Book Review: Tugboats of New York

Monday, March 20, 2006
By Don Sutherland

"Tugboats of New York" is one of those rare constructions where everything works just about perfectly. The text is insightfully, appreciatively, and masterfully written. The illustrations are informative, handsome, and sometimes — deliberately, one gathers, given some of the credits — quite beautifully artistic. The photo captions are detailed and often lengthy, turning the book into sort of an A-V show on paper. And what paper. The stock is coated and 60-lb. heavy, bright, easy on the eyes, apparently formulated to last the next century or two. The illustrations glisten with a sheen more reminiscent of actual photographic prints than something screened into a book. The quality of manufacture echoes the lavish production values of coffee-table books produced in Asia, although this one is American-made. All these individual excellences combine with a tactile and sensual force when the volume is hefted and spread-open for a read, a page-turner whose deluxe composition dignifies its subject. With a title like "Tugboats of New York" and a subtitle, "An Illustrated History," what the book's about would seem fairly inescapable. Yet with so many cogs in the machinery of its telling, author George Matteson may have intended other messages besides the one that's spelled-out. NY Long Ago The author upholds the New York theme of the book in grand style, taking local history back to before there was a New York, or even a place to build it. "Eleven hundred million years ago," states the opening, "the Manhattan Prong began to form under the relentless pressure of collision between tectonic plates bearing the North American and African continents." That's how the "New York" pedigree of the work begins; the tugboats come later "About nine thousand years ago," we're told after an intervening couple of paragraphs of geological development, "Long Island Sound became an arm of the ocean; the Narrows a tidal strait ... Vagaries of terrain made Staten an island and the East River a tidal strait leading to Long Island Sound; and thus, Manhattan, the artifact of a thousand-million-year-old prong, was ready for business." It was still a bit early for the tugboat business, but a fundamental characteristic of the eventual city was by then cast. "Most of that business is conducted at the will of the tides ... through the labyrinth of channels that make up the Upper and Lower bays, the Hudson, East, and Harlem rivers, the Kills that encircle Staten Island, Raritan and Newark bays, and the Hackensack and Passaic rivers." What do these formations, laid-out in an unpopulated landscape during the time of the Pharaohs, have to do with a local industry which got its start no more than 189 years ago? "The behavior of the harbor currents and the consequences of that behavior have become a vital language learned by generations of boatmen." Boatmen. The author included. "Early on in my education, I was given the opportunity to steer a tow comprising two empty scrap barges out of the Kill Van Kull ... I steered carefully along the Jersey flats as far as the buoys that mark the entrance channel to the ferry dock on the south side of the statue. There I could see by the action of the buoys' leaning and weaving in the current that we had used up all the benefits of the Back Channel route. I shaped a course across the main ship channel, stemming the current for the tip of Governors. I had gotten perhaps a quarter of the way across when the pilothouse door flew open and there was the captain, much annoyed. "'I said to go up to the statue before you cut across.'" "I felt very foolish. 'I was almost there.' "'I didn't say almost. You go to it. That's the way it's done. That's the way it's always done.'" We've reached only the fourth page of text in this rich 270-page volume (including index, five pages of bibliography, seven of chapter notes, and a three-page epilogue), and already we've ventured seamlessly from the formation of the planet and a part of it cut-out just for tugboats, to the credentials of the guide who is conducting our tour. Were a hull to slide as cleanly through the water, a boatman would be proud. We've even come to understand just a little about tugboating and a stand-up, be ready to be stood-down, character of its world. What could the next four pages bring? Minding Business in New York Whatever the main theme of the book, the author departs its regional orientation at his pleasure, whenever no other way arises to tell the tale. If he goes back eleven hundred million years to the genesis of this place made for tugboats, he's earned the right to go back 268 years to the genesis of the self-propelled towing vessel, drawn-up on paper. It was apparently never built, and had its origin in London in 1737, not New York. Like the plate tectonics that constructed the region, the movement of ideas was inexorable but slow.

