The tugboat Urger is set to begin another season as an ambassador of the New York State Canal System. After almost 65 years of hauling machinery and freight-filled barges on the Erie and Champlain Canals, this vessel has continued to play an active role throughout the waterways of New York. As this tugboat begins a new season of serving as a floating classroom and museum to communities on the NY canals, she does so with a unique perspective of over 100 years of experience.
She was built in Ferrysburg, Michigan, in 1901 to be used for commercial shipping. Her original name was Henry J. Dornbos, after a prominent fish merchant who had immigrated to Grand Haven, Michigan in 1882 from the Netherlands. Within a few years, Dornbos and his brother were operating a successful smoked fish business known as H. J. Dornbos and Bro., which went on to become one of the largest wholesale dealers for white fish in the United States. It was during these early years that the Detroit Free Press described the tug as the local fishing fleet’s “finest boat.”
Her name was changed to Urger after she had been purchased in the early 1920s by the Department of Public Works (now known as the New York State Department of Transportation). She embarked on a new career with the NY State Canal fleet in 1922. She was stationed in Waterford, where the Champlain and Erie connect. From there, she worked tirelessly hauling equipment and barges to and from cities, towns and villages when the canal system was in its heyday. The first-hand knowledge she was gaining of the role that inland waterways played in the lives of people would become even more invaluable after her retirement from service in the 1980s.
Urger was called back into service in 1991 at the age of 90. This time, however, her mission would take on a new role to serve as a floating classroom and museum on the NY canals. She would become a field trip for fourth-grade students where they could participate in “hands-on” experience and learn about the history of the 524-mile NY Canal System. Crew members tell the story of the Erie Canal from initial idea to construction from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. After it was completed in 1825, major cities like Albany, Buffalo and New York City were in some way connected to the Erie Canal, either by being on or near the canal or by rivers like the Hudson leading to it.
As part of the education program sponsored by the New York State Canal Corporation, she visits communities on the canals in the spring and fall. This spring season begins May 5, 2014 in Waterford. From there, she will make stops along the Champlain Canal, then stopping several times on the Erie Canal and ending her tour on the Oswego Canal at Oswego. She will be visiting 14 towns from May 5 to June 18. Her 2014 fall season starts Sept. 16 in Weedsport and finishes Oct. 21 in Tonawanda. The link for the schedule is available below.
In 2001, Urger was named to the NY State and National Register of Historic Places. She regularly participates in festivals that celebrate the state’s canal history and in various tugboat events. She is also the flagship of the NY State Canal Corporation. Urger is 113 years old, which makes her one of the oldest working vessels in the nation that is still afloat. The only difference is this tugboat is no longer working on the canals but, instead, is representing them by serving as a floating classroom and museum that tells the history of the NY canals.
By Cynthia Collins
Tug Urger – Empire State Maritime Alliance