Safety questioned, Erie Canal’s teaching tug faces final chapter


Several dozen fidgety school kids on a field trip stood on the canal bank next to a tugboat called Urger. All were fourth-graders from central New York state, a place that reveres the Erie Canal and for many years has called Urger the canal’s flagship. After the history and the environmental stewardship lessons, they toured the boat, knowing the last and best part would be the noise. The captain told them to cover their ears, but instead of sounding the main horns, he blasted a high-pitched squeak from the peanut whistle. The students groaned in disappointment, and then he opened the main airline to the twin brass horns. This was the thrill, what they would likely recall about their visit.

For all the shiny brass and impeccable paint from superstructure to engine room floor, Urger had been an antiquated boat living its third or fourth life. Built in 1901 as a Lake Michigan fish tug, it became an effective icebreaker as well. In the early 1920s, New York State Barge Canal purchased the boat. From then until 1987 it towed canal maintenance equipment, which meant scows loaded with silt dredged from the bottom of the Erie Canal and riprap to bolster the banks. Among its last jobs that year was escorting the flotilla known as Live Steam Voices Unite, a sound sculpture employing the hulking shape and steam power of Dipper Dredge No. 3, a collaboration of New York artists and canal workers that traveled from South Street Seaport in Manhattan to Tonawanda. Out ahead heralding the steam whistles was Urger, its own steam engine long since replaced by a war-surplus diesel, quite the fetching sight with its raked hull mimicked in a long superstructure. Urger’s captain added to the pageantry by collecting a small flag from every town along the canal to string between the boat’s masts. But after that season, the tug’s future was again doubtful: What becomes of a vessel in its eighth decade?


Urger transits the Erie Canal below Lock E29 near Newark, N.Y., in October 2014. Deck hand Will Van Dorp stands on the stern.


Urger departs Lock E29 in Palmyra, N.Y., as schoolchildren on the catwalk wave goodbye.

Chris Kenyon


Will Van Dorp

Enter Schuyler Meyer, a wealthy, influential private citizen who had too briefly captained a Navy tug during World War II. Meyer offered to pay a portion of operating and staffing costs for the boat to serve as a canal ambassador and floating classroom, provided that he would be at the helm. He then brought expertise and funding from New York’s Department of Education to develop a curriculum.

This was the version of Urger that attracted crowds — school kids, their teachers and parents, and residents of canal towns — to canal landings and parks between 1991 and 2016. It also drew me. In February 2014, I applied to work as deck hand on Urger, lured both by the boat and my own proximity to retirement age. It carried a crew of four: a captain, an engineer and two deck hands.

The tug’s six-cylinder Atlas-Imperial engine, installed in the 1940s, is direct reversing drive. It shuts down momentarily when the captain shifts from forward to astern.

Will Van Dorp

Urger makes a quiet panting sound when it runs. Its steam engine was lost to time when the tug received its current engine, a 6HM1558 Atlas-Imperial installed in about 1947. The six-cylinder engine, generating 300 horsepower at 300 rpm, is direct reversing drive: “Shifting” from forward to astern means shutting down the engine momentarily, flipping a cam, then restarting the engine in the opposite direction using stored air pressure. Since “reverse” serves as braking — while entering a lock chamber or approaching a dock, for example — this process requires precision. Making the task more challenging, the captain controls only the steering and the bell pulls that signal the need for reverse or forward to the engineer, who has no eye or radio contact with the captain. A code of clangs and jingles needs to trigger an immediate appropriate response from the engineer.

During the five months I worked on Urger, we stopped in more than two dozen towns on the canal from Albany to Oswego. More than 12,000 people set foot on the boat, chuckled at the large refrigerator in the small galley, gasped at the huge and polished 19-ton engine, giggled about the crowded bunkhouse, and fantasized about being captain while turning the large brass wheel.

Urger crewmembers pose at Lock E14 in Canajoharie, N.Y., in 2014. From left to right are engineer Mike Pelletier, deck hand Mike Byrnes and Capt. Jeff Kimes.

Will Van Dorp

Spectacle has always been synonymous with the Erie Canal, a waterway extraordinaire hand-dug through the wilderness. The 1825 “wedding of the waters” procession led by DeWitt Clinton included boats called Noah’s Ark and Young Lion of the West bearing cargo such as raccoons, bears and other exotic animals from western New York. A half-century later, Sig Sautelle moved a circus on canal boats, drawing throngs to the canal side to see clowns and acrobats as well as trained ponies and cats. In 1888, a captain from Nantucket towed an embalmed whale from the Atlantic Ocean up the Hudson and across the canal, lowering his admission price the riper the whale flesh became. Recent years have brought replica Viking ships, Chinese beer tanks too large for land transport, a solar-powered cargo boat, a Hawaiian sailing canoe and private boats hailing from ports all over the world — including some impossible ones like Las Vegas. This season brought the “GlassBarge,” chartered by the Corning Museum of Glass and pushed by a tug from the South Street Seaport Museum, which traveled the waterways of the state with glassblowers and 2,100-degree kilns. In three days in the canal town of Fairport, more than 2,800 spectators came to see the show.

Urger differed from these travelers, however, in that it stopped in most canal towns year after year. It had that in common with vessels of the old-time circus. Urger crew would tie up in a town, go to local establishments for food and drink, and then as custodians of New York state’s oldest vessel, talk to passersby about the boat. Often people would ask if we knew the latest news about folks who had the canal in common.


An excursion in July 2012 took Urger to New York City for City of Water Day.


The tug’s classic lines are displayed in dry dock at Lock E3 in Waterford, N.Y., in July 2014.


Will Van Dorp photos

Urger would have made the glass barge tour but it’s currently laid up, possibly never to travel again. Between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, sponsorship of the New York State (NYS) Canals shifted from the NYS Thruway to the New York Power Authority (NYPA), which uses the waterways to generate hydroelectricity. NYPA brought a different set of safety standards to the canals and, assessing that Urger did not conform to these standards, took the boat out of service.

Urger was considered for the April 2018 list of obsolete vessels to be reefed off Long Island, and by this writing, at least six such vessels have been sunk both north and south of the island. Then in June, plans were revealed to move Urger — its hull “opened” so that it would not float away in a flood — onto land in a park adjacent to Lock E13 on the Erie Canal near Canajoharie, N.Y. In late summer, plans changed again and it was announced that Urger’s future was uncertain pending a reassessment of the tug’s safety issues.

Students and teachers crowd Urger’s bow to learn about the vintage tug during a stop in Waterford, N.Y., in the summer of 2010. The boat has been laid up for two years as the New York Power Authority assesses safety issues.

Courtesy NYS Canal Corp.

Those people it has touched over the years wonder what’s happened to the vintage vessel. I saw the effect it had on people. For example, there was a fourth-grader I’ll call Jamie in an upstate town. Urger tied up in his town the day before his class was scheduled to come to the boat for a field trip. He came to see the boat that afternoon, almost as if he was waiting for us. His many questions reflected a keen interest in the canal. The next day he arrived with his class and his father was among the chaperones. Before they left, Jamie’s father asked when we were departing the next day and whether it would be all right if they came by before school to hear us start the Atlas-Imperial. The next morning they appeared. The engine startup clearly thrilled them. We cast off and left. Ten minutes later, we rounded a bend and there were father and son, standing on a park dock until we lost sight of them. Another 10 minutes farther along on the other side of the canal, we saw Jamie and his father again, waving and grinning. We waved back and chuckled, wondering what the father would write in Jamie’s tardy excuse.

If Urger no longer sails the canal, what happens to the Jamies of central New York?

By Professional Mariner Staff