The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 21, 2007

Tug Sinking: What it was like

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 11:53 am


This photo is undated and unsourced, but it appears to be taken along a river. The area seems to be a river-town, built up along the water’s edge. If you look in the left hand side behind the boat, you can see, very faintly, that buildings edge the opposite bank for quite some distance. Across the water, the area seems flooded, and the water is pretty high in the foreground as well.

The boat itself looks pretty basic. It seems to be of wood and there appear to be no railings. It’s so shallow it looks almost raft-like. My guess would put it early in tug history, perhaps the 1870s, although the event pictured here might be quite a bit later.


Review: Henry R. Stiles on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Basin

Filed under: Archetypes,Reviews — by WWG @ 10:15 am

I’ve been reading around in a history of Brooklyn by Henry R. Stiles.* Volume III of his 1870 book describes the contemporary city. My current interest is the waterfront, covered in Part III of Chapter XII, “Docks and Commerce.” This is a book I happened on somewhere, and I notice it is not in the bibliography at the back of George Matteson’s book on New York tugboats. It may, thus, provide somewhat of a supplement to that book’s coverage of the Manhattan tug scene.

Early on, Stiles makes two points that seem contradictory. On the one hand, he reports that “no city in the union, possessing the natural facilities and extent of waterfront, is so poorly provided with public docks as Brooklyn” (573). On the other, just a page later, Stiles emphasizes that “a comparison between the docks and warehouses of New York and those of Brooklyn is highly favorable to the latter” (574). (New York and Brooklyn were still separate cities in 1870, so by “New York” he means Manhattan.) New York’s waterfront was owned by the city, and had become dilapidated and antiquated; there was no protection from the weather nor a way to recapture the inevitable leakages of cargo. It was, furthermore, he notes, “exposed to the depredations of dock-thieves” (573). Finallly, the routes leading away from the docks were in sorry shape, and goods, once landed, took many more days to arrive at their destinations.

In Brooklyn, to the contrary, the waterfront had been in private hands since the early days, when the city failed to act on an offer from the owners of the shore land to sell it because of one negative vote by one Joseph Moser. “Since that time, private parties have been allowed to take possession of every foot of available waterfront” (374). It was, then, in public wharves that Brooklyn was lacking. Astonishingly, “along its thirteen miles of waterfront,” Stiles reported, “there are scarcely a dozen pubic docks” (574), all small and inconvenient. The story of the Brooklyn docks is a story of private enterprise making the best of a fortuitous situation.

The Brooklyn docks were elevated above the waterline and not swamped, as happened in NY. They were in excellent repair and clean, “so that every pound of sweepings and leakages can be saved” (574). In Brooklyn, the warehouses were right on the docks, saving the cost and time of transportation that was so arduous in NY, and out-shipment was much easier because the ships could load right from the warehouses. Stiles notes, that at the “overcrowded docks of New York, . . . work, not infrequently, has to cease at noon, because the pier is covered and the men have fairly blocked themselves in” (575).

I am interested in the Atlantic basin because Capt. James’s tug laid up there according to several maritime reports, and, of course, it was there the tug was docked when it sank. The Atlantic basin was in the twelfth ward. Stiles notes, “through the whole lower portion of the 12th ward, streets are rapidly being extended and graded, sunken lots and disease-breeding pools of stagnant water are being filled in . . . The sheds and shanties of squatter pioneers are rapidly disappearing before the advance of new buildings of brick and stones, and imposing churches, school-houses, factories, warehouses and dwellings have already been erected. . . . The hum of machinery and the evidence of industry and activity are unceasing, and this section of city already possesses sufficient material in population, property, manufactures, schools, churches and other requisites to constitute a tolerable municipality by itself” (582).

Stiles elaborates the history of the Atlantic dock in a footnote extending across several pages—a format which often puts the juice of a matter in a subsidiary position to his main-text cataloguing of the components of his contemporary Brooklyn.

The Atlantic wharves, he says, were planned to resemble the Liverpool docks. The basin itself was shallow at low-tide and the area surrounding it, in 1841, so rural that cows would stand in the water to cool themselves. Viewed from downtown Brooklyn, it appeared that the cows had waded across Buttermilk Channel to Governor’s Island, which is close offshore from the basin, and that they did so was an urban myth of the time. To make the basin useful, it had to be excavated “by steam dredging machinery, a tedious and expensive process, which has been going on from the commencement of the work until this time” (576), progressively increasing the size of the ships that could use the docks. In Stiles’s day, “over a hundred large vessels drawing twenty feet of water at low tide can lie with ease and comfort within the secure walls of this dock” (576).

