality of the concept makes the preservationists predictably happy. "The 70-ton Hudson River sloop Clearwater can't be hauled out in many places around here," wrote the vessel's Executive Director Andy Mele, "and yet it must undergo a Coast Guard hull inspection every two years." "If the Half Moon faced an emergency," wrote William Reynolds, captain of the replica of Henry Hudson's ship, "the closest facility that could lift the ship is in Staten Island." Wrote Capt. Malcolm Martin, of South Street Seaport's 118-year-old scohooner Pioneer, "she has provided an educational as well as historic platform for more than 60,000 students as well as countless more museum visitors. The preservation of such a historic and currently valuable vessel will certainly be promoted by the operation of a dry dock in Kingston." But you needn't be a skipper to see an economic resource in an institution like the North River Tugboat Museum. "The Mystic Seaport of Iron" is an ungainly simile sometimes used to characterize Capt. Trueman's vision, but it makes its point. The Seaport Museum is perhaps the most famous feature of Mystic, Connecticut, drawing a reported 400,000 annual visitors despite its relative isolation from other maritime attractions. By comparison, almost the entirety of the Hudson Valley, with the river as its epicenter, is envisioned as a magnet for a new line of business with a high-income potential: the business of "Cultural/Heritage Tourism." "Steve is doing fantastic work, and I see what he's doing as a component of the whole plan," we were told by Dan Ahouse, district representative for U.S. congressman Maurice Hinchey. "As a state assemblyman, Maurice created legislation on the Hudson Valley Greenway, to help to develop and interpret the cultural and historic resources of the Hudson Valley." As a congressman, Mr. Hinchey continues supporting development along lines that both exploit and preserve the region's legendary beauty, and its historic significance in the development of the nation.

"The idea of having a tug museum in the region," said Mr. Ahouse, "was what I thought entirely consistent with the goals of promoting heritage tourism," which, according to one report, was worth about $10 billion to New York State in 2000 "If Steve got the right support," said Mark Peckham of the New York State office of Historic Preservation, "it could produce the equivalent of Steamtown, in Scranton, Pennsylvania" with its restored locomotive turntable, roundhouse, repair shops, and reported 160,000 annual draw. The popular and economic potentials of the North River Tugboat Museum have not escaped other communities. Upriver, at Cohoes, opposite Waterford at the head of the Canal, there's a drive to restore the old Matton shipyard. Its movers and shakers have gone on record (see "A Tale of Tugs of Two Cities," MN, October 14, 2002 ) as ardently desiring the tugboat museum as resident. "It's the best way to interpret the site," said Capt. John Callaghan, who works for the state Canal Corporation and is an organizer of the Waterford Tug Roundup. Albany itself, the state capital, has a stake in tourism and a maritime heritage as well. The U.S.S. Slater is already an attraction, and studies have proposed a new museum that would include a homeport for the Half Moon. Plenty of fine tugs continue their work there - the Frances Turecamo having called Albany home, until turned over to Steve Trueman - and a tugboat museum would be quite fitting. But Capt. Trueman likes Kingston best of all. The drydock, for example, was built there in 1912 (or 1916 - given dates differ) close to the museum's site by the Hildebrandt shipyard, so well-made that it was in service at Caddell's in New York until the day it was towed back upriver. Kingston's association with tugboats, as opposed to other river craft, it historically massive. It was the home of the great Cornell towing company, the largest such operation in the state, the nation, or the world, depending on who's talking. Kingston continues in the maritime trades through such manifestations as the Feeney shipyard, where plenty of tugs are repaired.

With the museum there, the environment develops a "critical mass" in the words of Preservation's Mark Peckham. "You have several related attractions in very close proximity, including the Hudson River Maritime Museum" about a half mile further up the creek, "and right between them, the transit museum" with its collection of subway and tram cars from around the world.

There are practical issues, as well. For starters, the museum's landlord, Central Hudson Gas & Electric, has discussed a 99-year lease for the museum, provided an adjoining property is acquired by the museum. Capt. Trueman considers these acceptable and even generous terms.

Any further reasons to like Kingston as the museum's home? It's approximately halfway between Albany and New York, an easy ride from either.

