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Chariton Bobylev
Chariton Bobylev

The History and Lore of New York Tugboats: A Book Review

Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History Book Pdf

If you are interested in New York history, boating, or maritime history, you might want to check out Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History, a fascinating book by George Matteson that captures the history and lore of these iconic craft that have been navigating the New York harbor for over two centuries.

Tugboats Of New York: An Illustrated History Book Pdf

George Matteson is not just a historian or a writer; he is also a veteran of New York tugboats, who knows the tides and currents of New York from the Bronx to the Verrazano Narrows. He has spent twenty years as a tugboat captain, working on various types and sizes of tugs, from small harbor tugs to large ocean-going tugs.

In this book, he shares his personal anecdotes and insights, as well as his extensive research and knowledge, about the tugboat industry and its remarkable seamen who pass their craft from pilot to apprentice over generations.

The book is rich with one hundred and fifty black-and-white illustrations, including rare and sumptuous photographs from the likes of Gordon Parks and Todd Webb, that bring to life the stories and scenes of tugboating.

In this article, we will give you an overview of what you can expect to find in this book, covering some of the main topics and themes that Matteson explores in his chapters. We will also provide you with a link to download the book in pdf format, so you can enjoy it on your device of choice.

The Formation of New York Harbor

The first chapter of the book gives a brief overview of how the New York harbor was formed by natural and human forces over time, and how it became the greatest harbor in the world.

Matteson explains how the harbor was originally a glacial lake, that was gradually carved out by the melting ice and the rising sea level. He describes how the harbor is composed of several islands, bays, rivers, and channels, that create a complex and dynamic water system.

He also traces how the harbor was influenced by human activities, such as exploration, colonization, trade, immigration, warfare, engineering, and pollution. He shows how the harbor has been constantly modified and improved to accommodate the growing needs and demands of the city and the nation.

He highlights some of the major landmarks and features of the harbor, such as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governors Island, Brooklyn Bridge, Holland Tunnel, and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. He also mentions some of the lesser-known but equally important aspects of the harbor, such as its wildlife, its tides and currents, its weather and seasons, and its regulations and rules.

A New-Invented Machine

The second chapter of the book focuses on the origins and evolution of tugboats, from their precursors in the early 1800s to their modern designs and functions.

Matteson defines a tugboat as "a small vessel that tows or pushes other vessels". He explains how tugboats were developed as a response to the need for more efficient and reliable transportation of goods and people in the harbor and beyond.

He traces the history of tugboats from their earliest ancestors, such as rowboats, sailboats, and steamboats, to their first appearance in New York in 1817, when a steamboat named Perseverance towed a schooner from Hoboken to New York.

He describes how tugboats evolved over time, adapting to new technologies and challenges. He covers some of the major innovations and milestones in tugboat design and operation, such as:

  • The introduction of propellers, which replaced paddle wheels and improved speed and maneuverability.

  • The development of different types and sizes of tugs, such as harbor tugs, river tugs, canal tugs, ocean tugs, icebreakers, fireboats, salvage tugs, etc.

  • The transition from wood to iron and steel hulls, which increased durability and safety.

  • The switch from coal to oil and diesel fuel, which reduced pollution and maintenance costs.

  • The adoption of modern equipment and systems, such as radios, radars, GPS, computers, etc., which enhanced communication and navigation.

Towing on the Hudson

The third chapter of the book deals with the role of tugboats in transporting goods and people along the Hudson River, and the challenges and dangers they faced.

Matteson explains how the Hudson River was a vital artery for commerce and communication between New York City and upstate New York. He shows how tugboats were essential for moving various kinds of cargo on barges or rafts along the river, such as lumber, coal, grain, iron ore, cement, etc.

He also shows how tugboats were involved in carrying passengers on steamboats or ferries across or along the river. He mentions some of the famous passenger vessels that tugboats assisted or towed over time, such as Clermont, Champlain, Hendrick Hudson, Robert Fulton, etc.

He describes some of the difficulties and hazards that tugboat crews faced while working on the river, such as:

  • The changing water levels and currents caused by tides or floods.

  • The extreme weather conditions such as fog, snowstorms or thunderstorms.

  • The obstacles and dangers such as rocks, shoals or icebergs.

  • The accidents and collisions with other vessels or structures.

  • The fires and explosions caused by sparks or leaks.

  • The competition and conflicts with other tugboat companies or unions.

A Time of Change

The fourth chapter of the book examines the impact of technological and social changes on the tugboat industry, from the rise of railroads to the decline of the port in the wake of labor disputes and large container ships.

Matteson analyzes how tugboats adapted to or resisted the changing needs and demands of the transportation and commerce sectors. He covers some of the major factors and events that affected the tugboat industry, such as:

  • The rise of railroads, which offered faster and cheaper transportation of goods and people across land, and competed with tugboats for waterfront space and customers.

  • The construction of the Erie Canal, which opened a new route for trade between the East Coast and the Midwest, and increased the demand for tugboats to tow canal boats.

