Spangenberger, of Storied Hudson River Tugboat Line, Dies at 102

November 3, 2008 at 5:51 pm Leave a comment

When coal powered the tugboats of the Cornell Steamboat Company, people who lived along the Hudson River would recognize them by the yellow and black of their smokestacks and the blare of their whistles. In the decades after the Civil War, Cornell pulled the barges that brought the bluestone, cement and bricks to build New York City, and the grain and ice to sustain it. Baled hay came down the river for the thousands of horses on city streets, and their manure went north for fertilizer.

Clarence W. Spangenberger — who died on Oct. 21 in Rhinebeck, N.Y., at the age of 102 — was the last president of what for many years, with its more than 60 vessels, was the largest tugboat company in the United States, and maybe the biggest in the world.

His death was announced by Stuart Murray, author of “Thomas Cornell and the Cornell Steamboat Company” (2001).

By the time Mr. Spangenberger took over the legendary company in 1954, Cornell was struggling; trucks, railroads and oceangoing vessels were fast cutting into its business. Mr. Spangenberger, known as Bill, did everything he could to stave off a collapse, including laying off hundreds of employees, many of whom he had known since childhood — always telling them in person. He even had to let his father, the company barber, go.

After its largest customer, the New York Trap Rock Corporation, a producer of crushed stone, bought Cornell in 1958, Mr. Spangenberger remained in charge of the towing operations, which continued to be called Cornell Steamboat. But his economies and the introduction of powerful new kinds of tugboats were not enough to prevent Cornell from going out of business in 1963.

The company traced it roots to the 1830s, when Thomas Cornell acquired a sloop to carry passengers and ship goods from Rondout, N.Y., a port town on the Hudson that is now part of Kingston, to New York City, 100 miles to the south.

But he glimpsed that steamboats were the wave of the future and set about building a fleet of towing paddle-wheelers that by 1900 was the largest of its kind in the United States. One steamer was the famous Norwich, which was designed by Robert Fulton and operated until 1910.

Mr. Cornell’s business empire included hotels, railroads and an amusement park. When he died in 1890, Samuel D. Coykendall took over and converted the Cornell fleet to propeller-driven tugboats. His six sons assumed control after his death in 1913.

Mr. Spangenberger was born in Kingston on Dec. 9, 1905. He was the only child of parents who supported themselves by catering to the shipyard workers and boatmen in Rondout, his mother by selling bread from her parents’ bakery, and his father by working as a barber to the Coykendall family and to company executives.

Mr. Spangenberger graduated from New York University with a degree in business, then worked for the Standard Oil Company as a sales representative. He joined Cornell in 1933 in accounts receivable, then moved to supervising the engineers, firemen and oilers of the tugs before climbing the ladder to become president in 1954.

By that time, much of Cornell’s business had disappeared. The Hudson had been deepened about 1930 to allow oceangoing ships to reach Albany, ending the need to tow grain barges. Railroads and trucks could carry most cargo faster and more efficiently than boats, and refrigeration had obviated the need for natural ice. And Cornell had not gone after the lucrative business of towing petroleum products.

Well before he became president of Cornell Steamboat, Mr. Spangenberger had nudged the company’s reluctant owners to convert steam vessels to oil power. His efforts to modernize the fleet resulted in boats like the Rockland County, which could push 21 barges that were tied three abreast and covered an acre. Before then, when barges were towed end to end, they would have extended a half mile, Mr. Murray said.

Trap Rock, whose corporate predecessors dated to before the Civil War, hoped to use Cornell’s name, Mr. Spangenberger’s expertise and $4 million in new barges to expand its tug and barge business. But when sufficient business failed to materialize, Trap Rock sold its barges and boats and got out of the business in 1963.

Mr. Spangenberger, who left no immediate survivors, liked to hike in the Catskills and dance to the music of Guy Lombardo in elegant Manhattan hotels with his wife of more than 70 years, the former Kathleen M. Sharp, who died last year. He played tennis into his early 90s.

He worked to keep alive the memory of the steamboat company. He helped to get the company biography published and to organize an exhibit about Cornell Steamboat at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in 2001.

In 1958, Mr. Spangenberger, with clear delight, showed a reporter for The New York Times some yellowed articles about the company, including one from the 1880s that reported that it had cost a shipper a dime a ton to move cargo from New York City to Yonkers, and twice that if the destination was Poughkeepsie.

By DOUGLAS MARTIN

New York Times

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Maritime, Region. Tags: , , , .

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