Tug o' My Heart : A towing dynasty


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When Brian McAllister was coming of age in the 1950s all he cared about was playing basketball and chasing girls. However, over the years, he became the heart and soul of the business his Irish ancestors built and he fought hard to keep it from sinking out of the hands of future generations.

Today McAllister Towing and Transportation Co., Inc. is one of the nation’s largest towing companies with operations in ports all over the East Coast and Puerto Rico. Captain Brian McAllister, now 76, directs the action from his corner office at the tip of Manhattan overlooking the harbor where so much of his family’s history happened. Working with him are two sons and three nephews steering future generations along in the family trade.

The First Generation

The story began in 1864 when James McAllister left Cushendall, County Antrim, to come to New York, then the largest Irish city in the world. His brothers Daniel and William soon joined him. Along with many other Irish families, such as the Morans, they found their calling in the water traffic of New York Harbor. Indeed there were so many tug boats in New York Harbor, they were known collectively as the Irish Navy. James began with a single-sail lighter (a vessel that moves cargo between pier and ship) and called it Greenpoint Lighterage Company after the Brooklyn neighborhood where he had settled. Expanding into towing, McAllister’s first tug boat began operating in 1876 while the Brooklyn Bridge was being built.

James had four sons and six daughters in his first marriage and all the sons grew up working in the business, along with an assortment of cousins and other relatives. One day in 1899, his oldest son, James P. (known as Captain Jim) stormed out of Greenpoint Lighterage to go into business for himself around the corner from his father and uncles, but the family soon reunited to form McAllister Brothers and move to new offices at South Street along Manhattan’s East River waterfront. In 1909 they acquired the Starin fleet of excursion steamboats with regular runs to Coney Island, the Statue of Liberty and Bear Mountain. When James died in 1916 he left the towing and lighter business to his sons from his first marriage and the steamboat business to his two brothers. After James’s first wife died, he remarried and had three more children, though none of them became involved in the business.

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.