The shipyard's first hull: The 125th anniversary of Dorothy is Saturday

The tugboat Dorothy was the first in a long line of shipyard hulls

The tugboat Dorothy ranks near the bottom of the heap when it comes to the size of the nearly 650 vessels that Newport News Shipbuilding has constructed over 125 years.

But when the yard delivered the 90-foot-long tug to its new owner on April 30, 1891, the completed job was a milestone moment.

Named after the 4-year-old daughter of former Navy Secretary William C. Whitney, Dorothy was the first vessel built from the keel up by the fledgling 5-year-old company and its 200 employees.

And after restricting them to repair work during the yard's infancy, the decision to take on Hull No. 1 represented a big leap forward in shipyard founder Collis P. Huntington's confidence and ambition.

"It was kind of special," says naval architect William A. Fox, author of "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships" and part of the team that restored the tug for display at the company's headquarters in 1976.

"That's where it all began."

Designed by noted naval architect and engineer Horace See — who also worked as supervising engineer for several of Huntington's railroads — the Dorothy was considered both innovative and powerful when it was built for Whitney's New York & Northern Railway.

It was the first tug to be fitted with a quadruple expansion engine, Fox writes, and its 250-horsepower rating gave it a heady top speed of 10 knots.

So new was the yard and advanced the tug's technology, however, that both the Dorothy and its sister ship — the El Toro — were delivered at a loss of more than $27,000 on a contract of $59,000.

The major reason for the overrun was the iron work, yard superintendent Sommers N. Smith reported.

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

Still, Huntington and his builders earned a reputation for quality and dependability from the beginning — and their first hull went on to a long, hard-working life.

After two decades in busy New York harbor, it moved to Norfolk in 1912, where it towed barges up and down the Chesapeake Bay and East Coast for more than 50 years under various owners.

It served with the Navy in World War I, performing tug and towing duties as well as submarine net patrol in Hampton Roads.

Irreparably damaged by a 1964 collision with a barge, the tug sat idle in the Elizabeth River mud for a decade before Fox and other yard builders salvaged it for a two-year-long restoration campaign.

It was rechristened on July 19, 1976 by the granddaughter of its original namesake, writes William L. Tazewell in "Newport News Shipbuilding: The First Century."

"Thank you for bringing her home," Dorothy E. Straight told the crowd, which included nearly 100 shipbuilders who had worked on the restoration.

"I know this is where she belongs."

Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.

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