Castle Roland

Tugboat Captain

by Charles Bird


Chapter 6

Published: 26 Nov 15


A Story of the Life and Times of Jason Crowley
Copyright © 2014 by Charles W Bird

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The story is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced by any means.


There were a few glitches and Bay Steel missed their projected completion date by one day. Even at that, The Captain Jason Crowley was delivered 44 days early!

The monstrous tugboat had drawn a crowd at turnover, when Jason blew the steam horn, the whole bay knew it! He slowly backed the 'JASON away from the builder's pier and headed for the fueling dock to top off the bunkers before heading home.

As they turned from the coal chutes, Jason had Leslie Owens, his new First Mate, start up both fire pumps and aim the nozzles aft as the tug made its way across the bay in a shower of water sprayed out behind them. The sun was making rainbows in the water spray, the 'JASON looked like a peacock strutting across San Francisco Bay!

They spent a week tied up to the Crowley Brothers Pier, checking out all the equipment and familiarizing themselves with the new ship. Paul was delighted to be named "cook", he really preferred the galley to the engine room.

Their first tow was to Acapulco again, Jason would have gladly let that contract go, but the mining company was insistent that Jason and the 'JASON do the job. The tow was divided up on five heavily laden freight barges, Jason had outfitted the 'JASON with steel tow cables, the first of their kind on the West Coast.

The barges had been accumulated at Freight Forwarders' and the semaphore announced the tow was ready. Despite his dislike of towing in those waters, he was anxious to put the 'JASON through its paces.

With their water tanks topped off and fuel bunkers at 100%, they made up the tow and adjusted the cable with the towing winch. He gave several blasts on the steam horn, announcing their departure. The huge tug strained against the tow cable as the new engine came up to speed.

A new Engine Order System had been installed, he could now order engine commands by a telegraph dial as well as the whistle tube, he ordered "Ahead One Half" as they crossed the bay, heading for the Gate.

The new engine was running quiet, no longer did they have to scream above the clatter of a compound steam engine!

He eased them across the bar that lay just outside the Gate and then increased engine power to "Ahead Two-Thirds". As they passed the Farallon Islands, he began a wide, sweeping turn south, just outside the turbulent Humboldt Current.

The weather remained stable until they reached San Diego, then the barometer glass began to fall and a quartering wind came up. Concerned that a hurricane might be brewing, Jason called the deck helper up to assist the helmsman on the wheel.

He called down to the Engine Room to ask Carl if he should turn into San Diego and refuel, but Carl told him that the bunkers were more than three quarters full.

The seas became progressively worse and Paul was hard pressed to produce a hot meal, but his new galley was a vast improvement over anything else he had ever served on, the crew cheered his efforts! His buns and biscuits disappeared as if by magic!

For the next six days the 'JASON slugged its way south along the coast of Baja California. As they rounded Cabo San Lucas and entered the protected waters of the Gulf of California, the wind died down and they steamed into Acapulco Harbor a day ahead of schedule. The local fishermen stared at the new tugboat, they had never seen such a huge tugboat before. Before they had delivered their cargo, the locals had begun calling the 'JASON, El Monstro!

The mining company had four barges loaded with copper ingots to be shipped back to Los Angeles. After refueling and topping off the water tanks, they made up the return tow and departed two days later. The weather heading north remained fair and they made good time into Los Angeles.

There, also, the 'JASON caused a stir, she was so huge, there was only one pier in the entire harbor that had deep enough water for her to tie up. Even at that, her screw left a trail of muddy water all the way across the harbor!

They were tied up at the Southern Pacific Railway Marine Terminal while a tow of locomotives and tenders were made up. The Marine Superintendent asked Jason for a tour of the 'JASON. The man left, clearly envious.


March 15, 1906 was a celebration for the Crowley Brothers; Annabelle Matilda Crowley was born to Willie and Annabelle.

Her Uncle Jason fell in love with her at first sight; he could hardly stand to even let her mother feed her! She was a beautiful child, blond hair and green eyes; she soon had all those around her as slaves. It was a love affair that would last both their lifetimes!

