Most steam and many diesel tugs were what were known as "bell boats". This means that the Captain in the wheelhouse - in charge of steering - had no direct control over the machinery in the engine room. The Captain communicated his orders to the Engineer - in charge of the speed - by using a code of sounds run on two bells which the captain rang with controls in the wheelhouse. Many companies had their own distinct bell codes. In general, the "gong" called for a change in engine direction and the "jingle" called for a change in engine speed. The engine room was very noisy so the bells had to be loud to be heard.
Simplified Bell Signals:
When the boat was stopped: 1 gong - work ahead; 2 gongs - go astern
When working ahead or backing: 1 gong - stop
Jingles change speed: 1 jingle - increase speed; 2 jingles - decrease speed
Once the Captain got the attention of the crew in the Engine Room they were also able to communicate through speaking tubes.
"Artifact donor Thomas Gerber was born and raised in downtown Kingston on Meadow Street. Tom’s interests were many but he was particularly interested in ships and tugs and spent a great deal of time, as a young boy, at the shipyards on the Rondout Creek. He said it was always so exciting to see a ship finally launched into the creek, ready for duty, after months and months in the making. His Uncle, Dan Murphy, who helped raise him, was an engineer on the tugs. Many summers, his Uncle Dan would take him along on the tug, the "James F Dwyer", and they would go up through the locks. Tom loved going on this two week (sometimes more) journey as he learned so much and got to spend time with his Uncle. Tom’s dad died when Tom was just 5 years old so his Uncle was more like his dad.
When they were going to scrap the "James F. Dwyer", Tom wanted something to remember the tug by and was able to salvage the communication system between the pilot house and the engineer room which includes the bell, the large bell, which looks similar to a gong, and the pulls. He had them restored to their original luster by a great craftsman, William C. Washburn. Tom wanted this piece of history to be seen by many so donated them to the Hudson River Maritime Museum." Thank you for Melodey Daley for this history.
Because of the growth of New York City into a major port and population center as immigrants poured into the city in the 19th century, the need for food and building materials soared. The Hudson Valley produced many of the products needed, and shipped them by sailing vessels called sloops and schooners for at least two hundred years from the beginning of settlement in the 1600s. Steamboats came on the scene gradually after 1807 carrying mostly passengers for many decades. Eventually steam towboats pulling multiple barges and canal boats took over the freight traffic on the Hudson. Though not speedy, these long tows were the cheapest way to ship bulk cargoes. Older passenger steamboats such as the Norwich were used at first as towboats. Sidewheel steamboats such as the Oswego were built as towboats starting around 1850. Propeller driven tugboats in the familiar shape that we know today began to be seen in the 1860s.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
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