Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Baltimore's old Tommy fire boat needs to land in a better place

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, has bigger concerns right now — and so does the mayor of Baltimore — but, when time allows, they might want to give some attention to an old fire boat that was named for Pelosi’s late father when he was mayor of Baltimore. They might want to see that it’s spared the scrap heap of history.

Not every old thing is worth saving, but the Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro, Jr. might be. Fire boats, even when cut in half, are pretty cool.

Nancy Pelosi’s father was 12 years a mayor and a member of Congress for eight years before that. The fire boat bearing his name went into service in 1956, when D’Alesandro was in his third term in City Hall. Firefighters from Canton to Curtis Bay called it Tommy, or the Tommy D. It was 103 feet long, 21 feet wide, with 1,320-horsepower in its diesel engines. Its water guns were capable of pumping 12,000 gallons per minute, far exceeding those of any other fire boat in service to the port.

That information came from Donald Heinbuch, a retired assistant chief and a fire department historian. He has a copy of a program from Tommy’s commissioning. “The firefighting potential of this new vessel includes a complete radar and two-way radio,” the program boasts. A New Jersey company built the boat for about $530,000. The D’Alesandro family attended its launch.

I came across Tommy — my exact words were, “What’s that doing here?” — during a recent tour of the old Bethlehem Steel shipyard at Sparrows Point, once the site of the world’s largest steel-making operation, now a “global, trimodal logistics hub” called Tradepoint Atlantic. Tommy sits near an abandoned building, behind a chain-link fence, on a concrete pad. The boat’s hull has been trimmed to the waterline, with most of its stern cut off. The remainder of the boat is moored to fake pilings, the kind you might see outside a seafood restaurant. It’s as if someone had the idea of putting Tommy on display there.

And that’s sort of what happened, according to W. Frank Mathers, a maritime historian who has been involved in an effort to see Tommy moored in a better place.

When the Baltimore City Fire Department had no further use of the boat, there were unsuccessful efforts made to find a home for it. Mathers says the city paid Barletta Willis Investments, the previous owner of the shipyard, to remove the vessel from Locust Point to Sparrows Point. Mathers and the non-profit he co-founded, the Baltimore & Chesapeake Steamboat Co., asked the shipyard manager if Tommy could be saved as a memorial, and that’s how it ended up where I found it a couple of weeks ago while recording a podcast on Tradepoint.

But, unless you’re employed by one of the companies redeveloping the area, or have a drone with a camera, you’ll never see Tommy. Mathers’ group, which formed years ago to save the country’s last coal-fired tugboat, the steam tug Baltimore, thinks Tommy deserves a better fate.

And, he says, Nancy Pelosi shares that feeling. Mathers spoke to her by phone last year, and the late mayor’s daughter asked, “What do we have to do to save it?”

Mathers suggested Pelosi contact Mayor Catherine Pugh about moving Tommy to a spot on land along the waterfront it once served. Tradepoint Atlantic, the inheritor and apparent present owner, is willing to donate Tommy to a preservation effort, according to Aaron Tomarchio, a senior vice-president for the joint venture that is redeveloping the industrial peninsula. “We are open to ideas,” he says.

The region’s maritime history is rich, in all its facets, and should be celebrated as much as possible. Baltimore’s fire boat tradition dates to the 1890s. So why not save and include old Tommy?

Because of its condition, the boat needs to be on land. And while some people think the Inner Harbor would be a good spot for it — please, that whole area has become too cluttered already — Port Covington might be better, once that area is developed with its promised public spaces. Or maybe the boat could find anchorage near the Old Town station, now home of the city’s fire museum. People might spot old Tommy and say what I said when I saw it — “What’s that doing here?” — then go and find out.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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