Historic tugboat gives glimpse into canal’s heyday

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 7 October 2015 at 12:00 am

Urger proves popular with fourth-graders

Photos by Tom Rivers
HOLLEY – The historic Urger, a tugboat from 1901, was in Holley on Tuesday as part of its state-wide educational mission. The tugboat was a working vessel on the canal, hauling machinery, dredges and scows on the canal system for 60 years until the boat was retired from services in the 1980s.

The boat was built in 1901 in Ferrysburg, Michigan, and was a commercial shipping vessel in Michigan before joining the canal fleet in the 1920s.

In 1991, the Urger got new life as a “Teaching Tug.” It visits canal communities from early May until late October, educating children and adults about the canal system, which opened in 1825.

Fourth-graders from School No. 2 in Rochester visit the boat on Tuesday morning. Holley students stopped by in the afternoon before Urger headed to Brockport.

The Rochester students used to tour the Mary Jemison boat until it retired two years ago.

When the lift bridge went up in Holley, the cameras and Smart Phones came out to capture the sights and sounds of the century-old bridge.

A modern boat passes by Urger and the lift bridge, heading east towards Brockport on Tuesday.

Students were welcome to tour the boat and see a small kitchen, a bathroom and the sleeping quarters for the crew.

A crew of four lives on the boat from early May until late October, sharing New York State history with a focus on the how the canal, completed in 1825, turned NY into an economic powerhouse for business, and breathing life into many small towns along the canal.

“They learn how important the canal was to New York State, and how important it could be,” said Mike Byrnes, a deckhand on the Urger.

He lives in Waterford near Albany and has spent 13 seasons on Urger.

“The fourth-graders are a lot of fun,” he said.

The Urger captain sounded the horn on top of the boat. It has a light sound, like a whistle, and a deeper signal. The fourth-graders enjoyed the loud, low noise the most.

There isn’t much in the way of fancy technology at the helm of the boat. The captain uses a wheel and bell that rings in the engine room.

The Urger is 75 feet long and weighs 83.7 tons. The engine weighs 19.5 tons. It is a 1944 Atlas Imperial engine that was surplus from World War II. It replaced a steam engine.

The Urger is shown in this photo looking under the lift bridge in Holley.

Mike Pelletier, the engineer on the boat, is in his second season with Urger. The Newark resident said it has been eye-opening serving on the vessel and seeing the canal communities.

He gave Holley high marks for developing a nice park with amenities by the canal for boaters, and also for lots of signage pointing them to businesses and other services nearby.

“This has been a very educational adventure,” Pelletier said. “There is so much to the canal and not just for boaters. It’s beautiful now for walkers, runners and cyclists (who use the towpath).”

Pelletier said more canal towns should work on signage for boaters, directing them to restaurants, local businesses, libraries and other services. He’d also like to see more displays by the canal about local communities’ histories, giving visitors a historical snapshot about the town or village.

“The towns and villages need to incorporate it more,” he said. “Before I had this job I was as guilty as anyone of taking the canal for granted.

The Urger will be in Brockport the next few days before heading to Spencerport on Oct. 13. Click here to see the schedule and a contact number for local schools to get on the Urger agenda for 2016. The Urger crew urged local schools to arrange tours for next year.