Tugboats of New York

An Illustrated History

278 pages

150 illustrations

October, 2007

ISBN: 9780814757383


George Matteson has operated tugboats since 1971 and has also worked as the waterfront manager of the South Street Seaport Museum. He is the author of Draggermen as well as several articles in Boating magazine. He lives in New York City.

All books by George Matteson

2005 Author of the Year AwardWorking Harbor Committee of New York and New Jersey

2006 AAUP Book, Jacket, and Journal Show in the category of Trade Illustrated Book Design

Tugboats are the workhorses of the greatest harbor in the world, easing massive ocean liners and garbage scows alike cleanly into their berths. Tugboats of New York captures the history and lore of these iconic craft, from their precursors in the early 1800s to their heyday in the 1950s, when more than 700 small but potent boats dotted the harbor. They are the most versatile of vessels, not only guiding large oceangoing ships safely into harbor, but also conducting rescue operations and navigating vast quantities of oil, cement, and scrap iron through traffic-clogged waters.

A twenty-year veteran of New York tugboats, George Matteson knows the tides and currents of New York from the Bronx to the Verrazano Narrows. His history of tugboating shows how this inherently risky business pits men and their boats against weather, water, and the scarcely measurable physics of ships and barges of far greater dimension.

The story of New York’s tugs parallels the broader history of New York’s industrial development, from the rise of railroads to the decline of the port in the wake of labor disputes and large container ships. It is also a story of remarkable seamen who pass their craft from pilot to apprentice over generations, along with the lore of great waterways that remain unchanged despite the lengthening shadows of skyscrapers and commerce.

Rich with first-person anecdotes of life on the New York waterways and one hundred and fifty black-and-white illustrations, including rare and sumptuous photographs from the likes of Gordon Parks and Todd Webb, Tugboats of New York will fascinate readers interested in New York history, boating, and maritime history.


  • “Breathtaking photographs.... Matteson’s fascinating account of the evolutionary era begins with the geographical formation of New York Harbor, but quickly moves to the era of the vessels themselves.... Anyone fond of books about the way things work will enjoy Matteson’s detailed explanations; others will relish his metaphors.”

    New York Times Book Review

  • “Matteson knows the lore in depth, telling us how tugs work and how crucially they've served the great port.”

    San Diego Tribune

  • “This sturdy, if little lauded, workhorse of the city’s waterways has found a champion in George Matteson, himself a veteran tug operator. His marvelous, handsomely designed Tugboats of New York is both an evocative photo album of tugs at work and a detailed essay on nearly two hundred years of tugboat history.”


  • “A brave and jaunty disquisition, copiously illustrated, on the history of tugboats in the port of New York—written with boundless enthusiasm and affection for its subject, and with more than a little longing for the days when ships of all kinds dominated the rhythm of life in and around the city's endless waterways.”

    —Ric Burns

  • “Matteson narrates two hundred years of city history from the decks of its tugboats.&8221;

    The New Yorker