The earliest commercial steamboats saw the prospects in towing, even if not as a primary occupation. The famous Nautilus, the Staten Island steam ferry that entered service 80 years after the steam towboat was first sketched-out, was an early adopter of the new tech. She was fitted with towing bitts, the author tells us, and from time to time went off on the impromptu tow with a complement of ferry passengers still aboard. Even by the time of purpose-built towboats, sidewheelers after the 1830s, the spontaneous demand for services — or competition to provide same — was propelled by the technology of the day. There were no long-distance communications, and a lot of tows arrived on the winds. When? Why, there they are now. As the local fleet of tugboats developed ocean-going prowess, working the waters around Sandy Hook, they extended the practicality of doing business in the region. Not many merchantmen could make their way across the ocean, straight up to their docks under sail. If the port of New York made commerce viable and physically built the city, it had the tugboat, literally, as its motor. The clipper ships wouldn't have worked if it hadn't been for tugboats, which by the 1860s had developed the screw propeller and the particular profile by which they're recognized to this day. Transatlantic steamships bearing cargo by then were able to navigate closer to the piers of New York, and schedules grew somewhat more predictable. But it still took tugboats to dock them. The voracious appetite of the adolescent city required tugboat services for cargo coming the other way too, from the north down the Hudson for example. This included the barges and boats of the Erie Canal, among other canals built to the Hudson, and a great towing empire that developed midway between New York and Albany. The Cornell Steamboat Company headquartered itself at Rondout, near the D&H Canal, like New York itself "as much a creature of its geographical situation as it was of the management skills of its early proprietors." For the better part of a century, the Cornell company was the dominant force in towing things south to the old Manhattan Prong. Goods came from the canals, and from the towns along the rivers en route, with their gravel and cement and bluestone and brick, the base substances of cities before architects discovered steel and glass. They arrived in tows whose sheer sprawl is hard to imagine in a day when container barges take such little space. The canalers were not literally tugboats of New York, but they were so closely affiliated with New York that the story is incomplete without them. Their influences surface periodically through the book. Almost from the time the canals began operation, railroads and eventually highways began competing with the river tows, successfully in response to the social requirements and economic balances of the 19th and 20th centuries. That was okay, because downriver the railroads themselves needed tug services. Something had to bring boxcars from the railheads on the Jersey shore to their final destinations around the boroughs and beyond.

The author credits John H. Starin, who built a large nautical empire in New York (130 tugs, lighters, steamers and barges by the 1880s), for development of the carfloat system that might form the genesis of intermodal transport as we know it. In time the tugboats at this work were mostly railroad property in their own right, though they stimulated other business for the boats on the harbor begun for them so many millions of years before. A lot of tugs from elsewhere, as well as the proprietary tug operations of corporations with other "core businesses," like the railroads and the petroleum companies, commingled in New York along with the assets of purely local operators large and small, mostly small. Only a few sourcess seem to have recorded tug business dealings in those days, beyond the iconic descriptions of dispatchers shouting orders to skippers through megaphones from Manhattan office towers. The tugboat business was a lot more complex than that, of course, with harbor masters and agents and scalpers of varying backgrounds and levels of honor promoting or exploiting business for tug owners in the days before telephones. "That the waterfront in general and the milieu of the tugboatmen in particular was beginning to accumulate multiple layers of extortionate characters did not bode well for the port." They're presumably no longer part of the fabric, though the tug owners, then as now, endured something of a dichotomy about making their activities known. Word should get out to stimulate more business, but word should be kept quiet to avoid attracting competition. The book describes many other intricacies of tugboat dealings as common as steamboats in their time, and now just as vanished. Whether these business structures were unique to New York or were indigenous to other ports as well is not clear, though their parallels must have existed elsewhere. With luck, the success of the present volume will encourage equally learned tomes under titles like "Tugboats of Philadelphia" or "Tugboats of Norfolk." It would be interesting to compare. Principles of tugboat design, machinery, and operating characteristics are abundantly covered in the book, although the majority are more-or-less generic and not New Your specific. It's probably a safe bet that some of the author's observations about the business were applicable elsewhere. "Salesmanship, competence, wit, and charm also became important business attributes. A towing competitor might easily duplicate the qualities of a specific tug, but to duplicate a personal relationship was a different matter. Reserves of common understanding and trust became as important as horsepower." Also likely common elsewhere, "The business at all levels was populated by individuals who operated privately and by their own wits. This independent quality defied most attempts at regulation. Watermen have a well-documented taste for individuality.... Throughout the nineteenth century they defied all efforts to establish a uniform pricing system in the harbor. The result was a boisterous oversupply of boats and of the characters who ran them." Maybe for the better, the author a few pages later compares the past and future boatman. "Today, there is no official patience for [the past's] sort of man. Coast Guard licensing procedures are viewed as a matter of national security. The rules have been altered to make it all but impossible for a prospective captain to obtain a license by virtue of work experience and training on board ... The various merchant-marine academies, faced with the almost total disappearance of jobs in deep-sea employment for their graduates, have turned to training young men and women for careers in inland and coastal towing. Acting as advisers to the Coast Guard in drafting new licensing rules, the academies have been allowed to write their own curricula into the new rules, ensuring that their graduates will get first crack at whatever jobs there are. Under this influence a new style of officer has emerged, buttoned down and bureaucratic. They are undeniably diligent and intellectually well equipped for the job, but their arrival represents a clean break from the ancient unruly traditions of the harbor."

