Charles F. Efford, 84, engineer who worked on steam engines

April 04, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Charles F. Efford, a retired engineer who spent nearly 40 years toiling in engine rooms of Baltimore tugboats and later volunteered aboard the Liberty ship John W. Brown, died of asbestosis Wednesday at Locust Lodge, a Pasadena assisted-living facility. He was 84.

"No matter what kind of vessel he was on, Charley always made her do her best. And he was always so proud of that," said Herbert Groh, a retired Curtis Bay Towing Co. captain and harbor pilot, who often worked with Mr. Efford. "He was only a kid when he learned how to fire and operate engines."

Mr. Efford was born and raised in Hamilton. His family owned the Rock Creek Steamboat Co., which operated 13 excursion steamers between Baltimore and Fairview Beach, an Anne Arundel County amusement park.

"I walked on deck before I walked on land," Mr. Efford said in an interview last year with Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Sun reporter and editor, who is writing an oral history of the John Brown.

After leaving the ninth grade, he went to work in the engine room of one of his father's steamers. He later graduated from Capt. Ellinson's Maritime School on Gay Street.

"Dad told Gus Johnson, his big steamboat fireman, `My son quit school. Teach him how to burn coal down there on the boat,'" Mr. Efford said in the interview. "Gus taught me lots of things. Fill only half a shovel, get more done that way. Soon I started oiling. I learned more and more."

During the 1930s, he fired the Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Brunswick -- the three Pennsylvania Railroad-operated ferries, which Baltimoreans christened collectively the Smokey Joe. They sailed from Pratt Street to Love Point.

During World War II, Mr. Efford worked at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard in Baltimore helping inspect the steam engines that were installed in the Liberty ships built in the yard.

Later during the war, he shipped out as a third assistant engineer aboard Liberty ships and other vessels, completed two around-the-world voyages, and sailed from the East Coast to South America.

After the war, he went to Curtis Bay Towing Co. where he worked aboard the company's fleet of tugs that operated in the Baltimore harbor. Twelve- to 14-hour workdays were common.

Mr. Efford, who lived in Pasadena, became one of the best-known tugboat engineers in the state during his 36 1/2 -year career.

He began his career on old turn-of-the-century coal-fired wooden-hulled tugs, which were later replaced by powerful diesel tugs with steel hulls. At his 1991 retirement, he was engineer on a 5,000-horsepower diesel tug, which was the largest in the harbor.

Mr. Efford had a deserved reputation for coaxing the best out of cranky engines or bad coal.

"We would have finished the last job at the end of the day and sometimes there would be three or four tugs down by Sparrows Point," Mr. Groh recalled. "We'd race back to the tug barns at General Ship Repair, Pratt Street or Fells Point. It was all friendly competition.

"And there would be Charley throwing the coal with the smoke pouring out of the stack. He'd roar to the two firemen, `Hey, let's get some life into the old girl and win the trophy today.' Old Charley's boat always led the pack."

In 1989, Mr. Efford began volunteering aboard the John Brown, where his engine-room expertise was most welcome.

"He was very knowledgeable about our ... steam engine, and I remember when he took our piston apart to replace the bearings. It's a very intricate job, and very few could do it. But Charley did," said Lou Rizzo, a longtime Brown volunteer.

In addition to his work aboard ships, Mr. Efford was an accomplished model shipbuilder. Several of his models -- including an operating model of a marine steam engine, like the type used aboard Liberty ships -- are on display at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

"He had all of his saws, tools and workbenches in the basement of our home. He'd do the final detailing with a penknife. He really was quite talented. He could look at a picture of a ship in a book and then make an accurate scale model without plans or schematic drawings," said his daughter, Lynn K. Babington of Pasadena.

Mr. Efford met his wife of 50 years, the former Katherine Adams, when she was a passenger aboard the Mohawk, one of his family's vessels. She died in 1989.

Services are private.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Efford is survived by a son, retired steamship Capt. Michael D. Efford of Baltimore; a niece whom he raised, Susan Hudgin Maxen of Baltimore; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Another son, Richard D. Efford Sr., a port engineer, died in 2001.

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