Fun with a Tugboat Captain

I had an amazing experience over the last couple of days! I also write a blog for the Albion High School Alumni Foundation, which includes interviews with alumni who have an interesting story or career to share with other alumni. I contacted David Starkweather from the class of 1985 to talk to him about his career as a Tugboat Captain on the Erie Canal. He is the Captain of the DeWitt Clinton – the oldest working tugboat on the canal. What started out as a quick interview and a few photos quickly turned into one of the most interesting and fun conversations I’ve had in a long time and 175 photos over two days!!! Of course, if you’ve read this blog at all, you know I love the canal and find everything I can learn about it to be absolutely fascinating…, you’re probably thinking: “duh!!! Did she really think she’d ask a couple questions, take a couple photos, and move on???” 🙂 He invited me on the tug to sit and talk to him in the galley – I would have loved to have my picture taken at the wheel, but I was too chicken to climb up into that room……I kick myself now for letting my fear of heights and ladders to stop me and for not just sucking it up and making myself get up in there – maybe I’ll have another chance, someday – now that I have a new friend who is a Tugboat Captain! hehehehe

So, here are just a few of the photos and a little about what I learned. To read more about David, specifically, you can go to this link: “Where are they now? – David Starkweather“.


This photo is of Captain David Starkweather on the Dewitt Clinton – the oldest working tug on the canal. This vessel was built about 1925 and commissioned in 1926.

So, what does a Tugboat Captain do? When most people think of the canal, they think about it being a part of NY State’s history and a great place to take a boat ride. Most people don’t have a clue what it takes to keep the canal open and available for those boat rides – I know I didn’t. In the early days, it was a major waterway for commerce – an important path for goods to be transported from the Atlantic Ocean inland to the Great Lakes and beyond. Barges and tugboats were a common sight hauling materials and equipment along Governor DeWitt Clinton’s dream. Today, most people forget that these vessels are still essential to the maintenance and life of the canal. Today, tugboats, like the DeWitt Clinton, and Tenders move anything that doesn’t have an engine – barges loaded with materials and supplies needed to maintain the canal system and equipment, such as cranes, G4s (“gradalls” – essentially an excavator), among other equipment that is used to dredge, do tree work, literally anything that can’t be done by the ground crews. The difference between a tug and a tender is simply the size and engine – tugs are bigger and more powerful – and a tug has living quarters on it, but a tender does not.


David has been Captain of the DeWitt Clinton since about 2005 and he takes great pride in his job and his tug – tours, hosting photo shoots, and appearing in festivals and shows all help him show it off!


She’s in great shape for being close to 90 years old, isn’t she? Because of her age, she had some unique quirks that the newer vessels don’t have, but it is still amazing that this vessel is still going strong and working hard every day!



Home port for the DeWitt Clinton is Albion, NY. Once the last run of the season is complete in the next few days, the DeWitt Clinton will be docked for the winter between the Main St and Ingersoll St bridges on the north bank of the canal, along with several other vessels – tugs, tenders, barges, and equipment – that will rest on the bottom of the canal after it is drained for the winter. I always thought that they just sat there during the winter – I know whenever I go by, they look so lonely in the frozen remains of the drained canal. But, that is definitely not the case! David, the other captains, and all their crews are hard at work all winter overhauling each vessel to ensure each and every moving part is inspected, repaired, or replaced, as needed, the floors are all redone, and everything is in tip-top shape for the next season! They also spend the winter making new braided rope bumpers — check out the bumpers on the photos and whenever you see a tug or tender up close – they are a work of art and the crews make them by hand!


These vessels are tenders — much smaller than a tug, but just as important to the canal system!


This is a barge docked in Albion awaiting the end of the season.



These two photos are of a crane that is also currently docked in Albion for the winter. In the second photo, the bucket on the crane is hanging over the barge that is docked in front of it.


I believe these are tugs – at least one of them will move on to Lockport for the winter before the season ends in a few weeks.


