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The story behind Baltimore’s historic, city-owned tugboat that played many important roles in the city’s history

The steam tug Baltimore rests docked at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The tugboat, the last hand-fired, coal-burning operational tug in the country, replaced its predecessor of the same name in 1906.
The steam tug Baltimore rests docked at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The tugboat, the last hand-fired, coal-burning operational tug in the country, replaced its predecessor of the same name in 1906. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

A recently published book by Baltimore author David W. Wooddell chronicles the history of the two city-owned inspection tugboats named Baltimore, one built in 1857 and its successor in 1906, that spent their careers not only pushing barges in the harbor, but in a variety of other roles.

The first Baltimore, which was “iron-hulled, with a straight, knife-shaped bow,” wrote Wooddell, was built by the well-known engineering firm of Murray & Hazelhurst for a sum not exceeding $12,750, and was powered by a steam engine that turned a seven-foot cast iron screw propeller.

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“The inspection boat Baltimore was the most powerful boat of her class in local waters when she was launched in 1857,” according to Wooddell, a former National Geographic research editor. “Eighty feet long on deck, with a beam of eighteen-and-a-half-feet, and a depth of hold of seven feet, she had a burthen of eighty tons. She was not the largest vessel to claim to be a tugboat, but she was specially built to serve the city as an all-around inspection troubleshooter for the port.”

The Baltimore’s daily mission was to transport the port warden, whose job was to inspect the harbor daily, as well as to tug scows. But another main duty was that of an icebreaker helping to keep harbor channels open for shipping during the winter months.

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It also assisted in harbor rescues and, as the city’s official inspection boat, often carried important visitors who were picked up at the South Street dock for tours of Baltimore’s bustling harbor. In 1872, its captain was paid $3.50 a day, its mate earned $2.50, while the chief engineer was paid the enormous sum of $4 per diem.

The Baltimore was outfitted with a Worthington engine in 1875, giving it the ability to be an auxiliary fireboat and to discharge four streams of water 255 yards through an inch-and-a-half nozzle.

After the 1904 Great Baltimore Fire, the tug was employed hauling away barges of fire debris as well as the walls of buildings that were dangerously close to collapse, such as the C.A. Gambrill Manufacturing Co.'s flour mill on the Gay Street dock.

But with the Baltimore nearing 50 years old, the decision was made by city officials to build a replacement, which was similar in length and beam to its predecessor, and was built in the Baltimore yard of William Skinner and Drydock Co. for $27,000. The new Baltimore featured electric lighting and a spotlight and a powerful 330-horsepower reciprocating steam engine that propelled the vessel along at 12 knots.

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When it was launched on Sept. 15, 1906, a Baltimore Sun reporter wrote that it was “the event of the day,” and among its celebrated passengers was Mayor E. Clay Timanus, his wife, and daughter Louise Lowrey Timanus, who was the boat’s sponsor.

It assumed similar duties to those handled by the first Baltimore. On March 7, 1913, the tramp steamer Alum Chine was loading more than than 300 tons of dynamite to be used in construction of the Panama Canal when it exploded in the Patapsco River. The concussion was so strong it was felt as far away as Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

The Baltimore raced to the stricken vessel, whose entire crew of 33 were killed in the explosion, which hurled debris more than two miles away.

When the Harbor Board, which owned the Baltimore, disbanded with the founding of the Maryland Port Authority in 1956, the old tug fell under its aegis.

The MPA sold the vessel in 1963 to the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. that in turn sold it several months later to Samuel F. du Pont and his wife, Joanna J. du Pont, who used it as their personal yacht until it sank in 1979 in the Sassafras River at their Cecil County home.

In 1981, the du Ponts donated the Baltimore to the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway, where it remains docked today. The museum began a restoration effort with a volunteer crew, converting the tug in 1984 back to burning coal (it had been converted to oil in 1957).

From 1990 to 1999, the Baltimore with its melodic steam whistle took enthusiastic passengers on harbor excursions. In 1993, the vessel, the last hand-fired, coal-burning operational tug in the country, was granted National Historic Landmark status by the National Park Service.

While the restoration effort has stalled in recent years, the Baltimore remains a permanent part of the museum’s core collection, with hopes from fans that it will steam once again.

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