The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 2, 2007

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.



  1. Hi, i am a desendent of the luckenbachs.. i am trying to complete my family history.. does this book have any more info on that family???

    Comment by kim — May 5, 2007 @ 2:25 pm |Reply

    • Kim:

      I hope this address is still active for you; I am writing the story of the Luckenbach Line, starting in the Kingston, NY days, and ending as a premier U.S. flag steamship line. I’ve met with Lewis lll and have gathered much info thus far. I’d be glad to share what I have with you.

      What is your connection to the family?

      Gerard Thornton

      Comment by Gerard Thornton — March 11, 2011 @ 11:27 pm |Reply

  2. Hi Kim,

    According to the index, there is about a page-worth of comments about Edward F. and Lewis Luckenback starting on page 109, plus a reproduction of a painting done in 1890 of the tug L. Luckenbach. The notes indicate the info was drawn from two articles in the Nautical Gazette: “The Premier Coast Towing Line,” in Nov. 27, 1890 and “Death of Lewis Luckenbach” in August 23, 1906, and also from a book by Paul C. Morris, Schooners and Schooner Barges (Orleans, MA: Lower Cape Publishers) 1984, p. 9.

    How great to have ancestors who changed history! Good luck on your research. And thanks for reading my blog!

    Comment by washergenes — May 6, 2007 @ 9:42 am |Reply

  3. THANKS!! off to the library!

    Comment by kim — May 26, 2007 @ 12:45 pm |Reply

  4. My grandfather and my uncle, both named Captain Al Kelly, were tugboat captains on the NY harbor. I would love to have contact with anyone remembering them or having remembered info regarding working with either of them. Thanks, Gladys

    Comment by Gladys LaFever — March 15, 2009 @ 10:53 am |Reply

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