Hopes sink as museum seeks new owner for tug


October 16, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Stephen G. Heaver Jr., director, curator and owner of the Fire Museum of Maryland, is also chief engineer and project director of the diminutive steam-powered tug Baltimore, which he and other volunteers have been restoring for more than 20 years at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway.

His call the other day brought news that the museum plans to strike the Baltimore from its collection and find a new home for the venerable vessel that has been tied up there since 1981.

The tug was towed to the museum after being raised from the bottom of the Sassafras River near Cecilton, where it had sank in 1978.

The 84 1/2 -foot-long Baltimore, with its black hull, white wheelhouse and tall, black-ringed buff funnel, was built in 1906 in Baltimore's Skinner Shipyard. The 330-horsepower, steam-powered, coal-fired tug, later converted to oil, was used by city officials to transport visitors to Fort McHenry and to tow garbage scows.

After its retirement in 1963, the diminutive vessel was sold to Samuel and JoAnne DuPont of Cecilton, who restored it and used it as a pleasure vessel. After its sinking off their Sassafras River dock, the couple donated it to the museum.

The Baltimore and its devotees are caught in a philosophical conflict at a time when the Baltimore Museum of Industry redefines its mission - which does not include a role for the tug.

Needless to say, the tug's all-volunteer crew is concerned about the vessel into which it has poured thousands of hours of hard work.

Volunteers who swarm over engines and cars at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum and trolleys at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum and on the decks and engine room of the Liberty Ship SS John Brown are acutely aware of the difficulties facing them.

These are big-ticket items whose upkeep requires technical skills, some of which have faded away because of the advance of technology. Parts are not found on the shelves of the local Home Depot and must be fashioned by hand.

It becomes a frustrating labor of love, honed by a belief in seeing such things operate and ultimately serve to educate. It's one thing to tell a child about a steam locomotive and quite another to have him see one in all its majesty, chugging and whistling along the tracks. But that comes at a price, as volunteers continually scurry for funding or spare parts.

The Baltimore's volunteers are no different and fear that their vessel may lose the battle and leave local waters.

"It's a Baltimore-built, operated and owned boat and if we can't raise the money, it'll go elsewhere. However, we're hoping that we can place her at a local maritime museum, and we're putting out feelers to see what museum might be interested," Heaver said in an interview.

"The Baltimore Maritime Museum is the most logical place to put her, but funding is a major question. So, we're hoping we can awaken local pride, which will keep her here. However, wherever she goes, the Baltimore is coming without an agenda. She has her own volunteer crew, which we hope to continue expanding," he said.

Heaver says that it will take at least $1 million to put the Baltimore back in operation. Restoration work has been supported by grants from the Maryland Historic Trust.

Immediate repairs include painting and work on her hull.

"Right now, her hull is so weak that we can't run the engine. We need to have this work done right now, but the money just isn't there. And the longer she sits, she's in danger of sinking," Heaver said.

According to Heaver, there are similarities that Baltimore's maritime heritage shares with San Francisco.

"We have the Baltimore and the John Brown, while San Francisco has the steam tug Hercules and the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien, both of which are the last of their type to operate," he said.

E. Ray Lichty, a retired CSX executive, is a board member of the museum and serves as chairman of its tug committee.

"As great an artifact as it is, it really doesn't fit into the museum's collection or plans. It's a hard artifact to include in a way that tells the area's industrial heritage. The question is how do we integrate it into our programs," Lichty asked.

"The tug, which is nearly 100 years old, needs major hull repair and that can be done. And we've figured out how to do it. However, with costs nearing perhaps $2 million, the museum board decided it was not a key part of our story here. You know the old saying, "A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money,'" he said.

"We're not going to cast off the Baltimore and we're happy that we can help fund an existing organization or one that is created to take her. Our goal is to see her operate once again and stay in Baltimore. And I think that can be done," he said.

"I'm confident that we'll find some way to keep her in Baltimore and even at her old museum pier even though the ownership will be somewhere else," Lichty said.

"It would be a travesty," added Heaver, "if the tug ever left Baltimore."

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