While giant ore boats and graceful steamships have drawn tourists to the Duluth Ship Canal for over a century, the harbor they call on couldn’t function without the work of the small, ungraceful tugboats that handle the bulk of the waterfront’s dirty work. Countless tugs have served the Duluth-Superior Harbor over the years, guiding much larger vessels to dock and pulling them free when they beached. A severely cold winter can easily freeze over the bay, sometimes even the lake. Before the Coast Guard began supplying the harbor with ice-breaking vessels, it was up to privately-owned tugs such as the Record and James R. Sinclair to keep shipping lanes open. The Record came to Duluth in 1887 as part of the Inman Tug Line, later Union Towing & Wrecking Company. The Record had a record of sinking. She first sank after colliding with tug Joe D. Dudley in 1895, and she crossed the Robert Fulton’s bow during a heavy storm and went down in 1898, taking three lives with her. She was raised only to be rolled and sunk again in 1899 after the whaleback James B. Nielson increased speed while the Record was towing her; another life was lost. Even at rest she was at risk: in 1902 while docked in Superior, she was struck by the Bradford and sank, costing another life. She was moved to Michigan in 1927 and scrapped in 1975. Duluth’s Union Towing & Wrecking Company acquired the James R. Sinclair in 1907. She served the Twin Ports until 1938.
Since the steam dipper dredging tug Ishpeming first dug the Duluth Ship Canal in 1871, dredging tugs have served to keep the St. Louis Bay and canal navigable by removing silt deposited by the St. Louis River. They also played instrumental roles helping free grounded ships. In 1985, when the Socrates ran aground off Minnesota Point during a November storm, the work of dredgers and seven tugboats directed by Dorocher Dock and Dredge company refloated the vessel. The William Saphanco performed dredging duties in the 1880s. The most famous of the dredgers was the 116-foot long Col. D. D. Gaillard, built in 1916 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and responsible for most of the work widening the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Gaillard was named for Lieutenant Colonel D. D. Gaillard, who oversaw the Duluth Ship Canal Pier reconstruction of 1896–1902 and helped build the Panama Canal. Two years after he died in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Panama Canal’s Culebra Cut renamed Gaillard Cut in the Lieutenant Colonel’s honor.
Built in 1908 for the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railroad Company, the McGonagle (named for DM&IR president William McGonagle) was a 110-foot fire tug. She served the Twin Ports until 1935, not only putting out fires but helping in celebrations, such as the arrival of the Leif Erikson replica Viking boat and the opening of the Arrowhead bridge, both in 1927.
Many Duluthians still remember the Essayons (left), built in 1908 for the Army Corps of Engineers. She was sold to Duluth’s Zenith Dredge Company in 1950. After the vessel was retired, its engine was removed and put on display at the Lake Superior Marine Museum. Now privately owned, the Essayons was gutted in preparation to be converted to a floating bed and breakfast. It sank at its dock site in the spring of 2009, the victim of vandalism, and currently rests at the bottom of the bay.
From Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth, copyright © 2005, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota
Tugboats of all shapes and sizes have long served the Great Lakes. The tugs include those designed to gently tow giant lakers and salties safely in and out of port, ice-breaking tugs like the Record and Sinclair, fire tugs like the McGonagle, and dredgers that helped dig out the St. Lawrence Seaway. Today the tow tug Edna G. is on display in Two Harbors and the dredger Col. D. D. Gaillard is part of a tourist attraction at Barker’s Island in Superior, Wisconsin, along with the Meteor, the last of the Great Lakes whalebacks, which was designed and built in the Twin Ports.
Ice-Breaking Tug Record. The Globe Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland, Ohio, put the Record together in 1884, giving her an iron hull to smash through ice. She came to Duluth in 1887 as part of the Inman Tug Line, and later Union Towing & Wrecking Company. The Record had a record of sinking. She collided with tug Joe D. Dudley in 1895, and she crossed the Robert Fulton’s bow during a heavy storm and sank in 1898, taking three lives with her. She was raised only to be rolled and sunk again in 1899 after the whaleback James B. Neilson increased speed while the Record was towing her (and another life was lost). Even at rest she was at risk: in 1902 while docked in Superior, she was struck by the Bradford and sank, at the cost of another life. She was moved to Michigan in 1927, later rerigged as a barge, and finally scrapped in 1975.
Ice-Breaking Tug Sinclair. In 1907 the Dunham Towing Company of Chicago assembled the James R. Sinclair for Duluth’s Union Towing & Wrecking Company. She served the Twin Ports until 1938, when the Roen Steamship Company of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, bought her and changed her name to the John Roen, Jr. She then served ports in the U.S. and Canada. At Frankfurt, Michigan, in 1969, her crew tied her up in a dispute over back wages. She sank at City Dock and was later raised and renamed the Apollo in 1971.
Fire Tug McGonagle. Built in 1908 in Lorain, Ohio, by the American Shipbuilding Company for the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railroad Company, the McGonagle was a 110-foot fire tug. She served the Twin Ports until 1935, when she was sold and her name changed to the Marguerite W. In 1953 she became the Ruth Hindman (and later the Lynda Hindman). In October 1966 her hull was stripped for conversion to a fish tug at Goderich, Ontario. Her superstructure was eventually scrapped at Ashtabula, Ohio, in November 1966. William McGonagle was president of the DM&IR railroad from 1909-1930.