Back Story: Tugboats are 'workhorses' of the port

They are the handmaidens of the port of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay as they scurry to and fro with all manner of arriving and departing ships and barges lashed to them.

Their work goes on despite the weather and respects no clock or holiday. Because they work long hours, the five people in a tug crew grow very close.


"Tugboats: those diminutive yet powerful workhorses of this nation's deep-water ports. We learn to love them as children, yet they continue to hold a certain fascination for us as adults," Capt. William Bill Eggert, a seasoned old salt and well-known fixture in the port of Baltimore, wrote in his recently published book, "Gentlemen of the Harbor: Stories of Chesapeake Bay Tugboats and Crews."

Through the years, Eggert served as captain of the skipjack Minnie V, worked 17 seasons aboard Ed Kane's water taxis in the Inner Harbor, owned and operated a ship's store, and never lost the thrill of seeing and being aboard tugboats as they went about their daily rounds.


"Tugs present a maritime profusion of sensory stimuli. Their size, shape, and color are as varied as the names displayed on their bows. Massive engines, some boasting more than 4,000 horsepower, are responsible for the pungent odor of diesel fuel and dark smoke belching from tall stacks," wrote Eggert, who has spent 38 years in education and is assistant principal at Anne Arundel County's Broadneck High School.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs — many of them his own, as well as the work of the award-winning former Baltimore Sun photographer Hans Marx. Eggert has made a substantial contribution to the history and lore of Baltimore tugboat men who make their living in local waters.

The world that the crew of a tug inhabits is made up of long hours of grueling and at times hazardous work.

"They exhibit a cool professionalism in the process of their awesome responsibility. There are no sea [chanteys] to celebrate their exploits, nor are they the stuff of best-selling novels — but the tugboats and their crews have been and continue to be an important, mythic segment of our maritime heritage," Eggert wrote.

In the halcyon days of the mid-1950s, some 75 tugs plied their trade in the harbor. Today, reports Eggert, there are a dozen large tugs that sail for McAllister, Moran and Krause towing companies, their work supported by several independently owned tugs.

Eggert has included an informative history of the relationship between tugs and the port that dates to the 1800s, and the correlation between Baltimore's industrial growth, factories and railroads, which naturally drew waterborne commerce to its shores.

Eggert has included many fascinating tales, including the story of Justine Brown, who was given the name of Baltimore's "Tugboat Annie" and began her career with Curtis Bay Towing in 1913 as a secretary.

Capt. Benjamin Beck, who eventually became vice president of Curtis Bay Towing and knew Brown, told Eggert that she was a "unique woman who knew everyone in the maritime field."


Beck said, "She delivered pay to the men on the boats, often taking time to hop onboard to shoot craps or take a trip down the river."

Brown, who worked 53 years for the company, retired in 1966 and died the next year.

I was delighted to see that Eggert included a profile of one of the port's great characters who was universally admired not only as a person but for his ship-handling abilities: Capt. Herbert B. Groh, with whom he spent a day aboard the tug Cape Henlopen in 1980.

Groh, who died this year at 92, began his career in the 1930s and worked for Curtis Bay Towing until retiring as the port's senior docking pilot in 1982.

"You can read all the rulebooks and manuals you want," Groh told Eggert. "But once on the ship's bridge, you are the loneliest guy in the world. You and you alone must make the decisions."

On the day Groh retired, the Cape Henlopen pulled up to the pier where he had begun his career more than four decades before.


"With no fanfare or flourish befitting the nature of the man, the captain climbed nimbly over the high rubber rail and walked inland to meet his wife and friends waiting on the street to go enjoy dinner," Eggert wrote.

A loud blast arose from the Henlopen's whistle, which then headed for its Fells Point terminal.

"Not one word was uttered on board, nor was there a dry eye to be found among the crew," Eggert wrote.