Willie took some time off, letting Albert Fowler, his First Mate, command the 'ORRIN while he made friends with his new daughter. She was a happy child and delighted all those around her.

By April 2nd, Willie had reassumed command of his tugboat and the 'ORRIN headed North with freight for Vancouver and Jason, commanding his namesake, the 'JASON, had left a day earlier, headed for Portland.

The 'JASON was tied up at the Factor's Pier in Astoria on the morning of April 8th, The Factor, Peter Van Wellen came running down the pier screaming frantically.


Jason began leaning on the 'JASON'S steam horn, frantically recalling his crew!

Carl and his engine room crew were shoveling coal into the boiler furnace as fast as the firebox would accept it, the moment they had enough steam, the 'JASON raced from the pier, her steam throttle open to "AHEAD EMERGENCY"!

Jason's hands were shaking, he had visions of death and destruction, he prayed his sister in law and baby niece were alright! The 'JASON ran at full speed down the coast, crashing and tossing in the heavy seas.

They made the passage in four days of pounding and tossing in the heavy seas.

The 'JASON entered San Francisco Bay at full throttle; never even slowing down as they crossed the treacherous sandbar at the entrance to the Gate!

The pall of smoke lay over the bay, thick as fog, Jason raced to the Crowley Brothers Pier, only to find it demolished! He could see only wreckage and destruction ashore.

He dropped the anchor and had the rowboat put in the water, as soon as he was close enough to the shore, he jumped from the boat and ran to their cottages. He found Annabelle and the baby in a makeshift lean-to, Georgie and Matilda were with her.

He broke down, they could hardly understand him through his tears, "I,IIII, I was so worried, scared that you had been hurt!" he crooned to the baby as he held her to his chest.

As soon as he was sure his Family, and he included both Georgie and Matilda in that, were safe, he sailed the 'JASON back across the bay to offer whatever assistance he could provide the stricken city. Most of the waterfront was either in flames or the piers had tumbled into the bay.

The City Fire Officials asked that he connect to the city fire mains to provide water to fight the raging fires. Both fire pumps were connected to the city fire mains and their steam valves were open fully. Willie arrived in the 'ORRIN and after he had checked on his Family, he joined Jason in supplying fire main pressure. It was salty bay water, but it was better than no water at all!

The galleys on both tugs ran around the clock trying to feed those fighting the fires as well as their own crews who were fighting to keep the fire mains charged with water.

The 'JASON and the 'ORRIN were the only tugs with sufficient pump capacity to assist the fire fighters, the 'BELLE pulled a coal barge to keep the two huge tugboats fueled. The only remaining fuel supply was the Navy Fueling Depot at Mare Island.

It was nearly three weeks before the worst of the fires were out.

The little CALLIOPE and the 'DEAL were put in service to shuttle relief crews and food to the two tugs and to carry the injured over to Oakland, where there was a hospital still usable and could accept the injured.

When the fires were finally extinguished many weeks later, the two tugs returned to their destroyed pier and anchored alongside the ruins. The fueling pier was destroyed but the government allowed them to receive coal from the Naval supplies at Mare Island, both the 'JASON and the 'ORRIN pulled tows round trip from Los Angeles with relief supplies and food for the stricken area.

It was not until September that they were able to repair their pier and properly tie up their ships!


With so much damage throughout the area, business was practically at a standstill. What little there was, tugboat operators scrambled for tows, cutting rates and making any promise to get the business.

None could compete with the 'JASON or the 'ORRIN, but business dried up for the CALLIOPE and the 'BELLE. The brothers refused to engage in cut-throat business practices and "fire sale" freight rates, so they tied up their two idle tugs.

They continued to pay their crews and used them as relief crews on the 'JASON and the 'ORRIN. There were several attempts at sabotage on both, until they stationed relief crews on each tug and armed them with shotguns!

The weeks turned into months and tugboat operators were becoming desperate, several offered to sell out to the Crowley brothers. They bought up a number of the better tugboats, usually hiring their crews to run them.

