Back in July we were in Oswego with our little yacht Sara B where we crossed tacks with a historic vessel, the tug Urger. She was parked above the last lock on the canal and her captain was getting ready to head home for the weekend, but he lingered and gave us a brief tour. He also told us his elderly command faced an uncertain future.
The Urger, is special. She's one of a kind, and she needs help. She is one of the oldest fully operational work boats afloat in North America. She was built in 1901 in a Michigan shipyard and was purchased by New York State in 1920. For more than 80 years she has traveled the state's barge canal first pushing barges and dredges to and fro, and since 1989 serving as a “teaching tug” toured by thousands of school children while traveling the 524 mile canal system.
But the 113 year old ship has suffered the wear and tear of over a century of nearly continuous service. A recent survey earlier this year found she needs extensive repairs on her hull in order to continue working. And this will be very expensive. Urger's crew and those who respect and admire the old vessel fear that the state might terminate the educational program that has kept her chugging along the canal for the last several decades. If the old boat is scrapped, a piece of unique American history will be lost forever.
The Urger 's story parallels that of smoke stack America and its culture, society, natural resource exploitation and changing transportation and energy industries. She was built when the industrial economy of America was ramping up to become the mightiest producer of machinery, tools, and twentieth century transport infrastructure in the world. Urger and the New York canal system belong to a muscular time of iron and steel and demanding craftsmanship. Steam power still reigned supreme when the ship was launched, as water iron ore and coal fueled the vast manufacturing complex of the Great Lakes region, a power house of foundries and factories, mills and makers that stretched from Wisconsin south to Chicago and Gary and east to Buffalo and Hamilton, Ontario.
The vessel was designed originally a 'fish tug' and her crew set and hauled gill nets and carried the fresh catch ashore to processing and freezer plants. The fishery in which she worked was at that time one of the greatest and most profitable freshwater fisheries anywhere on earth. In 1901 millions of pounds of whitefish, lake trout, lake herring, and sturgeon were landed each year on the Great Lakes and thousands of people worked at catching, processing and distributing the fish throughout the heartland of America.
The tug was given a sturdy riveted steel hull to withstand the heavy ice of the winter fishery on Lake Michigan and a coal fired steam plant by the workers of the Johnston Brothers Shipyard and Boiler Works. a company that to this day still builds Scotch marine firetube boilers for ships. The H.J. Dornbos as she was christened, was 73 feet overall and about 45 tons displacement. A contemporary news account called her the “finest boat” in the Lake Michigan fleet. But already, even as the tug was launched and named for her owner a prominent fish wholesaler, the fishery was hinting at its finite future.
As small sail powered wooden fishing skiffs and schooners that had served gill netters began to give way to larger wood and iron and steel hulled 'fish tugs' the fishery intensified. Steam powered tugs could go further offshore, carry more fish and larger crews and most importantly could set and retrieve far greater lengths of gill net with their powered net lifter winches. This along with improved transport and freezer plant technology resulted in a rapid expansion of fish landings and profits. In ten years from 1880 to 1890 the number of steam powered fish tugs tripled on the Great Lakes and income from the fishery shifted to and concentrated in the ranks of the wholesalers rather than the independent fishermen. Soon the familiar pattern of overfishing and subsequent collapse of whitefish and trout stocks followed. Even before the H.J. Dornbos's launch in 1901, some people had written about the decrease in size of the individual whitefish and trout being caught (a classic sign of an unsustainable fishery).
As landings declined and smaller more economical vessels with gas engines made inroads in the fishing business, The H.J. Dornbos ceased to be profitable. She was sold in 1910 and put to work as a tug in Chicago. Her name may have been changed at this time to the more appropriate Urger, and for ten years she urged barges around the Lake Michigan waterfront. Around 1920 she was purchased by the New York Department of Public Works for use on the recently expanded barge canal.
