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Vane, a waterfront mainstay Business: Vane Brothers Co. began as a ships' chandlery 100 years ago.


Vane Brothers Co., a former ships' chandlery, has been one of the most familiar businesses in continuous operation on the Baltimore waterfront since its founding in 1898 by Capt. William Burke Vane.

Today, the family-owned company has grown from a quaint ships' chandlery that once provisioned vessels in the Baltimore Harbor to a marine services firm that offers bunkering, lighterage, launch service and marine transportation.

Vane Brothers, which also has offices and conducts operations in Philadelphia and Norfolk, owns and operates a fleet of 10 green, white and blue tugboats, 26 barges and employs 175 workers.

Its coastwise operations, which extend from Boston to Norfolk, are as varied as helping nudge the Constellation to the Fort McHenry Shipyard in 1996 for its refitting to transporting and supplying ships with marine lubricants and potable water.

"There are not a lot of chandleries around anymore and our founding dates to some really romantic days," said Charles "Duff" Hughes, 41, president of the company.

"In 1993, we established another side business, a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life raft service and inspection station. We inspect and repair all safety equipment on ships from lifeboats to immersion suits and life preservers," he said.

Vane Brothers was established by Capt. William Burke Vane and his brother, Allen P. Vane, both ex-sailing captains, in a two-story brick building at Broadway and Thames Street in Fells Point. In 1987, they moved to their current location at Pier 11, the former United States Lines' pier in Canton.

"Originally named for the business of making and selling candles, chandleries were one-stop shopping for vessel operators and their crews. The chandler dealt with time-consuming tasks -- the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, the cooper, the iron monger, even the post office," Mary Butler Davies writes in her book, "Of Time and The Tide. A Century of Maritime Excellence: A Centennial History of the Vane Brothers Company 1898-1998."

In 1910, the business relocated to 602-604 East Pratt Street, across from Pier 4, also known as Long Pier, where it became a rendezvous for mariners.

The Vanes also "held accounts of 275 sailing ships; (and) they were owners and part owners of many of those vessels," Davies recounts.

"Vane's is the one spot on the Eastern seaboard where you can look forward with any hope of certainty to meeting a sailing man you want to see. 'See you at Burke Vane's,' 'Leave word with Charley at Vane's,' or 'I'll hang around Vane's and wait for him,' are the passwords of the bay," The Sun reported in 1940. "If you sit beside the stove in Vane's long enough everything on two legs that sails a bay freighter will come through the door."

In 1920, Capt. Claude Venables Hughes and his brother Charles Fletcher Hughes Sr., distant Eastern Shore cousins of the Vanes, entered the business and by 1941, had bought out the owners.

"Capt. William Burke Vane lived on Warren Avenue and could look across the harbor and see his chandlery and then the other way to Redman-Vane, a shipyard that repaired sail and steam vessels," Davies explained in an interview the other day from her Ruxton home.

The shipyard closed in 1940 when Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Key Highway yard took it over as part of its wartime expansion.

Charles F. Hughes Jr., 71, who lives in Roland Park, went to work for Vane Brothers in 1951 after earning his bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University. He is the Vane Brothers' chairman of the board. He remembers as a child playing aboard the four-masted schooners that called at the shipyard, including the famed Doris Hamlin, once owned by W.B. Vane, and one of the last of the old sailing vessels to call at Baltimore.

"She was at least 200 feet long and was under the command of Capt. George Hopkins. I remember her sailing to Haiti for a load of logwood that was later delivered to J.S. Young on Boston Street in Canton. We sold her into the coal trade and she was later lost at sea in 1940," he said.

Reflecting on his long tenure in the business, the elder Hughes said, "It used to be that a ship would come and spend two or three days in port. Today, they're gone in 24 hours. They really work much quicker today."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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