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Galesville’s Maritime Present

Captain Preston Hartge keeps Smith Bros. tugboats chugging along

Drive down Galesville Road, and everything seems unassuming and in its proper place. The old churches, the auto shop, the town hall, the post office, the country bungalows and older homes, the boats in yards: the ambiance is old-school and peaceful.
    At Woodfield Road, a small sign with an arrow points to Smith Bros. but doesn’t say what Smith Bros. does. Drive down a couple of residential blocks until you are head on with Hartge Yacht Yard, and another small Smith Bros. sign and arrow point left.
    I followed these arrows to tugboat Capt. Preston Hartge.
    Preston Hartge is the sixth generation of one of the iconic families that gave Galesville its maritime tradition.
    “There wasn’t much down here in the 1950s and ’60s,” he says, “so we all grew up in the yacht yard and sailing, racing, crabbing and fishing. We were all a bunch of water rats creating our own entertainment. Hauling blocks of ice out to customers’ boats back then was my first form of money.”
    After high school, Hartge left Galesville for four years in the Navy. Then, with his Coast Guard Uninspected Towing License for up to 500 tons, he moved to the Gulf of Mexico to run tugboats, 30 out followed by 30 days home. In his early 30s, married and thinking about starting a family, he took a job with Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Waterway Improvement Fund. He stayed at DNR for about 10 years, keeping his Coast Guard license active by working part-time driving a tug, moving Smith Bros. equipment wherever it needed to go.

    “The Smiths were long-time entrepreneurs,” Hartge says. “They were heavy into pile driving and barge rentals and all kinds of construction equipment from pile drivers, to cranes, to barges and tugs.”
    Hartge couldn’t move up DNR’s bureaucratic ladder with only a high school diploma, so in 1995, he went home to his old friends Capt. Kenneth Smith and his son Jeff Smith, of the Galesville family that founded Smith Bros. in 1918. Capt. Kenneth was still working until his death this February at 101.
    Smith Bros. was Hartge’s perfect fit.
    It was home and, he says, “Jeff Smith was looking in new directions and needed a captain to drive a tug and deliver a barge with equipment to a construction site.”
    As well as driving a tug with Smith Bros., Hartge began designing and building both barges and tugboats, smaller ones built in Galesville, large ones under contract to other builders. Twenty years later, Smith and Hartge have increased the rental fleet to about 100 barges.
    “Mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region, we rent the barges, cranes, bulldozers, whatever we have around here — including ourselves,” Hartge says with a laugh.
    “We specialize in what we call ro ro, rolling on and rolling off cargo in shallow water onto a beach. Then the barge backs off and goes away. We can load up to 400 tons of cargo and drop-load it.”
    Ninety-five percent of Smith Bros. business is rental.
    “We like it when we look out over the water and don’t see any barges,” Hartge says.
The Importance of Tugs
    With no engines, barges depend on tugboats to go places.
    “I call a tugboat an overpowered vessel that goes up to something and moves it. It can do a lot of jobs,” Hartge says.
    The job of hauling heavy equipment to and from Poplar Island as it is rebuilt with Baltimore Harbor dredge spoils has kept Smith Bros. busy for two decades. In another job at Tangier Sound and Plum Point, Smith Bros. tugs and barges finished building state fishing piers. At Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, Smith Bros. tugs and barges just delivered new steam generators.
    Most of the Smith tugboats are 26-footers, where by law a single captain can work 12 hours. For a trip over 24 hours, two captains must be on board. A trip to Washington, D.C., from Galesville is a three-day job.
    He and long-time employee Steve McLaughlin are the full-time licensed captains, with a third part-timer in Capt. Bobby Marshall from Tilghman Island.
    Every one of those trips, Hartge says, “I go on either as the captain or to make sure everything is all right.”

A Captain’s Life for Him
    At 63, Hartge says he sometimes thinks about retirement.
    “I’d love to spend six weeks in Australia,” he says, “but all I’d do would be to think about what’s going on back here.
    “When I was about five my grandfather told me, do what you love, make it your work, and you’ll make a decent living loving every day. After 20 years, if I get bored in here doing design work, I’ll go outside, kick one of the guys from behind the wheel and tell them I’ll drive the equipment or a tug for a while. That puts my head right.”
    Young men are at work throughout the eight acres of heavy construction equipment, heavy parts for tug boats and barges, pile driving rigs and poles.
    “To work here you have to be a welder, heavy construction operator or a painter. Preferably all three,” Hartge says. He proves you don’t have to be young.

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Tugboats have been around the Chesapeake for more than a century, moving big ships and freighters into port or hauling cargo from one destination to another. Until I edited Capt. Bill Eggert’s Gentlemen of the Harbor: Stories of Chesapeake Bay Tugboats and Crews, I never gave them much thought because they, like Smith Bros. in Galesville, are unassuming and simply in their proper place.