New York Harbor History

All hail the Mighty Tug!. Tug boats are so ubiquitous in New York harbor they become almost invisible to the daily ferry commuter. They resolutely tow barges with cargos as diverse as garbage and recyclables, giant work cranes, fuel for incoming ships and railroad freight cars. When not pulling, the feisty tugs shoulder and nudge cargo vessels, and the rare passenger liner, through the harborís swift currents and eddies, assisting them safely to their piers. They even break ice, when called upon. And in times of catastrophe, tugs have been the heroes of the harbor.

Nine Parade ready tugs in 1916. Note the American flags.

Workorses of the Sea

By Richard B. Marrin 
Published: March, 2002

All hail the Mighty Tug!. Tug boats are so ubiquitous in New York harbor they become almost invisible to the daily ferry commuter. They resolutely tow barges with cargos as diverse as garbage and recyclables, giant work cranes, fuel for incoming ships and railroad freight cars. When not pulling, the feisty tugs shoulder and nudge cargo vessels, and the rare passenger liner, through the harbor’s swift currents and eddies, assisting them safely to their piers. They even break ice, when called upon. And in times of catastrophe, tugs have been the heroes of the harbor.

Tug boats are native to New York Harbor, having been invented here in 1828 with the conversion of an old steam side paddle wheeler, the Rufus W King, to a tow boat. This barely two decades after Robert Fulton had introduced steam propulsion to water craft. Before then, fleets of oared craft, rowed by 8 or 10 men, had towed sailing ships to their berths.

The early tow boats might have looked like awkward Mississippi River steamers, but they must have done the job, if the venerable Norwich is any proof. Built as a passenger vessel in 1836 to steam Long Island Sound from New York City to Norwich, Connecticut, she was converted in 1842 for use as a tow boat on the Hudson and performed that task until 1924, 82 years in harness!

The first steam-turned, propeller tugboat in New York waters was the Sampson, built in 1850 at a cost of $4,500. The reign of steam, with its accompanying cacophony of toots, whistles and chugging sounds – the background music of the harbor, lasted into the 1950’s. By then, however, steam-propelled tugs had become dinosaurs among the more efficient and powerful diesel engine vessels introduced at the turn of the century.

South Street in the 1860’s was crowded with tug boat company offices, many of them owned jointly by the tugs’ captains and engineers. Competition was keen, especially for the ships arriving from foreign parts. Without the ship to shore communications of today, the rule of “first come, first served” determined which towing boat got the job, although raw knuckled competition and price cutting occasionally won the work for a late comer. The fighting McAllister brothers, now McAllister Towing, were among the best of them. Irish immigrants, they began a tug business in 1864 that is now in its fifth generations of sons, cousins and nephews.

Often tugboats are first on the scene to help when disaster strikes the harbor, sometimes at great risk to their own safety. In June 1900, a fire loaded with flammables like cotton and whiskey on a Hobo

ken pier, quickly spread to four German passenger ships, crowded with visitors. Tug boats rushed into the conflagration and managed to tow two of the liners into the river. A disaster was prevented in 1943 at Craven Point in Jersey City, near the Statue of Liberty, when an ammunition ship, with bombs in her hold and a deck cargo of high octane aviation gas, caught fire. As fireboats fought the flames, tugs dragged the burning ammunition ship two miles to Robbins Reef, near St. George on Staten Island where she was sunk. Without the quick action of tugs the explosions and fires would have wreaked unimaginable destruction along the Jersey waterfront, almost every square inch of which was devoted to the war effort.

No name is more clearly identified with the tug boat business than Moran. A rival to the McAllisters in earlier, rowdier days, the Moran dynasty began with Michael, an Irish immigrant who had been a mule driver on the Erie Canal. Mules were in effect the tow boats of the canals and rivers, so it was not unusual that Moran purchased a half interest in a tugboat, the Ida Miller and on November 10, 1860, opened an office at 14 South Street. By the mid 1880’s, there were more than 150 tugboats working New York Harbor and Michael Moran had an interest in ten of them. As time went on, many of the Moran tugs were given family names. The first so honored was the Maggie Moran, built in 1881 at a cost of $6,000 and named after Moran¹s first wife.

By 1910, Moran Towing was grossing nearly $800,000 a year and by World War II, it had some 50 tugboats and its revenues had increased tenfold. Then, Moran Towing moved its office from South Street to the Whitehall Building at 17 Battery Place, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Before radio-telephone systems were common on vessels, the Moran dispatcher was perched on a high ledge of this building, spyglass in hand, to spot incoming vessels. A booming voice, amplified by a six-foot-long megaphone, alerted the Moran tugs docked below across Battery Place that a potential customer was arriving. Edmond J. Moran, grandson of founder Michae

l, was at the company’s helm for a large chunk of the 20th century. He was with the company nearly 70 years, including his service as a Rear Admiral during World War II, when he was in command of the 160 tugboats that enabled the Allied forces to land at Normandy on D-Day.

Today, Moran Towing is the largest towing and transportation company on the East Coast. Its tugs are still recognizable by their brightly red-painted decks and pilot houses, their black funnel with company’s large White M painted on it, and, of course, by the Moran family names on their sterns. Sixteen Moran tugs still serve New York harbor, ranging from the dainty 1750 horsepower Diana L Moran to the formidable 6,300 horsepower Esther Moran. Sadly, however, Moran’s management seems to have forgotten its New York roots, abandoning Manhattan in favor of tony Greenwich, Connecticut for its headquarters.