Front shot of the two tugs in the last photo.

I interviewed David and took all of the previous photos on Thursday afternoon. Then, David told me he was making a run to Hulberton on Friday and would be returning with a G4 (Gradall equipment – essentially an excavator) to dock it in Albion for the winter. We agreed that he would let me know when I could catch him for photos of him in process of moving the equipment and passing under a bridge or two. I ended up having so much fun watching him do his job…….waiting for him to get to each bridge, rushing to the next one to catch him in different locations, and finally watching him dock the G4 and his tug in Albion! It was all so fascinating and exciting! It was rainy and snowy and cold and windy, but I didn’t care — I was having the time of my life!!!

Here are the shots I got of him tugging along the canal:


This is the Transit Road bridge – a one lane stationary bridge – looking west towards Albion.


Transit Road bridge looking south


Here comes the DeWitt Clinton from the east approaching the Transit Rd bridge



Tugs travel at an average speed of 5 mph when pushing a load such as this G4


Passing under the Transit Rd bridge


And coming out the other side


And on they go down the canal!


There were a couple other bridges before this one, but I decided to wait for them at the Brown St bridge

It took them about 1/2 hour to travel from Transit Rd to Brown Rd


North side of the Brown St bridge with the old St. Mary’s Catholic Church steeple just beyond the end of the bridge

The Brown St bridge is also a single lane stationary bridge – it is currently closed because of needed repairs


Pretty shot of the snow coming down and the haze in the distance facing west along the canal


And, finally, here they are passing under the Brown St bridge


Clearing the Brown St bridge


And off they go… bridge: Ingersoll St


The Ingersoll St bridge is a lift bridge – notice the red lights hanging from the bottom of the deck indicating it isn’t safe for boats to pass under unless they are below a certain height. When a boat notifies canal personnel that they are approaching a lift bridge, the lift bridge operator arrives at that bridge in time to stop traffic and lift the bridge for the boat to pass.


Traffic is stopped and the bridge is lifting


Bridge not yet fully lifted – lights are still red


Bridge fully lifted – see the center light is green, indicating boats may now pass through


There is the DeWitt Clinton and her load passing under the Ingersoll St bridge

The crew is out preparing to dock just ahead


Clearing the bridge as the snow starts to fall, again……they will dock between here and the Main St bridge just one block away


Passing through the canal behind Bank St in downtown Albion

The next few photos show the docking procedure… was incredibly fascinating to watch them literally parallel park this humongous floating piece of equipment by pushing it into place in a spot barely bigger than the vessel itself! The crew (Roy, Russ and Tim on the G4 and Steve and Steve with David on the tug) were all out on the decks watching all the edges and corners and yelling directions to the Captain to help guide him into place without hitting the bank of the canal or the other vessels he was maneuvering around! I was extremely impressed!!!






All snug into place — fitting like a butt on a night pot, as my Mom used to say!


…..and with barely a few feet from the tugs docked in front of it…..


…..and the barge behind it!


Job well done, guys — now, to go dock the DeWitt Clinton!


Coming in to the spot designated for the DeWitt Clinton


Getting into position


Ready to lasso the tie bars



And, tying her down to secure her for the night!


The line up of tugs, tenders, barges, and equipment along the bank of the canal between Ingersoll and Main streets – all ready for the season to end!

David and the DeWitt Clinton will make one more trip before securing her in her spot between the Main St and Ingersoll St bridges in Albion for the winter. Soon, the canal will be drained and all the vessels docked along the canal will rest on the bottom – enjoying a much deserved overhaul – until next spring when the canal will be refilled and their work will begin, again! And, David will once again take the wheel for his 5 mph races up and down the canal moving equipment and materials wherever it is needed!

What an amazing experience this was — a true adventure full of fun and excitement and education! I will not forget this day and hope to have more chances to pay more attention to the incredible work that is done on the canal each and every day throughout the year!

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