“I’ve never run into anybody that doesn’t smile when you say ‘tugboat,’” says Captain Bill Eggert.
The thought of the harbor’s workhorses and the men who crew them brought more than a smile out of Eggert. It brought curiosity, which Eggert satisfied by riding with and interviewing men from the tugboats of the past.
The end result is “Gentlemen of the Harbor: Stories of Chesapeake Bay Tugboats and Crews,” a collection of anecdotes, historical information, and beautiful black-and-white photographs.
Eggert says that he began gathering information for his book in 1980, when Captain Herbert Groh invited him to work and observe on board the “Cape Henlopen,” a tug that worked Baltimore Harbor.
“He took me under his wing,” said Eggert.”
With Eggert on board, the “Cape Henlopen” brought a German container ship, the “Stuttgart Express” to a pier at the Dundalk Maritime Terminal. It also helped ship leave the harbor for New Orleans.
The book can be left on a coffee table, picked up, opened to a random page and read. Filled with small vignettes and profiles, it can be enjoyed piecemeal, without plodding from the first page to the last page.
The stories are written matter-of-factly, and deal with both heavy and light subject matter.
There is a chapter on a family towing business, based in Canton, that has been around since 1922. The redevelopment of the area was double-edged to the owner, who felt that “some of the people downtown have adopted a policy of ‘you’re in business, you are ugly, and you’ve got to move.’”
There are funny stories. During World War II, a tug crew awoke to the sound of something hitting their hull, hard. They figured it was an errant blast from a practice bombardment the Army was conducting nearby. It was something else, and the crew ate exceptionally well that day.
Eggert says that things have changed drastically in the tug business over the last few decades.
“What I find the most interesting—there were always five men on board. Now they operate a lot of boats with two men,” he says. “It’s because they can do it, and I also think it’s done to cut down on salaries.”
He feels fortunate to have had the access to tugboats that he did.
“Just to get near them now—it’s amazing what you have to go through, even if you’ve been invited on board,” he says.
Eggert, 66, grew up in Baltimore, but now lives near Annapolis. Beyond the research he did for “Gentlemen of the Harbor,” he knows a thing or two about the maritime life. A life-long educator, and currently a high school assistant principal, Eggert spent 17 summers as a water taxi captain, starting in the mid-1970s.
“It was sort of my fun job,” he says.
He was active in Baltimore Harbor during the early days of Camden yards, and he remembers ferrying big crowds of baseball fans—particularly Boston and New York fans—to and from Fell’s Point.
After the games, Eggert says, his riders were often “three sheets to the wind.”
“Boston fans were always about as nice as can be,” he remembers. “New York fans were the opposite.”
While a win meant that he would be ferrying a group of singing, happy, harmless drunks across the water, a lose could make fans “nasty.”
“I had to put on my captain’s hat a few times and lay down the law,” laughs Eggert.
Overall, though, Eggert had a blast.
“My extra jobs—my avocations—have always kept me sane,” he says.
Currently, Eggert is gathering material for his “proverbial next book.” The response to his first has been more than he anticipated.
“I get a lot of letters,” Eggert says. “There are still some old codgers, now in their 90s, who worked with Captain Groh, and they’re still sharp as a tack.”
He said he also gets a lot of thank you letters.
“They say, ‘Thanks Bill, you’re telling our story,’” Eggert says. “To me, that’s the best praise you can get.”
“Gentlemen of the Harbor: Stories of Chesapeake Bay Tugboats and Crews” is available at gentlemenoftheharbor.com.
by Erik Zygmont