While an unregulated harbor may equate with an unruly harbor, a corollary is that an unregulated harbor spawns, insists upon, the honorable personal relations that also bob up periodically through the course of the narrative. The chapter "Trust and Honor: The Rescue of the Dalzelline" illustrates the spirit in a New York anecdote, which also has its parallels elsewhere when a "pressing need for quick action" dictated that "the [business] agreement was an entirely verbal one but bore within its understandings a wealth of integrity and tradition." The spirit pays homage to "the inviolability of a verbal promise." Most of the people we know would roll their eyes over the proposition that tugboaters represent the pinnacle of honorable conduct, especially after bitter labor disputes and endless, sometimes vexing competition from their brethren. Still, most would mean what they're saying, and stick up for it. The contrast is not exclusive to New York here, either. "The bond of a promise has been shrugged off in much of today's business world, but in most corners of the harbor the principle that a man's word is his bond still persists." A man's word and bond is also his reputation, in a self-contained society like a harbor's. The tugboat business has always been a B2B business. "The basic measure of a boatman's conduct in business affairs is that he did what he said he was going to do ... For such widespread commerce to function, a presumption of all parties' good faith and enterprise was essential." There was of course the strike, that is the big one that is recent enough for most people to remember and remark upon, and which the author likens to two bald men fighting over a comb. Power struggles are no stranger to New York Harbor, though the strike at the end of the1980s apparently had no winners. But such conflicts express a state of madness of sorts, the body turned against itself, institutional in contrast to the I've-got-to-trust-you bond that can emerge on deck. The author describes of his tug operations, ordered by strangers on the phone, "an agreement on a price was struck, and I performed the service ... I sent the customer the bill, and in thirty days or so I received my payment." The only uncollectible was a friend, who is still a friend anyway -- "a paradox that speaks to the relative expectations of ordinary friendship compared to those of honor in New York Harbor." Picture Perfect? All the book's photos are in black-and-white, or more precisely, grayscale, rich in tone like the film originals of the 1930s and ' 40s when most were taken. Few spreads of text are without at least one comely illustration, and many are fullpage. Although the text covers the harbor from eleven hundred million years ago on up to 2005, when the book was published, the majority of photos come from a smaller slice of time. A few go back to the stereoscope era, with Anthony photos of the 1850s or ' 60s, but most hover around the WPA (Works Progress Administration) era. Gordon Parks is among the talents that recurs through the book, having been funded in the late 1940s for photos of life aboard. Mr. Parks would be the featured name in the photo credits, though plenty of work by other photographers of the era is present, all up to high standards. Perhaps because of the photographers themselves, or the type of equipment they were using, there's a formality and distance between the viewer and subject, at least with some of the human ones pictured aboard, that would look stilted in photography today. Cameras since then have gotten quicker, closer, maybe even more expected, so the result in this book is a certain stylized nostalgia of those years. "Adele, the author's wife, did much of the image researching," said Steve Maikowski, Director of New York University Press, when we called to inquire how a work of so many honorable qualities saw light of day, in a world where so much gets shrugged-off. "The researches revealed that at the University of Louisville were over 300,000 prints donated by EXXON, some taken under the WPA. That really deepened the illustrations. We said they are so sensual -- let's think of a 9x12-inch format, do it oblong, and let's put in more of these beautiful photographs. The project grew based on the illustrations." What it had grown from was a proposal by the author, not yet a finished manuscript, but "I had wanted to grow our list of regional history," said Mr. Maikowski. "This one came across my desk and it struck a chord. I'd met a former New York harbor tug captain, and over a beer asked him about the proposal. He took it away to look at, and said this is really good work. That was the first litmus test -- this guy knows his stuff." With the discovery of the collection of photos came the decision that "we wanted to make a more beatiful book and I told designer Charles Hamed to lay out each page individually, as if every page is part of a coffee table art book. I decided to go out and raise some money to pay for the more significant fixed costs, like the very high-quality scans of the photos," which with a reasonably small endowment could keep the initial press run of 4000 at a reasonable retail price -- the publisher's website quotes $39.95, although Amazon offers it at $26.37.It probably compliments everyone that a copy on eBay sold for over $40 a couple months back. Mr. Maikowski says that without the support of its benefactors, the book would have carried at least a $44.95 list. About three-quarters of the first printing had been sold as of our conversation early last December, but subsequent press runs could hold the line on price because the parts of the enterprise that received underwriting do not need redoing. The Dibner Fund, the Walter Ferguson