The shipbuilding industry that flourished in Athens and New Baltimore from the mid-19th century until the time of World War I has been overlooked for too long by historians. The small shipyards of these villages turned out many steamboats, steam lighters and barges, but arguably their lasting contribution to the maritime world was in the sizable fleets of tugs that came from local yards, which included Morton & Edmonds, Van Loon & Magee, Peter Magee, William D. Ford and R. Lenahan & Co. in Athens; and, in New Baltimore, J.R. and H.S. Baldwin, William H. Baldwin and that grandly-named-but-short-lived late-comer, the New Baltimore Shipbuilding and Repair Co.
The vessels were built for the area’s two principal markets- Albany and New York City. In Albany, the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, an impressive fleet of small harbor tugs performed two functions: They shepherded the multitude of canal boats that traversed the Erie Canal after they had reached Albany, and many of these tugs towed barges and canal boats on the canal itself. In New York - then, as now, one of the nation’s major ports - these tugs joined the workforce of commerce of that place, docking and undocking seagoing vessels, shifting barges among the multitude of piers, and performing many other tasks.
The tugs built at Athens number over eighty, including the well-known side-wheel towboat Silas O. Pierce, launched by Morton & Edmunds in 1863. She eventually came under the ownership of Rondout-based Cornell Steamboat Company, as did a number of other Athens-built vessels, such as the Thomas Chubb of 1888, H.D. Mould of 1896, P. McCabe, Jr. (renamed W.B. McCulloch) of 1899, and Primrose of 1902.
New Baltimore’s output of tugboats was around fifty vessels. This fleet was composed of some interesting vessels, such as the side-wheel towboats Jacob Leonard and George A. Hoyt in 1872 and 1873. Both were in the Cornell fleet. George A. Hoyt was the last side-wheel towboat constructed as such- - most vessels of the type having been converted from elderly passenger steamboats.
Over the years, Cornell also acquired a number of New Baltimore propeller tugs, such as Jas. A. Morris of 1894, Wm. H. Baldwin of 1901, R.J. Foster of 1903, Robert A. Scott of 1904, and Walter B. Pollack (later renamed W.A. Kirk) of 1905. R.J. Foster and Robert A. Scott had originally towed ice barges for the Foster-Scott Ice Company.
The last tug built at Athens was the diesel-propelled Thomas Minnock, built in 1923 by R. Lenahan for Ulster Davis. She lasted until the early 1960s, although many of her last years were in lay up at the Island Dock at Rondout while owned by the Callanan Road Improvement Company. New Baltimore’s last tug was Gowanus, built for the legendary Gowanus Towing Company by the Baldwin yard in 1921.
In recognition of the shipbuilding prowess of the shipbuilders of Athens and New Baltimore, we of the Hudson River Maritime Museum tip our collective hats to the accomplishments of these accomplished artisans and mechanics.
-by William duBarry Thomas
This article was originally written by William duBarry Thomas and published in the 2006 Pilot Log. Thank you to Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer Adam Kaplan for transcribing the article.
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