James John "Jim" Sadowski, an independent tugboat owner-operator who worked Baltimore's waterfront for more than six decades, died of congestive heart failure April 25 at Seasons Hospice at Franklin Square Medical Center. The Dundalk resident was 86.
Born in a Fell Street row house, he was the son of James Joseph Sadowski, who founded the family's tugboat business, and his wife, Agnes Rose Superczynski.
After completing the eighth grade at St. Patrick School, he started working alongside his father.
"He was a well-seasoned tug captain who began his career at age 13 helping out his parents running a boat in their water passenger service business during World War II," said his daughter-in-law, Diana Frazier Sadowski of Fallston.
"The business branched out to marine towing, where Jim became a licensed captain and worked alongside his father," she said. "From their first wooden tug to his last steel tug, he worked tirelessly to provide for his family. He remembered those tugs and their running nuances with clarity and a gleam in his eye. He could name them: Solicitor II, Rapid, Elk, Mareco, Victory, Helen S and Gar-Den S."
She also recalled Mr. Sadowski's saying: "Being on the tug was like being on vacation."
"The Sadowski family always got by doing odd jobs and taking the short hauls," reported The Baltimore Sun in a 1992 article. "The family's tugs towed oil barges from Baltimore to Kent Island for contractors doing foundation work on the first Bay Bridge when it was being built in 1951, and worked on the Fort McHenry Tunnel and Sea Girt Marine Terminal."
The 1992 article described his years in industrial Southeast Baltimore: "From a vantage point in the Helen S' pilot house, Sadowski stands by the oak ship's wheel and surveys the Fells Point shoreline. 'This used to be all packing houses, ' he said, pointing to the shoreline along Boston, Aliceanna, Wolfe and Fell streets. 'There was D.E. Foote, Langrall, Gibbs, H.J. McGrath, Lord Mott, Southern and R.E. Roberts, all the big canners. They put their plants near where the people lived.'"
"I'll take this neighborhood as it was in the World War II years, and just after, " he said in the article.
He said he was piloting tugboats before he had a license to drive a car, and recalled his early career helping his father at the end of World War II. He shuttled ammunition and ordnance — materials from domestic ships went to Curtis Bay; ordnance from foreign ships went to an ammunition dump on Fort Carroll, the stone fortress in the Patapsco River.
A 1974 article in The Sun described the nature of his operation: "At 4 a.m. Mr. Sadowski and his crew set out for the Olin chemical plant at Curtis Bay to pick up a Nilo Barge Lines barge loaded with sulfuric acid. They towed the barge to the Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point facility, tied it up and returned to Fells Point. Shortly after 2 p.m. they set out for Sparrows Point to tow the same barge … back to the Olin dock. It was his first job in ten days."
When not hauling barges around the harbor, he would make repairs on his aging tugs that were berthed for many years at a Wolfe Street pier, a location that is now the site of apartment complexes. He later berthed his tugs at Pier 13 in Canton.
"There was nothing he couldn't fix, from a diesel engine to an electrical connection. He was a totally hands-on man," said his son, Martin J. Sadowski of Fallston.
He retired in 2012.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michael's once featured Mr. Sadowski in a display. He once donated steel bitts from one of his old tugs toward a restoration of a steam tug at the Baltimore at the Museum of Industry.
Mr. Sadowski also served in the Coast Guard Reserves, retiring as a chief petty officer.
"After a long run up and down the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore Harbor, Jim's death officially ends Sadowski Towing Company Inc.," said his son.
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. May 18 at the Evans Funeral Home in Forest Hill.
In addition to his son and daughter-in-law, survivors include another son, Gary Sadowski of Columbia; two daughters, Genevieve Rheaume of Costa Masa, Calif. and Denise Szymanski of Baltimore; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. His wife of 42 years, Helen Grzybowski, who was his business partner and ran the company books, died in 1993. Another son, James, died in 1953.