By the beginning of 1907, the Crowley Brothers Fleet consisted of seventeen tugboats, the largest fleet on the West Coast! Most were smaller, harbor tugs, but the brothers had a dream of a fleet of ocean tugs, so they contracted with Henry Rule to design a tug that could operate in shallow harbors, but still be large enough for an ocean tow.

Bay Steel would have promised almost anything to get the building contract, but Jason and Willie refused to talk "cut rate", the first time the management of Bay Steel suggested such a deal, the Brothers walked out of the meeting!

Bay Steel rapidly amended their ways and was, eventually, awarded the contract to build four ocean tugs, even larger than "El Monstro, the JASON!"

They dispatched Arne to Los Angeles to be Resident Manager and Peter Van Wellan became Resident Manager in the Portland/Astoria area. Two of the new tugs were home ported in each harbor, along with several of the harbor tugs.

Each Resident was given the authority to manage his area as a separate business.

It was so successful, by the time Little Annabelle was walking, they had ordered four more new tugs from Bay Steel and decided to station one in Honolulu, two in Seattle and one in San Diego!


Jason had just delivered a six barge load of machinery to Wenatchee Forest Products in Seattle when Brent Davis, the Seattle Resident rushed up with a telegram from Annabelle, "GEORGIE VERY ILL, COME AT ONCE!"

Jason told the Resident to have another tug make the return freight run, he was departing empty immediately.

Carl already had steam up and the crew was aboard, so they dropped the mooring line and headed downriver. As soon as they crossed the Columbia River Bar, Jason ordered "Ahead Full" and the 'JASON raced south, braving heavy seas to respond to Annabelle's message.

The same message had also been sent to Willie, who was scheduled to arrive in San Diego later that day. The 'JASON fought heavy seas the entire trip; arriving at the Golden Gate late in the afternoon of the third day.

Almost without slowing down, Jason raced his ship across San Francisco Bay, and leaving Albert in charge as soon as the first line had been made up to their pier!

The 'ORRIN was tied up, also, so he knew Willie had already arrived, as he entered the house, Annabelle was sitting on the couch with Willie comforting her.

He knew instantly that he was too late. Georgie had a massive heart attack the night before and had not survived. Matilda sat on a chair, looking very frail; Jason had a horrible feeling that she was next.

They had the funeral the next day, the crews of all the Crowley Tugs in port attended and business leaders from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area came to pay their respects.

The day after the funeral, Jason, Willie and Annabelle sat down to decide what they were going to do. They felt that Willie or Jason was going to be needed ashore to guide the company, Willie flatly refused, he said, "I have no business sense, it must be you, Jason."

It was an unhappy Jason who turned his beloved 'JASON over to Arne Halbertson as he tried to convince himself that he was now Captain of a desk!

He stood at the window as he watched HIS SHIP depart and he wasn't in command, there were tears at his eyes as he remembered a young boy, just learning to be a deckhand, now he "commanded" the largest tugboat fleet on the west coast!

There were rumors of war about to break out in Europe, the shipping business picked up and the demand for tug service was running them ragged, even the ancient CALLIOPE was pressed back into service.

They had Henry Rule, now in his 80's, brush off his plans and reissue them for the construction of six more seagoing tugs! The contract was again let to Bay Steel and the keels were laid six weeks later.

Jason decided to build their own fueling pier and contract for coal directly. That way, they could assure themselves they had fuel to operate, regardless of area demand.

He also was interested in some new technology the Navy had developed, burning liquid oil in the boilers rather than coal. After observing an oil burning installation at Mare Island, Jason had the plans changed for the six new tugs to burn oil as a fuel.

As the new tugs came off the ways, they were put into service immediately. One was sent to Honolulu, one to San Diego, one each to Seattle and Portland and two were added to the San Francisco fleet.

By summer of 1914, it was evident war would break out at any moment. In August, Germany invaded France and America became the supplier of food, and supplies for most of Europe. The Crowley Brother's Tugs were sailing non-stop. Even retired tugs that had been "laid up" were pressed back into service!

