First Tug on the Barge Canal
by the Waterford Canal Committee -
On an otherwise unspectacular Spring day in 1915, history was made in Waterford, NY. The Tug Schenectady entered the Waterford Flight of Locks on May 15 of that year, marking the opening of the new Erie Canal from Waterford to Rexford. Over the next three years, different sections of the Barge Canal would open as completed. Soon, backyards throughout New York State would feature long barges loaded with goods of all kinds, pushed and pulled by sleek and unassuming tugs, whose smooth lines and tranquil appearance while at rest would belie massive steam (and later diesel) engines below, giving them tremendous capacity to do their work. Belching gigantic clouds of black smoke; these unique canal-going tugs, with their beguiling lines and sparkling brass, enchanted children of all ages from Waterford to Whitehall and Tonowanda. Gazing upon these fire breathing dragons moving effortlessly through the water, many would dream of someday taking the place of that kindly Engineer or Captain leaning up against the wheelhouse - taking a puff on his pipe, and giving a wave of his cap.
The New York State Barge Canal was a waterway of tremendous commercial prominence for nearly three quarters of a century. Just about anything you could imagine was shipped on the canal. This made for a hustling, bustling highway of water; replete with tugs and barges of all shapes and sizes (and no shortage of colorful characters to run them). Twenty-four hours a day, communities had - permanently ingrained in the backdrop of their main streets and rolling fields alike - a constantly changing collage of these proud, magnificent vessels. Tugboats were as common a sight as a man walking a dog, or a child riding a bike. Oh, how times have changed.
Among the still unique and increasingly eclectic range of vessels that navigate today on the canal system, tugboats are more and more the exception rather than the rule. Folks living along the canal still wave to and chat with boaters passing by. The difference is that - today - the vast majority of these boaters are on vacation and not at work. Well remembered, though, are the Bushey, Coyne, Kehoe, and Matton tugs that plied these waterways over the years. With so many others, these tugs helped form the makeup of our great state today, and also inspired many lives and careers. Often, childhood adventures centered around these tugs and their crews. Waterford native and self-described canal rat Mike Cicchinelli remembers his boyhood growing up on the canal. "I knew the guys on the tugs pretty good. I had a little boat, and I'd bring them out supplies. They would sound their horn to let me know they were coming, but I always could tell which tug it was by the sound of the engine. They treated me good, and it was a great way to grow up."
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