Troubled tugboat to be taken apart? The parts may be greater than the whole of ‘Chickamauga’

The tug ‘Chickamauga’ during its early working days. - Photo courtesy of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society
The tug ‘Chickamauga’ during its early working days.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society

The troubled tale of the ill-fated tugboat “Chickamauga” may be finally coming to an end.

Having been neglected, sunken, raised and towed, the century-old vessel now faces being dismantled.

While the owner of the vessel is now facing the legal ramifications of allowing the tug to become so dangerously neglected, the boat itself, having become the property of the state shortly after being towed, was essentially put up for grabs.

There were very few takers.

Toni Weyman Droscher of the state Department of Natural Resource’s Aquatics Program said there was a bit of early interest, but it soon faded.

Staff with the Derelict Vessel Program spoke with representatives of Olympic Timber Town about the vessel, but officials with the heritage center backed off after seeing the condition of the tugboat.

Indeed the boat’s advanced state of neglect is one of the main reasons that DNR’s maritime archeology expert Maurice Major is advocating for its destruction.

“Unfortunately, the restoration or even stabilization of derelict wooden vessels is so expensive and difficult that despite the efforts of the DVRP and myself, the fate of the ‘Chickamauga,’ like most of the others, is demolition,” Major said.

Major said a photographic record of the 100-year-old tugboat would be created, but also noted the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation was being contacted so the boat could be removed from the Washington Heritage Register.

By thus recording the vessel, Major said that the history of the boat can be maintained even as the boat itself is dismantled. No historically significant data will be lost.

The real importance, he said, is in the records and not the actual boat. The tugboat’s current condition is part of the reason why.

“The ‘Chickamauga’ lacks historic integrity because it was substantially altered in the 1970s, and because of lack of maintenance in more recent times,” he said.

The “Chickamauga” had a rich history in the waters of Washington.

Karl House, a researcher with the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, said the tugboat was the first American-designed and built  diesel-powered tugboat in the United States.

Built in 1915, as ships were making the transition from steam to diesel engines, at the time of the boat’s construction diesel engines were still in their infancy and had only just been patented 17 years before the Chickamauga was built.

The boat was originally commissioned by Arthur McNealy, manager for the Pacific Tow Boat Company, and construction of the vessel started June 24, 1914 at the Neilson and Keliz Shipyard in Everett, according to documents on file with the WHR. The vessel cost $7,700 to build, and was designed by famed boat designer L.E. “Ted” Geary, who is well-known for his designs of racing sloops and yachts through the 1920s.

Michael Houser, state architectural historian with the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, said that the “Chickamauga” is still on the register and he was aware of no plans to remove it from the list.

“The ‘Chickamauga’ has not officially been removed from the state register,” he said. “It was listed in 2001, and removal would only be done if the boat no longer meets the criteria in which it was listed, or in the case if it was demolished [or] scrapped.”

Houser said that simply being listed on the register does not protect historic vessels should they become damaged or neglected. Instead the database acts as a historic record only.

“There’s a common misconception about being on the register,” he explained. “There really are no strings attached.”

Also not attached is the helm of the “Chickamauga” itself.

In what may be the turbulent tale’s final twist, it seems that at least part of the tug may well find itself preserved and cared for.

“DNR did pull off the helm for possible distribution to a museum,” Droscher said.

The wood tugboat — which sank while moored at the Eagle Harbor Marina on Oct. 2 and was raised after it spilled hundreds of gallons of fuel into Puget Sound — was seized by the state and towed to Boat Haven Marina in Port Townsend in late January.

There, the badly neglected tug was placed in a kind of legal limbo as authorities took the apparent owner of the boat, Anthony R. Smith, to Superior Court for the cost of the cleanup efforts surrounding the boat’s initial sinking.

Smith is facing felony criminal charges in connection with the tugboat’s sinking, including one count of first-degree theft, one charge of causing a vessel to become abandoned or derelict and one count of discharge of polluting matters into state waters.

Smith’s trial, originally slated for April, has since been rescheduled to June 23.


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