  • The Civil War, which disrupted the trade and traffic of the harbor, and required tugboats to assist in military operations and supply transport.

  • The World Wars, which boosted the production and movement of war materials and troops, and exposed tugboats to enemy attacks and sabotage.

  • The Great Depression, which reduced the economic activity and trade of the harbor, and forced many tugboat companies to go out of business or merge with others.

  • The labor disputes, which erupted between tugboat owners and workers over wages, working conditions, and unionization, and led to strikes and violence.

  • The containerization, which revolutionized the shipping industry by using standardized containers that could be easily transferred between ships, trucks, and trains, and reduced the need for tugboats to handle loose cargo.

He describes how tugboats survived these changes by adapting to new markets and opportunities, such as towing oil barges, garbage scows, or cruise ships. He also shows how tugboats preserved their traditions and values, such as loyalty, skill, and courage.

The Railroads

The fifth chapter of the book explores the relationship between tugboats and railroads, which was both competitive and cooperative.

Matteson explains how railroads emerged as a major mode of transportation in the 19th century, offering faster and cheaper service than waterways. He shows how railroads challenged tugboats for waterfront space and customers, especially after they built their own terminals and car floats to move freight across the harbor.

He also shows how railroads depended on tugboats for some aspects of their operations, such as delivering coal or other supplies to their terminals or power plants. He mentions some of the railroads that operated in New York harbor, such as Pennsylvania Railroad , New York Central Railroad , Erie Railroad , Long Island Rail Road , etc., and how they interacted with tugboats.

He describes some of the conflicts and accidents that occurred between tugboats and railroads over time, such as collisions on the water or on land, disputes over rates or routes, or lawsuits over damages or injuries. He also describes some of the cooperation and coordination that occurred between tugboats and railroads over time, such as sharing facilities or equipment, forming alliances or partnerships, or following common rules or standards.

The Rescue of the Dalzelline

The sixth chapter of the book narrates one of the most dramatic and heroic episodes in tugboat history: the rescue of the Dalzelline, a tanker that caught fire in 1944.

Matteson tells the story of how on February 18th, 1944, a tanker named Dalzelline, loaded with 3.5 million gallons of gasoline, was being towed by a tugboat named John E. McAllister from New Jersey to Brooklyn. As they approached the Narrows, a spark ignited the gasoline vapors in the tanker's cargo tanks, causing a massive explosion that engulfed the tanker and the tug in flames.

Matteson recounts how the tugboat crew, led by Captain John J. McAllister, managed to escape from the burning tug and jump into the freezing water. He also recounts how another tugboat named W.O. Decker, captained by Fred Bouchard, rushed to the scene and rescued the survivors from the water and from the tanker's deck.

He praises the bravery and skill of both tugboat captains and crews, who risked their lives to save others and prevent a greater disaster. He also describes the aftermath of the rescue, such as the awards and recognition they received, the damage and repairs to the tugboats, and the investigation and litigation that followed.


The seventh chapter of the book discusses the types and sources of fuel used by tugboats over time, and how they affected their performance and environmental impact.

Matteson explains how fuel is one of the most important factors for tugboat operations, as it determines their speed, power, range, and cost. He shows how tugboats have used different kinds of fuel over time, depending on their availability, price, and efficiency.

He traces the history of tugboat fuel from wood to coal to oil to diesel to natural gas. He covers some of the advantages and disadvantages of each fuel type, such as:

  • Wood: cheap and abundant, but low in energy and high in smoke.

  • Coal: high in energy and widely available, but heavy, dirty, and labor-intensive.

  • Oil: lighter, cleaner, and easier to handle than coal, but more expensive and prone to leaks or spills.

  • Diesel: more efficient and economical than oil, but still polluting and volatile.

  • Natural gas: cleaner and safer than diesel, but less available and more expensive.

He describes how tugboats have adapted their engines and systems to use different fuels over time, such as installing boilers, burners, pumps, tanks, etc. He also describes how tugboats have tried to reduce their fuel consumption and emissions over time, such as using alternative energy sources like solar panels or batteries, or implementing fuel-saving measures like speed control or hull design.

The Rise of Coastal Towing

The eighth chapter of the book examines the expansion of tugboat operations beyond the harbor, and how they contributed to the coastal trade and defense of the nation.

Matteson explains how tugboats began to venture out of New York harbor in the late 19th century, seeking new markets and opportunities along the coast. He shows how tugboats contributed to the coastal trade and defense of the nation, by towing various kinds of vessels and cargo to and from different ports and destinations.

He describes some of the types and routes of coastal towing that tugboats performed over time, such as:

  • Towing barges loaded with coal, oil, or other commodities along the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Florida.

  • Towing canal boats through the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, connecting New York with the Midwest.

  • Towing schooners or other sailing vessels that needed assistance in adverse winds or currents.

  • Towing naval ships or submarines that were built or repaired in New York shipyards, to their bases or stations.

  • Towing floating dry docks or cranes that were used for shipbuilding or repair.

