Small Wonder

Restoring the historic tug Delaware

Every centenarian deserves a celebration, and the wooden tug Delaware is no exception. For the vessel's 100th birthday next year, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum will give the floating exhibition a fitting gift: a makeover that will restore her 1912 appearance.

"We knew we wanted to spruce up Delaware for her centennial this fall and winter, but we didn't really plan the extent of the work until August or early September," says Pete Lesher, the museum's chief curator. "What started as some fairly routine boat carpentry snowballed, and now we are replacing a piece of her keel, [replacing] some of her frames in the bow, and probably more."

Still, he acknowledges the total cost—probably over $20,000—could have been much higher. "A significant part of the labor is performed by our apprentices—graduates of wooden boatbuilding trade schools who sign on for a year of experience with bigger boats than they typically encounter in school." Their contributions enabled the nonprofit museum to keep costs in check.

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum acquired the tug in 1989 "knowing we had plenty of work ahead," says Lesher. In the intervening years, workers replaced her plywood decks with fir decking that follows the curvature of the boat. Later, they replaced the horn timber [a structural beam that supports her stern, which extends out over the water.] A few years ago, they rebuilt her stern.

Though the river tug was built in Bethel, Del., (a center for wooden boatbuilding from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries), she's best known for her service off Maryland's Eastern Shore: The tug was purchased in 1929 to haul pile driving rigs, barges, and other equipment throughout the region. She served Easton-based Bailey Marine Construction, which still builds bulkheads, docks, and piers in the area, faithfully for sixty years.

Project estimates suggest that Delaware's restoration will be complete in January. Until then, museum visitors will be able to monitor restoration efforts themselves. "Our shipwrights and apprentices always work in the public eye," says Lesher, "and [they] are ready to set down tools to engage our visitors in conversation."

The museum is planning a birthday party for the tug this spring or summer—a date had not been set at press time—and also hopes to slip her back into familiar waters for a celebratory tour around nearby ports.

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