After World War I The barge canal was in transition. Shippers competed with railroads by building larger self propelled vessels and barges for the new canal, seen then as vital competition to keep railroad rates in check. Urger was kept busy urging barges of rip rap and dredge spoil and other needed canal gear around the state to improve, and maintain the new waterway. By the 1940s and 50s a fleet of short haul motor ships, designed to fit the locks and squeeze under low bridges were hauling coal, grain, cement and other bulk cargoes across the state as the canal tonnage peaked. Then the St Lawrence Seaway opened, and commerce on the inland canal began to decline.
By the 1980s traffic on the canal was a fraction of the movement of thirty years before. Urger was no longer needed. She was laid up around 1985 and faced a possible scrapping. However, a successful businessman and World War II Navy Commander Schuyler M. Meyer had other ideas for the old canal worker. He had a long standing interest in both maritime history and education for children and used his own funds to operate Urger as a teaching tug. For several years he toured the canal system with her as volunteer captain of a floating classroom before the state took over the program.
In 2001, Urger was named to the NY State and National Register of Historic Places. Her age, long service, and several design features make her of historic interest. She was repowered after World War II with a war surplus diesel engine, a slow speed six cylinder Atlas Imperial. The engine weighs nearly 19 tons and was a model used in a number of wartime minesweepers. Urger's engine shoves her along economically at 40 rpm. Top speed is a little over 300 rpm. The engine is a direct reversing type, meaning it has no transmission but rather must be stopped and reversed to back up. There is no neutral, so to stop, the engineer simply shuts it down. It is started up with compressed air supplied by a second smaller engine running a compressor.
Urger is a “bell boat” meaning that the captain signals the engineer by a series of signals that ring bells on the forward bulkhead of the engine room. This is an antiquated system dating back to the earliest days of steam navigation on the lakes, and not many boats still operate with such signals. Especially ones that lack neutral!
According to her crew the old boat is in need of a new bottom and such a job will not be cheap. Her future is uncertain. Yet this unique and historic vessel, like the waterway she sails on, has much to teach us about the past. And then there is her rugged simplicity. She is a worker, a boat from analog times when coal and steam polished brass and riveted steel reigned supreme. Her classic tug boat lines appeal even to land lubbers. You can't see her and not love her said one of her crew.
Tugs are the mules of our day- hard working, brawny, yet small enough to be accessible to the land bound observer in coastal and harbor environments. Those who man them are among the most skilled of all ship handlers, or so the First Mate of a research ship I sailed on once told me. Historic artifacts are evocative and for many people ships are especially so. Stand for a moment on the catwalk of Urger's engine room or in her pilot house and all sorts of thoughts come. You think of movement and work and skill. A tug like Urger represents an unbroken lineage of skill and knowledge reaching back to a time when America was young, largely rural, but reaching toward the peak of her powers. Urger's life spanned the rise of industrialization, the high point of post World War II American influence, and the subsequent de-industrialization and shift to globalized trade and in America, a service economy.
Urger's gleaming brass and copper fittings and starkly simple pilot house evoke nostalgia. She represents the world of our grandfathers and great grandfathers- men who ran steam locomotives, laid stone, drove horse teams and did it with pride. They were men who stoked her boiler with coal, set and retrieved nets and plucked out the fish while freshwater slush froze underfoot. Sine labore nihil- nothing without work. Work gives purpose. Work with others is utterly necessary to human well being. The crew of a ship must work together. Especially if their engine room runs on a bell signal system. Urger reminds us of how work on canals and waterways made our nation. She reminds us how the work of our fore bearers built the living standard we now enjoy. There are museums of art and history and also of yachting that preserve the artifacts of the gilded golden era. Workers like Urger created that wealth.
Keeping her operational is a suitable memorial to the countless workers of factory and fishery and shipyard and waterway. She's a memorial to men who labored on the canal and to others, male and female alike unsung and simple who believed in the future of New York State and their country. Can we save her and her educational program?
If you'd like to keep the old girl at work write Mr. Tom Madison, Executive Director of the Thruway and maybe send a copy to his “boss” Gov Andrew Cuomo and let them know your thoughts on how we might do so. Stay tuned for more on the topic in months to come.