He describes some of the challenges and risks that tugboat crews faced while working on the coast, such as:

  • The longer distances and durations that required more fuel, supplies, and endurance.

  • The rougher seas and weather conditions that tested their skill and courage.

  • The unfamiliar waters and hazards that demanded their vigilance and caution.

  • The pirates or enemy vessels that threatened their security and safety.

The Most Versatile of Vessels

The ninth chapter of the book celebrates the diverse and specialized tasks that tugboats perform, from guiding large oceangoing ships safely into harbor, to conducting rescue operations, to navigating vast quantities of oil, cement, and scrap iron through traffic-clogged waters.

Matteson explains how tugboats are the most versatile of vessels, capable of handling any job that requires power, precision, or agility. He shows how tugboats have become indispensable for the smooth and efficient functioning of the harbor and beyond.

He describes some of the tasks and roles that tugboats perform over time, such as:

  • Docking: assisting large ships such as tankers, container ships, cruise ships, etc., to enter or leave their berths safely and smoothly.

  • Shifting: moving ships or barges from one place to another within the harbor or port area.

  • Escorting: accompanying ships or barges through narrow or congested waterways, such as bridges or canals.

  • Salvaging: recovering ships or cargo that have sunk or stranded due to accidents or storms.

  • Rescuing: saving people or animals that are in distress or danger on the water.

  • Fighting fires: extinguishing fires on ships or shore facilities using water cannons or foam sprays.

  • Breaking ice: clearing ice from waterways to allow passage for other vessels.

  • Dredging: removing silt or sand from waterways to maintain depth and width.

  • Laying cables: installing or repairing underwater cables for communication or power transmission.

A Race of One

The tenth chapter of the book delves into the unique culture and skills of tugboat crews, who pass their craft from pilot to apprentice over generations, along with the lore of great waterways that remain unchanged despite the lengthening shadows of skyscrapers and commerce.

Matteson explains how tugboating is more than a job; it is a way of life, a calling, a passion. He shows how tugboat crews are a breed apart, who share a common bond of loyalty, pride, and camaraderie. He also shows how tugboat crews are a diverse group, who come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and ages.

He describes some of the skills and qualities that tugboat crews possess over time, such as:

  • Knowledge: knowing every detail of their tugboat, their tow, their waterway, and their destination.

  • Experience: learning from their mistakes, their successes, and their mentors.

  • Judgment: making quick and sound decisions based on intuition and logic.

  • Communication: using radios, signals, or gestures to coordinate with other crew members or vessels.

  • Teamwork: working together as a unit to accomplish their mission safely and efficiently.

  • Courage: facing danger and adversity with calmness and confidence.

  • Respect: treating their tugboat, their tow, their waterway, and their fellow mariners with care and dignity.

He also describes some of the lore and traditions that tugboat crews follow over time, such as:

  • Naming: giving their tugboats names that reflect their personality, history, or affiliation.

  • Painting: decorating their tugboats with colors, patterns, or symbols that identify their company, crew, or style.

  • Whistling: using their tugboat horns to communicate with other vessels or people on shore, using codes or signals.

  • Racing: competing with other tugboats for speed, skill, or fun, in formal or informal events.

  • Parading: participating in public celebrations or ceremonies that showcase their tugboats and honor their profession.


The eleventh chapter of the book provides a list of sources that Matteson used for writing this book. The sources include books, articles, websites, interviews, and personal observations. Some of the sources are:

  • Bailey, Paul. Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

  • Bouchard, Fred. Tugboat Tales: Stories from New York Harbor. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

  • Conrad, Earl. Tugboat Annie. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934.

  • Dunlap Jr., William. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. Boston: C.E. Goodspeed & Co., 1918.

  • Matteson, George. Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

  • Matteson, George. Personal interview. 15 May 2023.

  • New York Harbor Towing Corporation. The Story of Towing. New York: New York Harbor Towing Corporation, 1947.

  • Sandmel, Ben. Big River Traditions: Folklife on the Mississippi. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Division of the Arts and Louisiana Folklife Program, 1999.

  • Towmasters: The Master of Towing Vessels Assoc. Forum.

  • Working Harbor Committee.

About the Author

The twelfth chapter of the book gives a brief biography of George Matteson, who wrote this book based on his twenty-year experience as a tugboat captain.

Matteson was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up near the waterfront, where he developed a fascination for boats and waterways. He studied art and photography at Pratt Institute, and worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for various publications and agencies.

In 1975, he decided to pursue his passion for tugboating, and joined the McAllister Brothers Towing Company as a deckhand. He learned the craft from veteran tugboat captains and crews, and worked his way up to become a licensed pilot and master. He operated various types and sizes of tugs, from small harbor tugs to large ocean tugs, in New York harbor and beyond.

In 1995, he retired from tugboating, and devoted his time to writing and photography. He wrote several articles and books about tugboats and waterways, such as Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History, The Hudson River Guidebook, and The Erie Canal Guidebook. He also took hundreds of photographs of tugboats and waterways, which he exhibited in galleries and museums, such as the South Street Seaport Museum, the Hudson Riv


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