In fact, the basin was an astonishing construction: “The access to the basin is midway through a line of warehouses half a mile in extent, by an entrance two hundred feet wide, passable at all stages of the tide by any class of vessels; differing in this respect from the Liverpool docks which are accessible at high tide only, and then closed by gates to retain the water to keep the vessels afloust during the ebb tide, the fall of water in the river Mersey leaving the docks inland when the tide is out” (576).

We think of ourselves as modern, but we have as a people, a civilization, been “modern” and technological for a very long time now. Stiles describes the warehouses ringing the basin as built on secure foundations, of granite and brick to four stories, with nine “first-class” steam-powered grain elevators, “some of which exceed anything of kind in this or any other country”{ (576). He explains, “These elevators will, under ordinary operation, discharge a canal boat loaded with eight thousand bushels of grain in three hours, elevating, cleaning, weighing, and distributing, to a point four hundred feet from whence it took it, by one process of machinery” (576).

He notes that as many as 130 sea-going vessels have fit in the basin at one time, and at another, over 600 canal boats loaded with grain alongside 50 sea-going ships (576-7). The basin was, he says, “the commercial point of the city of Brooklyn” (577).

These wharves were at the outer reaches of swampy low-lands, Stiles reports, and quickly speculators bought up the land and filled it in, flattened the hills, and built several thousand houses. This is the area now called Red Hook, I think. I notice on the map that the streets where my family mariners lived, Sackett, President, and Degraw, are only a few blocks away from the basin.

Stiles details the specifics of how the Atlantic docks were built, from the incorporation of the Atlantic Dock company, through a petition to the state legislature, in 1840, through the application to the legislature for a bill to permit altering the official waterline set down in 1836, the contracting for the work, the completion of the first docks in 1844, to the decision and contracting to erect the first steam elevator in the NY metro area in 1846-47. Some have a halcyon view of the nineteenth century, as a time when actions were more direct and free enterprise was truly “free,” but Stiles’ narrative shows that the web of business regulation, government oversight, and the law of contracts was very much part of the economic scene then as now.

The Atlantic Basin was, it seems, only the beginning of massive development of the Brooklyn waterfront. In the 1850s, planning began for the Erie and Brooklyn basins, erected ‘round the bend of Red Hook, and at the time of Stiles’s publication, still in progress.

The Atlantic basin, then, by the 1880s and later, was the old docks, smaller (at 40 acres of water, compared to 60 for the Erie), less commodious, and less modern. Just the place for a one-tug company to lay up its ageing boat.

* Stiles, Henry R. History of the City of Brooklyn N.Y., Volume III. “Published by Subscription,” 1870. Facsimile Reprint. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1993. Paper.

The picture here is of the John H. Cordts in New York Harbor; it’s dated 1909, and its provenance is unknown. It’s not from Stiles’s book; it’s an old photo in my collection. The writing on the cabin says Shortland . . . Harbour Transportion Co.


February 2, 2007

Washboard: My Captains

Filed under: Washboard — by WWG @ 11:40 am

The bits I found in the Brooklyn Eagle Online about my great-great-uncles, Captains Josiah and James, piqued my interest in them, and reading George Matteson’s Tugboats of New York helped me feel closer to the lives they lived. Shipping is a manifestly physical occupation, and Matteson unpretentiously and without melodrama conveys the arduousness and extremity of the work involved. I am so struck by the concert of humanity that brought about the operation of the harbor, by the cooperativeness and dedication to the perfection of the routine, by the spare poetry of a crew working silently for an hour or more under the direction of bells and hand signals.

I think of my father, the grand-nephew of James and Josiah, who also was an entrepreneur and a master, not of marine trades, but in building. He had every skill necessary for building, from drafting to roofing and everything in between. He had the physical strength of a laborer, the hands of a craftsman, and the nuanced know-how of the long practitioner.

I remember him once telling me, in showing me how to make something (I no longer remember what), that there were three sides to a line: the right side, the left side, and the middle, and you had to decide where you were going to cut, and stick to it. That bit of instruction has stayed with me, as an example of the esoteric-practical often obscured by the humbleness of the tasks involved.

I savor these terms that would have been daily vocabulary of James and Josiah: hawser, shifting, bitts, capstan, catenary, manila rope.

Reading Tugboats of New York drove me back on the web to find out more, if possible, about the Brooklyn waterfront. I thought I had milked out all there was online about my captains, but when I started searching web-wide I came across some additional information.

Selections from the Nautical Gazette, a source frequently cited by Matteson, are online through the Tugboat Enthusiasts of the Americas, and Capt. James comes up several times.

On Nov. 26, 1891, his boat is listed as “Up for inspection:” EDWARD ANNAN, E. J. Burger, of Brooklyn.

