Tugboat Dorothy heralded new age at Newport News Shipbuilding

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com
First Newport News ship launched 125 years ago

The first ship launched at Newport News did not sail into history with a bold title like Enterprise, Nimitz or Kennedy. It carried the name of a 4-year-old girl.

But the tugboat Dorothy has never been forgotten.

Christened 125 years ago this month, the ship was restored in the mid-1970s and occupies a place of honor at Newport News Shipbuilding, sitting along Washington Avenue. Just as the ship endures, its story has relevance for today. The little tugboat reflects the headaches and rewards that still hold true in the modern age of shipbuilding, now a major industry in Hampton Roads.

"It was kind of special," said William A. Fox, a naval architect and author of "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships."

Before it had a formal name, it was simply known as Hull No. 1. Launched into the James River on Dec. 17, 1890, Dorothy represented a milestone for the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., which at the time employed about 200 people and occupied four blocks along Washington Avenue.

Little is known about the day because no photos or accounts remain, said Fox. But the basic facts of Dorothy's construction might be part of a shipbuilding story written today.

Bad news first.

Ahem, little Dorothy busted the budget.

Built along with a sister tug, the El Toro, the price for both totaled $59,000. The cost to the shipyard was $86,388. That's according to "Newport News Shipbuilding The First Century," which has a telling quote from General Superintendent Sommers N. Smith.

"As far as I have heard," said Smith, "the first boats in any new yard always cost considerably more than the contract price."

Shipbuilders of today deal with a similar problem. The construction of first-in-class ships always present cost challenges, and they must work to rein in the price on subsequent ships. Today, Newport News employees are working to cut expenses on the John F. Kennedy, the second Ford-class aircraft carrier now under construction.

But Dorothy's story also indicates why the Newport News shipyard grew from 200 to 22,000 employees, why it occupies 2 miles of waterfront instead of four blocks, and why it holds a unique place in U.S. shipbuilding industry.

Dorothy was considered innovative. It was the first tug built with a quadruple expansion engine, which expanded steam in four stages. It was designed by noted naval architect Horace See, according to the book by Van Hawkins titled "Dorothy and the Shipbuilders of Newport News," which can be found at the Newport News Public Library.

And once in the water, Newport News-built Dorothy proved seaworthy for decades to come.

That 4-year-old

The tug was ordered in April 1890 for the New York and Northern Railway Co. And Dorothy herself? She was the 4-year-old daughter of William C. Whitney, a secretary of the Navy under presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, and board member of the railroad company.

Like the tug, Dorothy Whitney proved her mettle in the real world. She went on to found the magazine New Republic and helped organize the League of Women Voters.

The tugboat in her name began service in busy New York, moving freight along the Harlem River. The Hawkins book quotes a turn-of-the-century writer who described the "rough and tumble" tugboat traffic that must have been fun to watch — from a distance.

"They go puffing and shrieking about the harbor by day and night, crossing the channel at all angles, getting in everybody's way, offering assistance when desired and when not desired, and crowding into tight places where other and lighter craft would not dare to intrude."

The tug was resold to a Norfolk man in 1912 and renamed J. Alvah Clark. It worked up and down the East Coast for more than 50 years under various owners.

In 1943, it came under attack while towing submarine nets. The enemy was an exhausted bear who had been swimming in Albemarle Sound off North Carolina and decided to crawl onboard to take a rest. After the bear regained its strength and expressed some displeasure with the ride, the crew restrained it with ropes.

According to Hawkins' book, the crew planned to sell the bear to a Norfolk carnival, but it turned out the carnival didn't need it. Under prompting by North Carolina game officials, the crew returned the disgruntled animal to North Carolina, where it could regain its dignity.

Today, tugboats working the 2 miles of waterfront at Newport News Shipbuilding don't scare up many bears, but they can tell a few war stories. How about trying to keep a nuclear-powered submarine from breaking away during a hurricane?

Just ask Capt. Allen Sutton and the crew of the tugboat Huntington.

'It's rewarding'

One recent mild December day, Sutton piloted the tug Huntington into the James River. He admired the view from the pilot house, moving past the massive hull of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford. Asked what he liked about the job, he had a quick answer.

"It's a lot of responsibility, but you can see what you've done," said Sutton, a Mathews County native. "It's rewarding."

Huntington carries a crew of five, sometimes six. Besides helping to parallel park carriers and submarines, it pulls non-shipyard duty, pushing commercial barges that carry everything from coal to cars.

The crew is a small part of a giant corporation, Virginia's largest industrial employer. But their work culture is more like that of a family business. Sutton and his men have worked together for years. Out on the water, they are their own bosses.

"You spend more time down here with these guys than you spend with your own family," Sutton said. "Glenn's little girl was born and I was holding her — I think it was four hours — I never held a baby that small."

He referred to Glenn Alligood, an assistant engineer. The grandson of a waterman, Alligood started on Huntington in 1999. He got the job after a friend left tugboat duty for a supervisor post. At the time, Alligood was working in the rigging shop. He never regretted the transfer.

Alligood started working on tugboats around the same time as Cedric Moore, now a fellow assistant engineer on the Huntington. Moore grew up in North Carolina and was always around the water. Asked what he liked about tugboat duty, he answered: "The fact that it's like a family. I could work with men who appreciated each other."

Alligood and Moore have spent 16 years on tugs. Sutton is a 35-year shipyard employee; 34 years spent on tugs. The Huntington has them beat. This year marked its 40th year of operation in Newport News, and the seas haven't always been calm.

"When a hurricane comes, you tell your family you'll see them when you get back," Sutton said. "One year, I'm not going to try and say what year it was, we had a sub break loose at 3 o'clock in the morning. It broke its wires, jumping up and down so bad."

In another hurricane — he thinks it might have been Isabel — they did what they could to hold an aircraft carrier in place.

"We pushed on a carrier for five hours, full speed, until we couldn't stay any longer," he said. "It takes a lot of dedication. I mean, it's a good job, but it takes a lot of dedication."

At 40 years old, Huntington is still reliable, if a bit long in the tooth.

"In her day, she was the hottest thing in Hampton Roads," Sutton said. "Everybody wanted this boat to dock a ship."

That sounds a lot like Dorothy.

'Just fascinated me'

Dorothy's career ended in September 1964 while towing barges in the Delaware Canal, according to Hawkins. A ship collided with the barge, and it damaged the tugboat's hull beyond repair.

The boat was towed back to Hampton Roads and ended up in the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, where it sat. Time quickly took its toll on the little ship. After a decade, its pilot house was gone and the ship was covered in mud.

But the ship was salvaged in 1974 and brought back home to Newport News. That's where Fox came in. He worked for Newport News Shipbuilding as a naval architect, and made it his personal quest to find out everything he could about the ship.

Working with Les Sweeney, a veteran construction supervisor, the two developed a plan for what they wanted to do. About 75 shipbuilders took part in its restoration, using decades-old techniques. A dozen original drawings discovered at The Mariners' Museum helped guide the effort.

The job "kind of took me over for a year," Fox said. (According to the Hawkins book, Fox had been guilty of calling his wife "Dorothy" on occasion.)

In 1976, a 104-wheeled trailer towed the restored tugboat out of the shipyard and down Washington Avenue, where it rests today.

"Just having it there is a testament to the quality of the workforce, the spirit of the workers," Fox said. "It's like a fraternity. Everyone loves the ships they worked on during their careers. The Dorothy sort of started all that."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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