A Brief Look At Tugboat History

A Brief Look At Tugboat History

A Brief Look At Tugboat History


Steam power began to make it way onto the world scene in the late 1700’s. By the early 1800’s, riverboats were being fitted with steam engines. This engine quickly became the most efficient and widely used way to propel boats.


In March 1802, William Symington of Scotland fitted his patented steam engine on his paddlewheel boat and she became the first official tugboat. And so, the Charlotte Dundas made her voyage into history.


On her maiden trip, the Charlotte Dundas, with her 10 horsepower steam engine, carried 20 passengers and pulled 2 loaded barges 19 ½ miles along the Forth & Clyde Canal near Glasgow, Scotland.   This 6-hour trip was the only journey she took. Canal proprietors, fearing she would erode the canal banks with the paddlewheel, banned paddle wheelers on the canal. So, the Charlotte Dundas was left sitting where she stopped.


Five years later, American Engineer Robert Fulton brought the steamboat to North America.


Though steamboats were initially used for passenger carry, the potential and profitability for towing was quickly realized. In 1825, the Rufus King was built specifically for towing sailing ships into the New York harbour.


Within 10 years, towing operations were in ports around the world assisting ships in and out of harbours, rivers and canals. The fierce competition for assisting led to the additional practice of salvage work.

By the mid 1800’s, more and more freight was being moved on the waterways, so the practice of using barges also came into use.


To improve efficiency, ship designers began experimenting with other forms of propulsion. Screw propellers were adopted by tugs in the 1870’s. Their metal blades provided much more power than paddlewheels. Iron and steel hulls were becoming more common. The size and ability of tugboats began to support these new propellers. Companies then started building larger tugs and expanding into ocean salvage work.


When the diesel engine showed up on the ship building scene, things were forever changed. Diesel was lighter and cheaper to run and the boats needed fewer crewmembers. Although steam engine powered tugs stuck around until the 1950’s, by then most had been converted to diesel.


Both World War I and II brought a surge in tugboat building and the need for them in the war efforts. By WWII, new upgrades in ship design, propulsion technology, communication and navigation equipment fueled the tugboat business.


There of course is always a downside. This modernization of the tugboat as well as other factors in the shipping industry, led to the decline in the number of ships needed. And of course the competition gets even fiercer.


Today, as few as two or three tugboats can maneuver even the largest of ships in and out of harbours. New approaches to towing barges have allowed them to be more effectively towed on the open seas.   Tug and barge operations can carry such large loads at cheaper rates that they can even compete with cargo ships.


Yet despite the decreases in tugs needed to do the work today, the builders are still building. Newer, bigger, stronger ships are always needed for the various river, harbour and ocean work. And the older, very well built tugs of yesterday are upgraded and refitted to do their share of the load as well.


Written by K.E. Harlow