Text by Captain Eric Takakjian
A four and a half year search ended on September 17, 1994 when the
wreck of the seagoing tug Baleen was located off Massachusetts.
Built as the John E Meyer for the Barnett and Record Company of
Duluth, Minnesota, she was launched on March 17, 1923 at Manitowoc
Shipbuilding Corp., in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The John E, Meyer was
considered a state of the art vessel at the time of her launching.
Her steel hull was 102 feet long and had a triple expansion steam
engine developed 750hp. The tug was equipped with a steam powered
towing winch on the stern, an unusual and innovative piece of
equipment for 1923.
The John E. Meyer worked out of the port of Duluth for Barnett
and Record, doing general barge towing on the Great Lakes. Her
primary duties were towing iron ore and coal barges between ports on
In June of 1940 the ship was sold to the Pringle Barge lines of
Cleveland, Ohio. Her new owners renamed her the Jesse James.
Operating out of the port of Toledo, Ohio, she was assigned to
duties towing the self unloading coal barge Madia between Toledo and
Detroit. In January of 1940 Pringle Barge Lines was purchased by
the Oglebay Norton Company, the same company that owned the Edmund
Fitzgerald, of Great Lakes shipwreck fame.
After forty four years of service on the Great Lakes, the Jesse
James was sold in August of 1967 to Nickerson Tug and Transit Co.,
of Tampa, Florida. The length of time she spent working in fresh
water no doubt contributed greatly to her seaworthiness after so
many years of service.
During the winter of 1967-8 the Jesse James was re powered with
a new 3,000 horsepower diesel engine at the Hendries Shipyard in
Tampa. At the same time anew towing winch was installed and the
deck house and smokestack were rebuilt. After her refit the Jesse
james worked out of Port Everglades, Florida, docking ships and
towing barges between various Florida ports. In July of 1969 her
new owners renamed her the Baleen.
After a short time working in Florida waters, the Baleen was
sold for the final time on March 4, 1979 to the Reinaur
Transportation Company of New Jersey. The Baleen was transferred to
Reinaur's Boston division, Boston Fuel towing, Inc., and her new
home port became Bath, Maine. the Baleen was put to work docking
ships in Bath and other central maine ports, as well as towing oil
barges between New York and various ports throughout New England.
On Wednesday October 29, 1975, the Baleen departed New York,
bound for Boston, towing a barge loaded with two and a half million
gallons of home heating oil. Shortly before 3 P.M. on Thursday the
30th, a fire broke out in the tug's engine room, while the tug and
tow were approximately two miles off Manomet Point in Cape Cod Bay.
Efforts by the crew to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and
the blaze quickly raged out of control. Luckily the captain was
able to get out a distress call before the tug's crew was forced to
abandon ship into the tug's life raft. Two helicopters from Coast
Guard Air Station Cape Cod rescued the six men from the raft and the
two crewmen on the barge. Fortunately no one was seriously injured
in the incident.
Fire fighting efforts by the Coast Guard were hampered by forty
knot winds and heavy seas. The Coast Guard Cutter Hornbeam and two
commercial tugs stood by the burning tug and her barge throughout
the night. By the early morning three more Coast Guard vessels had
arrived on the scene. The weather had abated enough by this time to
allow fire fighting efforts to continue. And the blaze was
extinguished by seven A.M.
Shortly thereafter the Hornbeam took the stricken tug in tow.
The commercial tug Chicopee placed her towing bridles on the
Baleen's barge and the procession began to make its was slowly
towards Boston. The Baleen was still connected to her barge by
2,000' of 2 1/4"; tow wire.
For some unknown reason the Coast Guard decided to tow the
Baleen stern first. The stern of the tug was riding much lower in
the water due to the large amount of fire fighting water in the
bilge. The tow proceeded very slowly and by early the following
morning, November 1, the Baleen was noticed to be riding much lower
in the water than previously observed. At around six A.M., almost
within sight of Boston, the Baleen plunged to the bottom, still
connected to her barge and the cutter Hornbeam. The wire parted
almost immediately, and the Hornbeam cut her own hawser free shortly
According to the chief engineer on the Chicopee the Baleen
would never have sunk if she was towed bow first. Reinaur
Transportation and Boston Fuel decided not to salvage the tug. The
costs of doing so would far out weigh her actual value.
The Baleen lay virtually forgotten on the bottom until 1989
when Grey Eagle Charters began searching for the wreck. After
countless hours of research and days spent looking, the Baleen was
finally located on September 17, 1994. The first divers to dive the
wreck were David and Patricia Morton, Brian Skerry, and the author.
The Baleen is a unique and exciting dive. She rests completely
intact and upright, with a list to starboard, in 170 fsw. The top of
her wheel house and smokestack rise 30' off the bottom. The upper
part of the superstructure shows evidence of the extreme heat of the
fire; many plates are buckled and the interior of the wheel house
was gutted. The wreck is loaded with artifacts, including numerous
portholes and cage lamps. The first two divers on the wreck, Dave
and Patricia Morton, recovered the tug's large bronze fog horn and
peep whistle. A lot of the ship's fittings are lying around on the
deck of the tug and a large telegraph is standing on the after end
of the boat deck.
It is possible to penetrate the wreck in many locations. On
the main deck level the galley, crew's quarters, and upper engine
room can easily be accessed via the doors on the sides of the deck
house. On the boat deck the captain's cabin can be entered through a
hole in the after bulkhead of the wheel house. The wheel house can
be entered from the doorways on either side; the teak doors were
consumed by the fire.
Visibility averages 20-30' and little or no current is ever
present. The water temperatures are usually in the high 30's or low
40's on the bottom; surface temps vary from the mid 50's to high
60's in the late summer. The Baleen is one of those"
;cant-get-enough-of" dives that wreck divers will be enjoying for
along time to come.
The following is the
text from email received from one of the Baleen's crew.
"I came across your information about the Baleen on line, and was
immediately taken back to that day in October when she caught fire. I
was the deckhand on duty when the fire broke out, and sounded the alarm.
To say the least, it was quite a day. The fire broke out when the turbo
charger on her engine let go, and caught fire to all of the usual crap
stored in the upper engine room. Paint, lines, laundry, were just a few
of the things that caught fire. We fought the fire for about twenty
minutes, but finally had to abandon ship. Quite an experience for a
nineteen year old deckhand. First the life raft, where some kind
employee of the Switlik parachute company ( the ones who sold the life
raft ) had packed among other things in the provision bag, a copy of
Moby Dick, and then the Coast Guard Helicopter extraction in a swaying
basket and ride to Otis Air Force base on Cape Cod. What a day!!! Thanks
for the memories, Tom Blom
into any shipwreck should only be done by those with proper
training, experience and
wreck diving equipment.
Scuba equipment like powerful
as well as redundant air supply like a
doubles are standard gear for wreck