Tug o' my heart: An Irish dynasty on the New York waterfront
Captain Jim, who was Brian’s grandfather, was always finding ways to promote the company and in 1914 offered the tug JP McAllister to Harry Houdini. The famous escape artist had himself handcuffed and sealed into a packing case and tossed into the harbor near the Battery. Miraculously, a few minutes later, he surfaced, free of the packing crate and his handcuffs.
Another story that has gone down in family lore is the visit of Eamon de Valera to New York. It began in 1922, when New York’s mayor Jimmy Walker called Captain Jim to see if he could pick up de Valera who had arrived by steamer in Hoboken to do some fund raising in Manhattan for the Irish cause. The captain sent his son Anthony, then 22, along to escort de Valera. More than 30 years later when Anthony and his wife passed by Parliament House on a visit to Dublin, he asked the guard to extend his compliments to the prime minister. To his astonishment, de Valera remembered him and asked McAllister and his wife to come around later for a visit.
During World War I, Captain Jim fitted out tugs for crossing the Atlantic during the war and was put in charge of the United States Army’s floating equipment. (During World War II, McAllister transported all the Army’s explosives through New York Harbor.) Captain Jim was described by one family member as the spark plug who kept the company expanding into new ventures. He lived to see the business triple in size and then get hit so hard by the Great Depression they were down to only one running tug. In 1935 Captain Jim died at 66. When Brian asked what caused his grandfather to die so young, his father told him he died of a broken heart.
Fortunately, all of the McAllisters had large families. Captain Jim had 10 children including three sons, Anthony J. (Brian’s father), James P. II, and Gerard, who, along with a few cousins, kept the business afloat. Although some daughters did work in the company offices from time to time, they were not given ownership. By the end of World War II, Brian’s dad and his two uncles had 35 tugs running, even though they were mostly worn out wooden steam tugs. They got through the Depression but at that time, Brian recalled, there was not enough work for everybody so only the smartest and hardest workers survived. The family built the company back up in the 40s and 50s and were operating 50 tugs in six ports. “After World War II, Moran had sealed up 70 percent of the ship business in the harbor. That was enormous,” Brian said. “McAllister had maybe 15 percent.” He said they were all highly competitive and engaged in price wars.