Foundation, and an "industry member" in New York who has requested anonymity were the supporters mentioned. They backed a good bet. Aside from some of the stiff and not quite spontaneous-looking pictures of crews in their engine rooms and gallies, there are plenty of vibrant period photos that exude the texture and the spirit of the tugs of the times -- these are your grandpa's tugboats -- occasionally tying into the present with today's museum tugs at work when they were young. Modern tugs are represented too, like the McAllister tractor in a firefighting demonstration across the back of the dust jacket. But the book is "an illustrated history" with graphic rewards for all. For us it's a pleasure to come across the Chancellor, now under restoration at Waterford, pictured in her youth in New York, or the K. Whittelsey with her grand mechanics here, her hominess there -- including a close-up of a galley shelf as prosaic as can be -- for besides all else, tugs are the homes of the people who work them... If there's a cautionary note at all in the volume, it's that the nostalgia reinforces an impression that seems easy to adopt in New York, that the harbor-as-engine is a past fact of history. There are bears in the woods who believe, or would have others believe, that it all became irrelevant after the day of black-and-white film. It's a harmless belief, unless city planning or legislation takes inspiration from it. But George Matteson's text leaves little question about history, or the fact that it's ongoing and living. History (Cont'd) There are a few millionaires around, but not many people in the tugboat business, as this book recalls them, made particular fortunes. Most, it would seem, were marginal most of the time, some broke, some broken by the business.There may be traditions, but they'd have developed against a continually changing background. It's been years since railroad car floats were big business, but it's been even more years since block ice and brick were major tows in New York, and more years still since the square riggers. The context of towing keeps changing, but the necessity does not. As long as there is water there is an opportunity to move things, and tugs are still the motors. Today, in New York, it's petroleum products most of all. Tomorrow it could be all kinds of things, as social requirements and economic balances realign. Meanwhile, where there's petroleum nowadays, there are ATBs. The author shares a dichotomy on the subject, part of which recalls the old skipper who insisted upon crossing at the Statue. Some things have always been, and variance can be disapproved on principle alone. "The move to large-scale ATB systems is not only because of navigational and safety considerations. Tugs and barges have always been subject to far simpler construction and manning requirements than have conventional ships, so any arrangement that allows a vessel to be defined as a tug and barge ... vastly reduces its construction and operating cost. This wrinkle in the law has resulted in a few so-called tugs that are so ungainly when not married to their barges that they are barely able to traverse a sheltered harbor in flat calm.. Furthermore, the perpetual marriage of a tug to a single barge violates one of the basic efficiencies of tug and barge operations, namely, that the tug, which generally represents the bulk of the capital outlay of a barging operation, can shft off to other profitable employment while its barge is idle or held in port for loading and unloading." And steam tugs were quieter, but the author, like the industry as a whole, knows a good development when he sees it after all. "Recently, the ability to push in virtually any weather has been achieved by a variety of systems," he states some pages later, "that allow the tug and barge to make their attachment solely in the notch at the stern of rhe barge. ... These "articulated tug-barge" (ATB) designs have revolutionized the transportation of petroleum and chemicals along coastal routes. ATBs as large as full-sized tankers, carrying as much as a quarter of a million barrels of cargo, are now operating on the coast in all weather." In some ways, it might seem, the good old days of New York tugboating are still ahead. "Starting in 1929 the towing industry became habituated to a defensive posture. Starting with the depression years and continuing to the end of the century, traditional harbor business withered, as companies battled one another toward extinction. A dogged conservatism, enforced by tenuous profit margins and rigid labor practices, locked the towing industry into a downward spiral that seems only recently to have abated. With new tugbot construction and the promise of a few enduring markets, the tugs of New York Harbor appear to have weathered a long and mighty storm and today, as ever, have another tide to catch." So in 270-odd pages we've gone from the unfathomable past to the unforeseeable future, or at least a dimly-envisioned near-future. Is this book a history or a forecast? Does it cover New York, or a national industry? What is this book about, really? The epilogue gives the literal last word on the subject, and is set nowhere near New York. It's way upstate on the canal, and although it opens on a tugboat, its focus becomes babies and railroad trains. It's a delicious little morsel about something else that flows through the book, another recounting that could occur anywhere if people would let it, about folks looking after one another. Like the earliest geological formation of this broad and demanding harbor, it provides a clue to the nature of the tugboats of New York.

Maritime Reporter June 2014 Digital Edition
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