On November 1, 1906, the boat is listed again: “Atlantic Docks have a large number of tugs hauled up overnight awaiting good weather. They are . . . Also the tugs ANNIE R. WOOD, CASTOR, EDWARD ANNAN, HENRY D. McCORD . . .”

In April 25, 1907, the Gazette again reports, “Laid up at the Atlantic Basin: Capt. Burger’s EDWARD ANNAN, Carroll Bros. SEVEN BROTHERS, and Peter Cahill’s O. L. HALENBECK.”

Finally, on May 23 of that same year, when Elisha James would have been age 66, the Gazette reports: “Capt. James Burger has retired, selling his tug EDWARD ANNAN to his former agent, Wayne Knight, Jr.” By the 1910 census, James and Elsie are living in Esopus, on his “own income.”

So, James did indeed raise the tug after its sinking at its pier in 1898 and returned it to duty, Matteson’s reports of scant profitable work for tugs notwithstanding. (There is, in these transcriptions at least, no mention of the sinking.) Capt. James worked the tug for almost ten more years.

One more note about the EDWARD ANNAN: The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has on its site a list of all the boats that ever worked the lake and the canal linking it to the Hudson, and a boat called the Edward Annan is on it. A researcher upstate has informed me, however, that this Edward Annan was a canal boat with a distinct history of ownership from my tugboat. He provided me with some instructions on how to trace my boat at the National Archives. I am going to ask him, though, about the name. Is there a particular reason why these boats are named after this man?

Review:Matteson’s Tugboats of New York

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 11:11 am

Review: Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History by George Matteson. New York: NYU Press, 2005.

George Matteson spent decades on the waterfront of New York and knows the towing business from hawser to spreadsheet—and he’s researched the development of the harbor’s workboats with the eye of experience. His book guides you effortlessly into the world of tugboating, showing you the ropes (pun intended) with the ease of a master. You can’t help but respect him for both his undoubtedly hard-won insider’s view of a gritty profession and his spare, pointed, informative prose. You might say he guides the reader through a century-and-a-half of maritime history like the seasoned seaman he is.

According to Matteson, tugboating is an especially non-routine business, in that “each tow is different, each requires special attention to rigging and maneuver” (2). Working in New York Harbor presents additional complexities; the Hudson River is officially designated as a fjord, having been cut by glaciers rather than by flowing melt from upstate, and in it salt water and fresh mix throughout. “The rise and fall in the harbor is about five and one-half feet,” Matteson reports, unlike other east coast harbors with rises of three or less ( 6). While the harbor is protected by islands and hooks of land spread down through Brooklyn and New Jersey, it can also be a cauldron of whipping cross-currents.

In the early days, two streams of maritime business filled New York harbor: ocean-going ships from other US ports and abroad and the river traffic of passengers and goods to-ing and fro-ing from all the river towns up the Hudson River to Albany. Especially after the opening of the canal system to transport goods back and forth across NY State to the Great Lakes and down into the coal country of Pennsylvania, NY harbor became a locus of shipping and passenger activity.

At first, steam ferries, diverted from their primary assignments, handled the job of towing sailing vessels into berth. Towboats began to be specialized as passengers and freight customers demanded reliable service. Gradually, river and harbor freight movement shifted to barges when it became obvious that tugboats could move unpowered loads more efficiently through more diverse conditions than they could tow loaded sailing sloops. Throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century, hundreds of tugboats swarmed though the harbor in New York endlessly performing the daily work of commerce.

Tugboats of New York is in “coffee-table” format with dozens of photographs of working tugs and harbor scenes drawn from the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and other archives. Boats make great subjects, of course, being sculptural and statuesque, and NY provides a dramatic textured background. The author’s photo choices portray both the scenic and the work-a-day shipping world, and beneath each photo, Matteson’s lengthy captions explain details only a mariner would notice.

Towing involves great seamanship and acumen on the part of boat captains and crew. Matteson’s crystal descriptions of such strategies as towing “on the hawser,” “shifting,” and “gate towing” make you comprehend the craft involved; in fact, you feel you could do it on the basis of his instructions (and you almost wish you could). But you also realize the depth of practice involved in success in this trade.

In describing “shifting,” for example, Matteson writes that “moving one or a number of barges within a tightly congested ship or work site requires a level of delicacy and precision far greater than that required for other towing assignments. . . . Each barge may be destined for a different customer, so the order of eventual delivery must be reflected in the order that each is added to the tow, the first to be dropped off needs to be the last added to the tow. . . . To open up a raft of barges, extract one or several, and close the raft back up in the fewest possible moves is a distinct skill at which some tug captains excel and others do not” (74-75).

