Vane Brothers marks 125 years of maritime service

(BALTIMORE) — Vane Brothers is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2023. From a distinguished past, the company has grown to become one of the nation’s premier marine transportation providers.

“I am thrilled and humbled to be part of such a proud legacy of perseverance and achievement,” said Vane President C. Duff Hughes, “especially considering the inherently unpredictable, complex, and ever-evolving nature of our industry.”

This photo from 1952 shows merchandise in the window of Vane Brothers’ Baltimore chandlery. In the distance is the Old Bay Line steamer City of Norfolk. A. Aubrey Bodine photo (copyright Jennifer B. Bodine)

Hughes added, “We never would have such a significant milestone without fostering important business relationships, assembling an amazing staff, and delivering a quality product time and time again.”

Brief videos that tell the company’s story are being posted throughout the year on Vane Brothers’ website and social media pages.

Vane’s beginnings

Vane Brothers started humbly in 1898 when two enterprising brothers and schoonermen, Captains Burke and Allen Vane, came ashore to establish a ship chandlery in the Port of Baltimore. Their shop peddled everything from meats and beans to anchors and kerosene lanterns. In 1920, a distant cousin of the Vanes, Claude Hughes, joined the company and soon brought on board his younger brother, Charles Hughes Sr.

Together, the Vanes and Hugheses not only operated the chandlery but held interest in multiple, multi-masted schooners carrying supplies along the East Coast from Canada to the Caribbean. Vane Brothers was also part owner of a Baltimore shipyard that, after thriving for many years, was lost during the World War II era as the U.S. Navy condemned the property to allow for expansion of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding repair plant.

In the 1940s, the two Vane brothers left the business in the hands of Claude and Charles Hughes, who expanded operations by using a small motor tanker, Vane Bros., to supply galley oil to World War II Liberty ships in Baltimore.

The motor tankers Duff, Anne and Vane Bros., shown in 1980, composed Vane Brothers’ entire clean oil fleet at the time. Vane Brothers photo

Charles’ son, Charles Hughes Jr., joined the company in 1951 after serving in the U.S. Navy and graduating from Johns Hopkins University. Claude Hughes, at age 64, took that opportunity to retire.

In the 1970s, Vane Brothers added two more motor tankers, Duff and Anne, named for the children of Charles Jr. and Elizabeth Anne “Betsy” Hughes.

Upon his graduation from Denison University in 1980, C. Duff Hughes became a junior partner in the organization. Having amassed numerous hours of sea time on Vane vessels, he saw an opportunity for diversification in a maturing ship bunkering market. Fuel deliveries became a staple of the company’s service offerings, soon to be joined by a delivery service for marine lubricants.

The 1990s were particularly busy for Vane Brothers, as the Hugheses christened their first tug, Elizabeth Anne, and added other vessels while taking bunkering operations to Philadelphia, Pa., and Norfolk, Va. Vane also introduced a Marine Safety and Services Division as a direct descendant of the original ship chandlery.

Always moving forward

A “new vessel construction program” hit its stride in the early 2000s, resulting in dozens of the latest tugboats, double-hulled barges and articulated tug-barge (ATB) units. This set the stage for Vane Brothers’ bunkering operations to expand northward into New York Harbor and southward into Charleston, S.C.

By 2018, as Vane vessels took their first-ever trips through the Panama Canal to begin working on the West Coast, the company’s fleet consisted of 50 tugs and 80 barges. Vane’s move into California and the Pacific Northwest, which came at the request of two prominent customers, further solidified the company’s status as a premier marine transportation provider.

Vane Brothers vessels have since begun delivering asphalt throughout the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. The distinctive Vane “V” is also seen on vessels operating as far south as Tampa, Fla., the Gulf of Mexico and islands in the Caribbean Sea.

The growth of Vane Brothers from 1898 to 2023 can be overwhelming to consider, said Duff Hughes. “You can’t separate the great strides we have made over the last few decades from the incredible sacrifices and successes achieved in the early days by the company’s ‘founding fathers’ – the original two Vane Brothers and their cousins, the Hugheses. It was their hard work, adaptability, and commitment to the customer that kept the company a step ahead of the competition.”

– Vane Brothers

By Rich Miller