With so many maritime attractions at both ends - the museums at Albany and the alluring canals beyond, while downstate, three more major maritime museums (South Street Seaport for sail, the varied historic powered vessels of the North River Historic Ship Society on the Hudson at 23rd Street, and the Intrepid museum in an aircraft carrier less than a mile upriver) a maritime-themed commercial cruise of the Hudson's entire length seems inevitable. Perhaps it would borrow from Capt. Luther Blount's American Canadian Carribean Line. Kingston, of course, would be the midpoint, perhaps for an overnighter. The businesses near the town dock are presently dominated by restaurants, antiques shops, and the like, serving the existing boaters. By contrast, getting to Cohoes requires transiting the Federal Lock, to say nothing of the low-slung 112th Street bridge. The museum's tugs might make a magnificent contribution to the Matton shipyard., but the drydock is too huge to reach them. And the drydock is central to the museum's scheme. The drydock is for fixing boats. In the course of all the social planning and economic discourse, we mustn't forget that it's all about fixing boats.

Oh Yes, the Boats

You'd think it would be easy to collect historic tugboats. The ones that are going the fastest are single-screw, still fine vessels, but mandated by law out of important lines of work. "As all of the companies modernize their fleets," Capt. Brian Buckley McAllister told us, "we wish it were easier to find a home for these historic vessels." The ocean floor, where they're sunk as reefs, has become quite fashionable. There are environmental benefits from such practices, and sentimental ones too. At least they'll remain tugboats that much longer.

But their charms can be admired by only fish and divers. Once settled-in, North River Tugboat would continue acquiring the outmoded. "We salute folks like Steve Trueman," said Capt. McAllister, who counts two tugs in the family colors at Kingston already: the steam tug Mathilda of the late 1890s, standing ashore beside the Hudson River Maritime Museum; and the 1886 Susan Elizabeth, originally New York Central No. 3, afloat with Trueman's fleet.

You'd think it would be easy, with so many tugs on the way out, to just sit in your rocker while skippers drive over and hand you the keys. But there are things about starting a tugboat museum that arrive unexpected.

One of the reasons is that a museum, as such, was not on Capt. Trueman's agenda when he raised his first museumpiece. "I was looking for a tug for my salvage company," he said, "and encountered the K. Whittelsey sunk in the Gowanus Canal. What a great boat! It bothered me to see her like that, and I kept thinking about it. I started calling museums and preservation organizations to see if anyone would take her. No one was interested. I kept griping about everybody's disregard for an important piece of history, until one day somebody got sick of me and said, 'I don't see you doing anything about it.' And I said, yeah, right. And I'm a salver." The K. is now Capt. Trueman's residence, as he watches over his charge on Rondout Creek.

While any salvage job has its challenges, raising the K. was relatively routine. This cannot be said for all the tugs in the collection. Take the 1896-built, 170-foot coastal steam tug Catiwissa. Or, as the Canal authorities would have said, take it please.

Built by Harlan & Hollingsworth, already slated for preservation by a group in the northwest, Catawissa was being towed in that direction through the Erie Canal. She grounded. The preservationists lacked the funds to rescue the boat, so the Canal authorities moved it to the vicinity of Waterford. After a time, she started leaking oil. The DEC steam cleaned the boat, at a cost Capt. Trueman guesses at a half-million dollars." It stayed on the dock up there for 8 years. And it sank at the dock, and started to roll. It would have blocked the canal. They tried to right her with tugs, but among other problems their cables cut into the hull. So they dewatered the canal, pumped the Catawissa out, propped it against the bulkhead." Capt. Trueman was called in as a man with a salvage company. The canal authorities were thinking of cutting the boat up. "It would have been a quarter-million to a million-dollar bid," he told us. But given the boat's distinctiveness and historic importance, destroying the vessel was distasteful.

"They normally would have put the contract out for bids," he recounts, "but it was an emergency situation, and I had the unique qualifications to address it. I entered into a contract that gave me three weeks to dispose of the vessel." He forked-over $4500 to take possession, and towed the Catawissa to Rondout, alongside the K.

"You could say I saved the State a million dollars," he chuckles. "Who else was going to do it? The Corps of Engineers is strapped - there are wrecks all up an down the river that they don't have the budget to dispose of. The K. and the Catawissa and the barge were all sunken wrecks that had to be removed. I removed them, and it didn't cost anyone a penny. I haven't received the funds to restore them. But the fact is that I saved them, and if they're destroyed now, it's because nobody cared."

Early in the game, too many people cared. Others coveted the Catawissa, including the original group of preservationists. So did a private party, who believed that writing his name on the hulk gave him ownership. There were scenes in court, where Capt. Trueman prevailed, but not before a lot of talking. He was left wondering when he'd find time to actually fix the boat? A salver may not consider himself lucky for it, but at least he grows accustomed to tough situations and unpleasant surprises. But bringing the Susan Elizabeth north from Georgetown, South Carolina, had more than its fair share. Some of them centered on the fact that the boat, more or less, was not working. Or not nearly as well as Capt. Trueman expected. "We broke-down in Morgan City, in Wrightsville Beach - every ten hours, we broke down."

