South Street Seaport’s tugboat W.O. Decker has made herself at home on our docks for several months on her way to the Scarano Shipyard in Albany. Built in 1930 for Frederick and John Russell’s Newtown Creek Towing Co. as the Russell 1, she was small as tugboats go and intended for use in the confined and narrow Newtown Creek, separating Queens and Brooklyn. As such, she was referred to as a “creek” tug. Built of wood and powered by steam, she measured 52 ft. in length overall and 15 ft. in beam with a depth of 5 ft. 6 in. Her steam engine was replaced by the first of several diesel engines in 1946. With the exception of a shorter stack, her outward appearance has not materially changed.
Creek tugs such as the W.O. Decker were typically used to tow barges in and out of the navigable creeks which branched off of New York Harbor. They served as stern tugs assisting larger tugboats towing strings of barges and they helped berth coastal schooners at docks on the creeks where lumber and coal were off-loaded. They were also used in shifting barges and car floats. It was not uncommon for creek tugs to tow three to four barges at a time, requiring expert handling in narrow and twisting waterways full of berthed ships, bridges, barges and moving tows.
The Russell 1 was sold to Mary Decker in Staten Island in 1946. She renamed the tug for her father-in-law William Oscar Decker and repowered the boat with the first diesel engine. The W.O. Decker worked for many years in the Arthur Kill and towed construction barges up narrow passages for the building of bridges on the New Jersey Turnpike. The Decker family sold the tug in 1967 to the George Rogers Construction Co. of Mariners Harbor. That company sold her the following year to the Youghiogheny and Ohio Coal Company where she was renamed Susan Dayton. For much of the following decade she towed coal barges.
In 1978, the tugboat was purchased by George Matteson. Matteson, captain, author and advocate for the preservation of historic ships, brought her to South Street Seaport where in exchange for berthing privileges, she was used for shifting the Seaport’s growing collection of historic ships. Matteson donated the tug to the Seaport in 1986. She was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Built at a time when New York Harbor was the busiest port in the world, she is one of only a few wooden tugboats that remain operational.
The W.O. Decker is photogenic and we hope you will take the opportunity to visit her while she is on our dock. The tugboat will not be open for boarding, but you are welcome to observe her and take a boatload of pictures!
Source: Norman Brouwer, (former Ship Historian, South Street Seaport Museum), National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1996.
Mark Peckham is a trustee of the Hudson River Maritime Museum and a retiree from the New York State Division for Historic Preservation.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.