A reader comes to realize that the tasks on board are performed in a state of almost mystic cooperation: “Key to success in shifting work is a skilled captain and crew who have worked together long enough for each to anticipate the actions of the other. In the days when engine room orders were conveyed by the use of bells, the deckhands working out on the barges could usually keep track of the tug’s intentions by careful listening. . . . A highly polished crew can perform the most complicated maneuvers in near complete silence, each knowing exactly what to do and often using only hand signals.”

He continues, “Railroad shifting tugs averaged 566 bell commands from pilothouse to engine room in an eight-hour shift. During a close-in shifting operation the rate of bell signals transmitted from pilothouse to engine room might read six per minute, and a period of such intense activity might last an hour or more. The likelihood of a miscue at some point in this process, sending tug and barge off at the wrong speed or direction, is inevitable, and many costly accidents and time-consuming snarls have been the result.” When engine technology so that the pilothouse directly controlled the engine, towing and the job of shifting became immensely easier. Matteson concludes, “The development of twin-screw propulsion adapted for pilothouse control of the engines further simplified the work of shifting such that the old captains of single-screw bell boats would say that, nowadays, anybody can do it.”

My interest in Matteson’s book, of course, is that it captures what the job was like for my tug captain ancestors, Capt. Quimby and the two Capt. Burgers, who all worked, not New York Harbor, but Brooklyn Harbor. To a great extent, of course, these are the same places and share the same history. But Matteson’s book focuses on Manhattan’s shipping industry, and so there is almost no mention of onshore conditions or companies in Brooklyn (except those that grew and became Manhattan companies). My captains were operating during a period of intense growth in harbor activity. Matteson provides the astonishing statistics: “The dollar value of manufactured goods produced in Manhattan and Brooklyn went from 105 million in 1850 to 194 million in 1870 and just over a billion in 1890. . . . The [city’s] population skyrocketed from 650,000 in 1850 to 1, 360,000 in 1870 and 2, 350,000 in 1890.”

Describing the intensity of the need for tugboats in what may have been towing golden’s hour, he continues: “In 1896, there were 4,460 arrivals of vessels from overseas and 10,229 from U.S. coastal ports. There were 4,736 steamers, and the rest were sailing vessels, including 8,353 coasting schooners.”

Beyond assisting ships, tugs also moved huge amounts of goods. “Vast quantities of stone, block ice, and brick came down the Hudson, so much sand was barged into the city from the north shore of Long Island that local observers wondered if the island would disappear entirely into the maw of New York City.” And what went out is even more astonishing: “Cellar dirt, the debris from the excavation of building foundations; dredge spoil, the mud and silt produced by the maintenance and steady enlargement of harbor facilities; garbage; ashes; horse manure (about four hundred tons per day), and dead horses (about two hundred per day) all left the city by barge for disposal offshore or at the rendering plants . . .” (84).

The return of boats from the civil war and the magnetism of NY caused an eventual glut of tugboats in the harbor, according to Matteson, by the late 1880s (just when my family captains would have been operating). “The majority of boats [at that time] were owned by partnerships, often comprising captain, engineer, family members, and associates. Because the captain and engineer owners of a small tug could not simultaneously run the boat and run the business, the securing and scheduling of individual jobs and the subsequent payment for these jobs was ordinarily handled by a towing agent, usually with offices along the Manhattan waterfront“ (91-92).

The end of the nineteenth century saw what Matteson calls a “sea change’” in the business of towing, with many of the older operators selling out. Many original boat operators were, of course, approaching retirement age after a long career as tugboat pioneers. The overabundance of tugs drove prices down. Also, the press to upgrade to propeller power drove some of the traditionalists away, to retirement or the slower life of tugboating on one of the canals or lakes. Finally, the era of corporatization had arrived, and tugboating was becoming a professionalized business field. “Tugboating at the end of the nineteenth century was leaving behind its entrepreneurial beginnings and settling into the character of a mature service industry where success is more dependent on office discipline than on wheelhouse daring” (94).

Matteson recounts the story of the Luckenbach towing company, prominent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and interesting to me because the immigrant Lewis Luckenbach was reared in Rondout, NY, and started his first business there. His first tug was, in fact, called the Blue Stone. He proceeded by retrofitting schooners as barges, with marginal sailing capacity to be used only in extremis. Luckenbach saw early the profitability of venturing out on the high seas to transport goods and get away from the intense rivalry for business in the harbor itself.

In addition to compiling the history of shipping in New York, Tugboats of New York uncovers the details of seamanship and celebrates the practical art involved in commonplace work. Every detail of the book is pristine: the photographs, the design, the clarity of explication, the easy but professional tone, all, in fact, modeling the attention to detail and the fanatical competence that is required to work at sea–qualities often obscured by the supposed ordinariness of the labor that weaves the complex materiality of our civilization.

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