Tug needs help, soon, to survive

Local history

November 26, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Staff

The future of a historic landmark with unique ties to the city's maritime history is in doubt one month after a celebration in honor of its 100th birthday.

With an iron hull described as paper-thin in some places and in dire need of replacement, the tugboat Baltimore awaits a decision from its owner, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, on the next step in its century-long voyage.

"The board of directors is continuing to contemplate their role in the future of the tug," said Stephen Heaver, the boat's chief engineer and project director for operation and maintenance.

Repair costs are estimated to be at least $2 million, said Bob Pratt, president of the Baltimore and Chesapeake Steamboat Co. The volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization works to maintain and restore the ship, one of the oldest steam-powered tugs in the country.

But the actual costs - and extent - of the necessary repairs will remain unknown until someone examines the boat closely, Pratt said.

That unknown is what keeps the board "several steps away" from making a definite decision about the tug, said Roland Woodward, the museum's executive director.

"At the moment, we have ballpark guesses from people who are around vessels, but they're still ballpark guesses," Woodward said. The board would require a more formal examination to identify the scope of work needed, and its cost. That analysis could then inform a decision on how to raise money, Woodward said.

"It's more important for us at this moment to get that cost resolved," he said.

The tug's previous owner, Samuel F. duPont, donated the boat to the museum after it sank in 1979 at his pier on the Sassafras River. The tug, once considered the city's water ambassador, was raised two years later. A group of volunteers began restoring the boat, and even gave free rides in the harbor for a time. But in 2000, the tug was declared unfit to sail.

Last month, the steamboat company hosted a dinner in the boat's honor, which netted more than $10,000, Heaver and Pratt said. They plan to use the money to help launchthe tug's restoration.

Pratt said they suspect the Baltimore's annual maintenance budget would range from $30,000 to $50,000.

"Everyone has to decide they're in on this," he said.

There are a number of funding possibilities for the repairs, Pratt added. The company could appeal to entrepreneurs, corporations and the government. The National Park Service, for example, administers a matching grants program called Save America's Treasures, which requires applicants to match the awarded sum.

If nothing is done, the Baltimore "will sink at the pier," Heaver said. "It's only a matter of time."

But, he added, "I remain optimistic."

Woodward said the museum will likely decide on getting more repair specifics in the "next several months." Ultimately, it would like to see the maintenance fund developed and invested to provide continuing support, he said in an interview last month.

"While everybody may have a desired priority list, sometimes priorities get skewed by what funding is available for what," Woodward said. "It's not that the tug is a low priority for the museum. It's just one of several competing priorities."

Heaver said he would like to raise the funds needed in two years and get the boat steaming again by 2008 or 2009. But until the board makes a decision, Pratt said, the company - and any notion of fundraising - hovers in limbo. He and other tug volunteers hope to have a more concrete idea of the museum's plans after a board meeting they expect to take place at the end of this month.

"You can't go looking for money or asking for money if you can't tell the person where the money is going to be put," Pratt said.

In the meantime, the steamboat company is working to build a reliable crew. Although their ranks have dwindled since the days of about 15 to 20 regular volunteers, the celebration and company Web site have sparked fresh interest, Pratt said.

"There's a lot of excitement," he said. "We are sitting on top of the story of steam, and the bay sorely needs to be reeducated about the age of steam."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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