Not knowing the intricacies of the Susan's particular engine, Capt. Trueman sought someone who did. He wound-up talking to Tim Ivory, engineer of the fireboat John J. Harvey in New York. "Tim had worked on similar engines, but not this exact one. However, he said he had the manual for it, given to him by Capt. Dick Forster. He hopped a plane."

"The Susan has a direct-reversing Fairbanks 8 1/8 10-cylinder engine," Tim Ivory told us, "and her reversing gear was well worn. It's a system that works air over oil, and the oil pressure was so low when the engine warmed up that it just would not reverse - or, in some cases, not stay running. At one point, Steve tried to hold station at a lift bridge, waiting for an opening, when the tug stalled. Were it not for Steve's ability to handle the boat under pressure, there may be been one less marina on the Intercoastal."

The luck wasn't all bad, according to Tim Ivory. "The engine needed a reversing relay. It's an oil-fed slave cylinder that shifts cam timing when you reverse the engine. Steve pulled a rabbit when he managed to find a guy with a tug we could scavenge. We were ready to go about 40 hours after I got there. The hellish part of the trip had to do with the uncertainty. We would overheat and get stuck for the night. We found that the fuel returns ran into the bilge, so we were running with fuel oil sloshing around down there. The exhaust drains ran into a bucket that eventually caught fire. Then we ran aground so hard it was like taking a tug over a skijump."

Capt. Trueman called the Coast Guard to see if someone could kindly tow him off a sandbar? "'Oh, you can't get a tugboat up there,' he told me. I said, 'the Army Corps is supposed to keep this dredged. The chart says you've got ten feet of water here.' He said, 'yeah, the chart shows that a lot.'

"We were stuck many times in three feet of water. We grounded at moon high tide. I was burning the engine up, trying to get off. Tim said I can't keep running the engine like that, steam is coming off of it. But by the grace of god we found the lowest points in the silt and got off." Capt. Trueman and his partner in the enterprise, Jack Schatzel, a retired Kingston police officer and ex-Marine, had no way to finance the voyage, its emergencies and repairs, other than their credit cards. "We ran-up a bill of $16,000," he said. "Jack's still driving a truck at night, six nights a week, starting at 3 A.M., delivering pastry to pay for it. He's been doing it for three years. They gave him the truck."

Not all the boats arrived at the museum under such traumatic conditions. The fifth tug, the Chancellor, was acquired in running condition from John McHugh. Built in 1938 by Bushey, the retractable-house canaler sits developmentally between the K. and the Frances Turecamo, a Jakobson build. "The Frances is the only one that's not direct-reverse," Capt. Trueman said. "The K. has a 1000-horsepower Rathbun-Jones, the largest diesel engine made for a tugboat in 1930. She was way overbuilt, by Spedden, the way her owners, Oil Transfer Corp., liked them. A very heavy boat. I haven't confirmed it, but I believe it because two different engineers told me - the K. was fifty miles behind the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior, towing barges, when the Fitzgerald was sunk in the storm." With three tugs representing different epochs of canalling, plus the Susan - built by the celebrated yard of John Dialogue - along with the barge representing railroading, and the Catawissa representing steam, the museum's collection is comprehensive. "You can look at their hulls, and see a full evolution of marine architecture," said Capt. Trueman.

The Wrong Enemy?

You can look at their hulls, and see a lot of things, depending on your point of view. Capt. Trueman sees an historic fleet that he rescued from oblivion, at the same time as saving the taxpayers from having to destroy them. The many admirers of his efforts see a flotilla of substantial income-producing potential, once the museum gets settled and its restoration programs get underway. Both the Catawissa and the Susan Elizabeth desperately need drydocking, as the celebrated ice of winter ' 03 took a severe toll.

But because they need so much work, some observers might see no more potential than exists, say, at Witte's, the legendary ship graveyard at Staten Island. Maybe this was the thought of some of the constabulary who moored their boats at a dock alongside the museum's site. "They said the drydock spoiled their view," Capt. Trueman reports.

