Tugboat owner finds few jobs in today's port

JACQUES KELLY

November 06, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

Jim Sadowski's Fells Point is a world apart from the Fells Point of designer bars and funky antique shops.

The 61-year-old tugboat captain rents an old pier off the east side of the 900 block of S. Wolfe St. It's cluttered with maritime engines, pipe, rope and rusty oil drums. You can't help getting the feeling that if the tide went out too fast, the pier might give way and float to the Eastern Shore.

Moored alongside the pilings are his Helen S, a 1942 tug that brought supplies to the workers building the first Bay Bridge.

Alongside her is the Gar-Den S, a larger tug built 10 years later.

The older boat is named for Sadowski's wife, Helen; the other is named for two of his children, Gary and Denise.

The tugs don't get much work these days because of the ailing economy. The Helen S had a job last week for the first time in weeks.

"It's getting harder to make a living here. The business is drying up," said Sadowski, whose father, mother, cousins and uncles once ran a busy harbor towing business.

Its little fleet of dark maroon tugs pulled barges and made deliveries all along the Patapsco River.

"My father wouldn't go too ungodly far away. Maybe down the bay to Annapolis," he said.

"I was 14 when I first started running the boat. My first job was to the Port Covington coal pier, to a barge from McLean Contracting.

"When I got there, I had a call from my mother. It was another job."

He piloted tugboats before he had a license to drive a car.

"I knew how to drive. We had a little farm, too, and I'd been driving tractors since I was 12," he said.

During World War II, he shuttled ammunition and ordnance -- smoke bombs, pistol bullets, cannons -- from foreign ships in port for repairs to an ammunition dump on Fort Carroll, the stone fortress near where the Francis Scott Key Bridge now crosses the Outer Harbor.

The ammunition from domestic ships went to Curtis Bay.

Sadowski Towing was never the port's largest tugboat operation. Baltimore's tugboat fleet was once dominated by Curtis Bay and Baker Whitely -- names that have disappeared, replaced by Moran and McAllister.

The Sadowski family always got by doing odd jobs and taking the short hauls. The family's tugs towed oil barges from Baltimore to Kent Island for contractors doing foundation work on the first Bay Bridge when it was being built in 1951, and worked on the Fort McHenry Tunnel and Sea Girt Marine Terminal.

Sadowski purchased his smaller boat, the Helen S, after she'd seen years of service with other owners. The vessel is a trim, easily maneuverable workhorse. Because of her size, she can operate in just over six feet of water.

The 50-year-old tug now leaves Wolfe Street on rare occasions. Her owner now fills in the time doing maritime repair work for other boat and ship operators.

"There's nothing I've seen that my father can't fix," said his son, Martin, who works alongside his father. "There's something special about him. Once he learned it, he never forgot it."

From a vantage point in the Helen S's pilot house, Sadowski stands by the oak ship's wheel and surveys the Fells Point shoreline.

"This used to be all packing houses," he said, pointing to the shoreline along Boston, Aliceanna, Wolfe and Fell streets. "There was D.E. Foote, J. Langrall, Gibbs, H.J. McGrath, Lord Mott, Southern and R.E. Roberts, all the big canners. They put their plants near where the people lived."

As he speaks, heavy cement mixer trucks trundle on and off the Arundel Corp.'s adjoining pier. The Arundel operation and Sadowski's are two of the few survivors of an older Fells Point, before the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood was dominated by condominiums and stylish apartments.

"I'll take this neighborhood as it was in the World War II years and just after," Sadowski said.

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