Steam Tug Transfer No.15

by Hans | May 26th, 2014

An unusual railroad tug, the Transfer No. 15, owned by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. She was built in 1900 at Bath, Maine, and differed from others of her type in that she carried accommodations for her 13-man crew. She also had a steam condenser,  which was a break from tradition. Condensers allow the recycling of steam, thus reducing a tug’s dependency on a freshwater supply. Most railroad harbor tugs did not use them, relying instead on atmospheric condensation, since their trips were short and they could replenish their water tanks any time they wished from the railroad’s ample supply.


The Transfer No. 15 was 120 feet long and powered by a 1,200 horsepower engine, provided steam by two oil-fired boilers, hence the two stacks. She had considerable boiler power in relation to her engine size. She towed car floats between Oak Point, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey.

Most railroad tugs were quite long and narrow. They had standing orders to tow floats on each side at all times when passing through New York Harbor’s treacherous Hell Gate, because a tug with a single side tow had once almost capsized in the fat current. The force of the current acted like a wedge between the tug and the tow, almost levering the narrow tug over.  A balanced tow, with a car float on either side, minimized the problem.

The transfer of railroad cars across New York Harbor was a big business because there weren’t enough railroad bridges or tunnels to handle the huge amount of freight traveling through the New York City area and on the New England. Without car floats, New York would have been an insurmountable bottleneck. At its zenith in the 1930s and 1940s, the railroad transfer and towing trade employed 150 tugs, 323 car floats, 1,094 lighters and barges, and 3,400 men with a weekly  payroll of $200,000. In 1955 alone, 46,099 float cars were transferred. The 12 railroads serving New York City had about $35 million invested in their marine departments. Other cities with railroad car transfer operations were Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk, San Francisco and Seattle, as well as various Great Lakes ports.

(Source: On the Hawser by Steven Lang & Peter H.Spectre)

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