Someone called the DEC, which found the drydock to be in violation of habitat regulations because it was sitting on the bottom. "We have enforcement actions against him," a DEC spokeswoman told us, "for disturbing the course of a stream without a permit, placing a dock without a permit, and placing fill below mean high water without a permit." She reports the office has offered Capt. Trueman a consent agreement. Keep the drydock floating, lower it only when receiving vessels, look at the approvals and waive fines. "It needs a lot of caulking and similar minor repairs," Capt. Trueman said, who does need the facility operational, "but the real issue is pumps and the electricity. Jack and I are already way overdrawn on the Susan. I don't know where to get the money. We were given promises in Washington, but nothing came through. We were supposed to be reimbursed $3000 for fuel getting to a festival in Yonkers, we haven't been paid. Everything that's here came out of our own pockets," with the exception of a generator, that was paid for after a fund-raiser for the museum, held by the town of Cohoes, at the Waterford Visitors' Center last May. But floating or not, the drydock was also reported to the Army Corps of Engineers. They've ordered it removed. "The owner has his structure in the Federal channel," the Corps' John Belden told us, "but he doesn't have a permit. If it's on the bottom, it's classified as fill. If it's floating, it's classified as a moored structure. Either way, it requires a permit." Mr. Belden voices his concern about petroleum barges, such as pass the museum's site, hitting the drydock in the dark. The permitting process would, among other things, investigate whether the drydock indeed threatens or impedes safe navigation, and whether the Corps could allow it in the public interest. Some mariners have already spoken on the issue. "The Half Moon is an ungainly vessel when operating in modern circumstances," wrote Capt. Reynolds. "This is the case when entering Rondout Creek and meeting or passing tour boats like the Rip Van Winkle or commercial tugboat traffic. I have met and passed such vessels on numerous occasions when passing the North River Tugboat site, and have not encountered any difficulties. Indeed, the principal difficulty in navigation on Rondout Creek is the abandoned steel barges and equipment on the South shore of the Rondout," directly across from the museum. "The presence of the North River Tugboat Museum floating dry dock and its associated vessels poses no impediment to navigation."

So why doesn't Capt. Trueman apply for the permit? "We do not accept permit applications while the infraction stands," said Mr. Belden. "He has to get the drydock out of there before we can consider his application." Mr. Belden suggested that a measure as simple as "lifting it ashore with a crane" would constitute getting the drydock out of there, as far as permit applications were concerned. Capt. Trueman replies that in earlier conversations with the Corps, the organization's Brian Orzell suggested he should wait until he actually owns the property before applying for the permit. (MarineNews as of press time was unable to reach Mr. Orzell to confirm the claim.)

"We needed things like two 220 submersible flight 500 g.p.m. stripper pumps for the drydock," Capt. Trueman told us shortly before we went to press. Now he needs the funding to move and store the drydock. A marina downriver, Steelstyle, has reportedly agreed to give the museum a price break - but even with a discount, the money must come into the museum's coffers. Even if the drydock could be moved while the permitting process is reviewed, Capt. Trueman sees disaster for the boats. "The Catawissa and the Susan must be drydocked now. I can't keep them afloat otherwise, and if they sink - brother, what a mess."

His back to the wall and no wiggle-room left, Capt. Trueman announced, on the day before we went to press, that he's throwing-in the towel. "There's nothing else I can do," he said. "I've applied to the Corps for permits to sink the drydock, the Catawissa, and the Susan offshore." You'd think it would be simple to scuttle a few old relics. But if Catch-22 seems descriptive of the problems so far, there's also a Catch-23. "Before the Corps can issue a permit to dump these vessels offshore," said Preservation's Mark Peckham, "they would have to confer with us. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, a Federal agency has an obligation to consider the effect of their actions upon designated resources.

Even eligibility comes into the question. The drydock hasn't yet been designated, but because it's considered eligible, the Corps has the same obligations regarding it. And we would not approve the application to sink those boats or the drydock." Capt. Trueman describes his concern that the Corps would pressure Central Hudson into evicting him. And Central Hudson reports it has been contemplating improvements to its bulkhead, which of course requires permits - and might, according to a company representative, require moving the museum's equipment anyway. "But what happens then?" asks Trueman. "Where do you remove the drydock to? We can't get a permit to sink it, we can't get a permit to keep it here, and we don't have what it takes to move it." A proposal to raise cash for the storage of the drydock, perhaps with an eye toward digging a channel for it into the bulkhead when and if the Corps approves, when and if the property is purchased, has two flaws: lack of money, and lack of time. "We gave him thirty days to remove the drydock," said the Corps' John Belden, "and that was in November." Yet, as things stand, everybody seems immobilized. Movement in any direction is stalled by what looks like a bureaucratic logjam. You'd think it would take nothing to start a tugboat museum. But it seems to take plenty. The most critical of it, it seems, is far removed from steel wool and paint.

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