The Tugboat McAllister

April 2010

The week of November 17, 1963 newspaper headlines were occupied with the recent return of a Yale professor after more than two weeks in a Soviet prison where he had been accused of spying. Triplet cows were born on a West Chazy farm. President Kennedy was preparing for his upcoming visit to Dallas. Vermont Governor Phil Hoff was calling for a consolidation of school districts in Vermont. Slipped into page three of the Wednesday edition of the Plattsburgh Press Republican was a notice that a tug boat had sunk on Lake Champlain the previous Sunday.

At 11 PM on Sunday November 17, 1963 the tugboat William H. McAllister was towing an empty oil barge when it struck Schuyler Reef. According to the press report, “It was crushed past aft of midship on the port side.” The boat went down within five minutes, forcing the eight crew members aboard to abandon ship and make for the barge. They anchored the barge and spent the night aboard it. Reports of how they finally reached shore conflict. The Press Republican said, “Early Monday morning a southbound boat saw their distress flare and picked them up.” The Burlington Free Press said, “The barge, with no power of its own drifted a half mile down the lake before hitting shore.” 

The state police didn’t even find out about the event until almost 16 hours after the tug had sunk, which is why it took two days for the news to hit the press. Once the crew members came ashore they were quickly hustled off to New York City, the location of the headquarters of the tug’s owners, and presumably the sailors’ home town.

The owners of the sunken tug McAllister Brothers, Inc., now McAllister Towing, is still in business and operating out of New York City and 10 other ports along the east coast and Puerto Rico. The family-owned company was established in 1864. The current President is a great-grandson of the founder. 

The tug was a steel-hulled diesel boat built in 1942. It was over 80 feet long by 23 feet in breadth. It served during World War II as ST-243. In 1949 it was purchased by McAllister Brothers and rechristened the William H. McAllister with its homeport in New York City. At the time of its sinking the boat was worth $250,000.

Following the tug’s sinking the Burlington Free Press reported that “the company planned to raise it before the ice set in”, but that never happened. Diver examinations of the sunken tug did occur as well as discussions about raising the vessel, but there were no physical attempts to bring it up. Certainly, the deep location of the wreck made any recovery efforts challenging. The McAllister sits at the bottom of Lake Champlain under about 140 feet of water. The wreck was rediscovered in 1988 and surveyed during the late 1990s.

For many years Frank Pabst, former captain of the cruise ship Juniper and well-known Plattsburgh area personality, has warned that the McAllister posed a threat to the environment. When it went down it carried its load of fuel, though it is not known how much fuel was aboard the tug. The boat had a capacity to hold 14,000 gallons, but it consumed over 800 gallons a day. The working assumption has been that fuel is still aboard the ship, and could escape at any time. Adam Kane of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum reports that people occasionally report small oil slicks in the vicinity of Schuyler Reef. 

Recently, Pabst’s warnings have reached the ears of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA is communicating with McAllister Towing on roles and responsibilities for any proposed recovery project. They have also entered discussions with the Coast Guard Spill Response Program about possible funding sources and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum about an updated inspection of the sunken tug. Hopefully, after 47 years the McAllister will once again have hands on deck, working to deliver fuel, but this time just to a recovery vessel on the surface.

Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is the only bi-state organization solely dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. LCC uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access.

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