America finally entered the war, Jason was 69 years old and was commissioned as a Navy Captain and appointed Commodore of the tugboat fleet on the West Coast. He had to quickly add office staff to coordinate tugboat activities from Alaska to San Diego!

The Vice Commodore was also a Navy Captain, none other than Captain Willie Crowley!

Finally, as the war began to wind down, Jason's most fervent hope was to be able to go back to sea, but it was not to be. His doctor discovered that he had a serious heart condition.

He would never be able to command at sea again! His insides were screeching at the thought that he would never go to sea again commanding a Tugboat!

He hated his desk with a passion, but like everything else he had ever done, Jason did that well, also. As soon as the war hostilities had ceased, he modernized the Crowley Fleet, buying or building new tugs, upgrading the best of what they already had to burn oil and positioning his fleet to take advantage of the business boom he was sure would take place at the end of hostilities.

In 1924 Jason was the proud patriarch as his niece, Annabelle Crowley married Peter Van Wellen, Jr. Peter was the oldest son of their Resident Manager in Portland and the youngest Captain in the Crowley Fleet; he commanded the Ocean Tug, The William Crowley.

At the wedding, Willie was only half joking when he said, "Not only did he steal my daughter, he commands my ship!" Christmas of 1924 rolled around, Willie and Annabelle were hosting the Family Dinner that year.

As everyone gathered for dinner, Jason had not yet made an appearance. His niece, Annabelle Van Wellen volunteered to go fetch her beloved Uncle Jason.

They heard her screams from next door, Willie ran to his daughter, she had found Uncle Jason dead in his office! Jason was 76 years old and had died as he had lived, at work, guiding his beloved tugboats.

Willie assumed the helm of Crowley Brothers Tug Service only reluctantly, for the remainder of his days, he yearned for the wheel house of a tugboat!

His daughter, Annabelle Crowley Van Wellen, accompanied her husband, Peter, whenever she could. They had two children, Peter Crowley Van Wellen and William Jason Crowley Van Wellen. The boys showed every promise of being the Tug Boaters their namesakes had been.

Like their Great Uncle, Grandfather and their Father, they had tugboats in their blood! They began clamoring to be apprentices on the Crowley Tugboats almost as soon as they were old enough to apply for the Deck Hand tickets.

The Great Depression closed in upon tug boats as well as every other aspect of American life, times were hard. The smaller, older tugs were laid up. The company tried, as much as was possible, to keep their crews on a reduced payroll.

Disaster again struck the family, a yard boom fell and crushed Peter, Jr, paralyzing him from the waist down. Annabelle Crowley Van Wellen had sufficient time on her Mate's ticket, she applied and was awarded her Master's papers.

It was she who guided the 'JASON back to sea! Young Annabelle had all the skill of her Father and Uncle, and the toughness of her aging Grandmother, Matilda. She was unique, the first and ONLY woman Tug Boat Captain on San Francisco Bay!

After their first time, few tug boat sailors would cross her and most feared her! She never hesitated to lay a spanner alongside the head of those who disobeyed her commands or endangered her beloved tug boat!

Annabelle Matilda Crowley Van Wellen became a legend in her own time, those who knew her and loved her named her "TUGBOAT ANNIE"!

EPILOGUE; Annabelle Matilda Crowley Van Wellen continued to command her Uncle's great Tug Boat, El Monstro, until the early 1940's when her father William Joshua Crowley passed away at the age of 81 years. She assumed the helm of Crowley Tug Boat Service and guided the company through the terrible years of World War II. She retired gracefully in 1962 and her young sons, Peter and William brought the company into the modern age as a world wide service!


Author's note – I had the pleasure of meeting Annabelle Crowley as a young man, just starting out in the engine room of a Crowley tugboat. She personally interviewed every new employee. I left the tugboats to enter the Merchant Marine Academy. The next time I heard about her was a notification of her passing away.

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