Tugboat welcomes visitors as it awaits help, repairs

October 15, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Staff

Nearly a century ago, burning coal turned water into the steam that first pushed the tugboat into the city's expansive harbor. For the next five decades, the Baltimore was the flagship of the city's busy fleet of tugs - breaking ice, tending buoys and toting mayors, commissioners, businessmen and school kids around the harbor.

Now the venerable steamer, one of the last of her kind, floats beside a pier at the Baltimore Museum of Industry near the foot of Federal Hill. Tucked away behind a green fence, the Baltimore lies a few hundred feet from her birthplace, awaiting what the museum and volunteers hope will be a major overhaul.

But for two days, starting Saturday, the Baltimore will emerge again, the canvas removed from its windows, its decks open for visitors for the first time in years. In its honor, a parade of tugboats will venture from Fort McHenry to the Constellation and back, blowing whistles and horns, among other festivities.

The tug's 100th birthday celebration is more than just a party. It is intended to draw attention to Baltimore's steam-era history, evoking a time when the city's life was shaped by its busy port. It is a port that floated fortunes and stank to high heaven from trash and sewage, stirred by a navy of passenger steamboats, freighters and tugs; a port that received shiploads of molasses for food processors and iron ore for steel mills and sent grain and coal around the world, providing a vital gateway to the Midwest.

"The port created a city, basically," said Robert Keith, a local author who has written about the harbor and its history.

Today construction cranes, high-rises and sleek white sailboats dot the Inner Harbor. The Baltimore sits in the midst of this booming waterside development, a floating anachronism.

"She's pretty much the last tug in the country that's burning coal and operating and floating," said Bob Pratt, president of the Baltimore and Chesapeake Steamboat Company, a nonprofit organization formed to maintain and restore the tugboat since the museum had her raised from the Sassafras River on the Eastern Shore about 25 years ago.

The volunteers meet the first and third Saturdays of almost every month, cleaning and sanding, scraping and painting anew.

"We have been trying to just chase rust and rot," said Pratt, who is also a descendant of the boat's builders, Skinner & Sons.

But the Baltimore needs more than a facelift to sail again. Holes in the boat's iron hull - a unique feature for the time it was built - have kept it in the dock, unable to venture into the harbor. A new hull would cost at least $2 million, said Steve Heaver, project director for the tug's operation and maintenance, and chief engineer.

Built in 1906, the tug, wired for electric lighting, belonged to the Harbor Board and was used for inspections and for carrying officials and dignitaries around, Heaver said. It helped woo business into the city, carrying businessmen to potential building sites, along with planners and engineers. It conducted school tours to Fort McHenry. The Baltimore also broke ice and tended buoys, Heaver said.

"This was the city's water ambassador," Heaver said.

In that sense, the Baltimore was special. Tugs usually did the harbor's heavy lifting, pushing and towing barges, guiding ships into the docks, said Herb Groh, a former docking pilot who also served as one of the Baltimore's most recent captains.

"They were the workhorses of the harbor," Groh said.

In 1963, the Baltimore was sold to Samuel F. duPont, "a steam buff" who took the boat to his pier on the Sassafras River. The boat sank at the pier in 1979. The duPonts donated the tug to the Museum of Industry, which raised it from the river two years later.

Heaver and a group of volunteers began restoring the boat in 1982. For a decade, their crew gave free rides in the harbor and to Fort Carroll. Then, in 2000, time caught up with the Baltimore: Its Her hull was declared too weak for sailing. Its Her band of volunteers, once a robust set of engineers and former seamen, has since dwindled to about five regulars on Saturdays, Heaver said.

Now, the boat needs more than volunteer help.

"What we're really talking about is a significant restoration effort," said Roland Woodward, executive director of the Museum of Industry. "Boat maintenance is a very expensive proposition." The museum is trying to determine the scope and overall costs of a new hull and other repairs, Woodward said.

For the volunteers, saving the boat equates to preserving an important piece of history. "We have a tremendous maritime heritage in this harbor, which is largely going undefined," Heaver said.

There is still plenty of work ahead while a decision on more comprehensive restoration is awaited. There's an engine that requires a new coat of paint, Heaver noted, and a boiler in need of a complete overhaul. The weekend workers say they could use more willing hands.

"There are a lot of watermen in Baltimore still," Pratt said, referring to a possible source of "new blood." "We just need to give them a severe case of tug love."


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