Saratoga County

Tugboat restorer appeals for help

Steve Trueman’s worked for 40 years, salvaging wrecks from the bottom of the Hudson River, but it


Steve Trueman’s worked for 40 years, salvaging wrecks from the bottom of the Hudson River, but it was what was happening on top of the water that always seemed to draw his attention.

Trueman, 56, said he retired early with a decent nest egg from selling his business so he could pursue his dream of salvaging boats whose primary value is historic. Two of his pet projects, a 1930s railroad barge and a 1957 tugboat, are currently anchored at a dock on Terminal Road, just under the Crescent Bridge in Halfmoon.

He had combed the floor of the Hudson River for decades, running his commercial business, bringing up everything from a tractor-trailer that went off the Tappan Zee Bridge to small airplanes and sunken watercraft. Trueman owned the Hudson River Towing and Salvage Company for more than 30 years

He said his passion for restoring old boats developed while watching experts in the boat business repair historically significant vessels and learning the tricks of the trade.

“I didn’t anticipate trying to preserve sunken boats, but I had the great fortune of learning from old-school people about getting things done the right way,” Trueman said. “I picked it up from watching them, reading books and looking at old photos. I took apart lots of boat engines and parts to clean them and get them back in working order, and I learned by doing. I like to think of the old captains sitting beside me saying, ‘You did a good job.’ ”

Trueman is co-founder with Jack Schatzel of the North River Tugboat Museum of Kingston, a nonprofit organization with a mission of opening a permanent museum, traveling exhibits, dry dock and repair facilities. Trueman has salvaged and made repairs to six historic tugboats to date, but as his savings dried up and, lacking new investors, he discontinued the repairs and scrapped five of the boats.

“We couldn’t get anybody with a future plan or vision for the tugs, so we had to give them up,” Trueman said. “It’s more than money. It’s support and enthusiasm and a vision. I wasn’t able to pull it all together.”

Five years ago, Trueman salvaged Pennsylvania Railroad Barge 399, a covered barge used by the railroad company to transport dry goods in areas of New York State where building tracks wasn’t economically feasible. The barge, which was last used to store lumber and cinder blocks for a construction company, sank in the Hudson River near Kingston in the mid-1970s. Trueman spent months pumping out water and mud and patching holes that threatened to sink the barge again.

Now living on the docked tugboat, Trueman spends day and night working to return the barge and tugboat to their former glory.

In their heyday in the 1930s, the barges and tugs were part of a cargo-delivery system running between New York City and river ports in the Catskills. Enormous 500-foot ships dropped anchor at various sites, and the tugboats towed out five or six barges that were loaded with cargo from the ships using drop nets.

The covered barge is significant because it was used to store dry goods, including linens, coffee, cotton, flour and even live chickens.

“In the 1900s these were the UPS trucks of the day,” Trueman said. “You could walk across the Hudson on the boats waiting side-by-side.”

Still watertight, the holding area inside the barge now holds the tools Trueman uses for his work.

This summer he piloted his tug and barge from Kingston to Halfmoon after waterfront space he was using in Kingston was sold to a developer. Here, he hopes to open a floating museum, but to do so, Trueman needs people to take an interest in his mission.

“I’m running this whole project off my credit card at this point, and I’m beginning to become discouraged,” Trueman said. “I came here because I needed a spot in a small town who might appreciate the history behind this and sign onto this idea.”

Trueman’s presence at the popular fishing spot where, on any given day, families line the shore of the Mohawk River casting fishing lines, has already generated interest from curious children hoping to climb aboard. But a posted sign, “Don’t board unless invited,” warns them the barge isn’t yet ready for visitors.

“It’s great to see kids paying rapt attention to this; they’d never get a chance to see this any place else,” Trueman said. “They’re attracted to boats and repair work. Right now I’m not open yet, but soon I’ll be bringing people on board; that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Trueman hopes to be able to spend the winter at the Halfmoon dock. This week, he paid $2,500 for fuel, on credit, just to heat the boat enough for him to live there this winter.

“I’m maxed-out financially, and when I go looking for help, people say this is an awesome project, but then they disappear,” Trueman said. “It would only take about $6,000 to get more major work done on the tugboat, but I’m not political. I don’t know how to march into City Hall and ask for help with this project.”

Trueman takes issue with other nonprofits and businesses recreating, rather than restoring, historic tugboats.

“I’ve seen projects funded for millions [of dollars], but they haven’t saved boats; they’ve built replicas,” Trueman said. “Tugboats aren’t being saved from a working man’s perspective.”

John Schoulberg is the editor of “Waterways Journal,” a weekly publication since 1887 that includes historic information on boats used on U.S. rivers and intra-coastal waterways.

“What [Trueman] has is a very unique vessel for sure,” Schoulberg said. “There are covered barges being used on the Mississippi River today carrying grain, but I don’t know of any railroad barges being salvaged in the country. There are mainly new barges being built for these purposes.”

This summer, local members of the Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway Coalition took up the cause to spread word of the historic vessels. The coalition promotes the Mohawk Towpath Byway, a series of trails between Waterford, Cohoes and Schenectady along the historic route of the Erie Canal, with parts of the trails running directly behind the dock. The coalition held its July meeting at the Terminal Road dock.

“This is already a floating museum, but more than that, we’d like to see these vessels used as exhibit space for lectures, traditional music, tours and demonstrations,” Eric Hamilton, chairman of the coalition said. “[Steve] just needs an executive director or someone to do the business plan, strategic vision, marketing, organizing volunteers. He’s already at the perfect historic site. A hundred years ago the canal served as the main street through many of our communities.”

Trueman will take the tugboat out onto the river to Waterford for the Tugboat Roundup Sept. 5-7 at the Waterford Harbor.

“I have to prepare the boat for moving and me for talking to people,” Trueman said. “I’m more of a worker than someone to talk about what I do.”

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply