Fans sometimes ask about the eagles perched atop Ten Cents' and Hercules’ pilot house. Do these ornaments signify anything? Once again, Bob Cardona, David Mitton and the modelmakers drew upon American Tugboat history to add some degree of realism to TUGS.
During the transition period from the age of sail to steam ships in the mid-1800s, maritime woodcarvers experienced a decline for commissions to carve wooden figureheads that traditionally graced the bow of a sailing vessel. Modern ship construction used new designs and materials to take full advantage of using steam as a new form of motive power. The new ship designs did not leave much room on the vessels to feature these works of art.
Nevertherless, enterprising American woodcarvers quickly found other markets for their skills. The period saw a proliferation of small carving industries making wooden cigar-store Indians, carousel horses and carvings atop civic buildings. Never forgetting their roots, the carvers also turned to carving smaller figureheads to mount atop the flat pilot houses of whaling ships, paddleboats, tugboats and other steam powered vessels. Carvers initially created smaller-scaled versions of human figures and busts (some of sea-faring Indians), while speed was often represented by the figure of a trotting horse, or luck by a rooster. As the end of the 19th century approached, however, the popularity of using the eagle as an ornament on tugboats increased. Commonly known as pilot house eagles, their symbolism can be interpreted to mean many things – from sharp sight, speed and majesty, to good old American entrepreneurship and patriotism.
Note the eagle on this 1900s stereogram of the Edward J. Berwind (source: antiques auction)
Pilot house eagles were typically carved from wood, but cast-iron and bronze figures are known to exist. Pilot house eagles were typically depicted with head thrust forward and wings outstretched. The effigies varied in size, some with a wingspan as large as five feet, with most averaging three feet. Many wood carvers included intricate detail such as feathers, and the wings were usually carved separately to be later attached to the eagle’s body. The eagles sometimes were given a gild finish which made them an attractive sight and noticeable at a distance on a bright sunny day. Carvers were known to have signed their names on the bottom of their sculptures with a few notable late nineteenth century names being Joe Bowers, Samuel Robb and John Bellamy working out of the New York area.
In the 1920s, tugboats began taking advantage of on board generators and batteries to power searchlights. The logical place to mount the searchlight is on top of the pilot house, so the eagles found themselves either removed entirely or relocated behind the light as seen with Ten Cents and Hercules. By the 1930s pilot house eagles became a rare sight. Several were salvaged for display in American east coast maritime museums. A few pilot house eagles can still be seen today on Dalzell Towing Company tugs in New York, New York (see picture below)
Gilded eagles atop two Dalzell Towing Co. Tugs. Photo used by permission from Bob McLaren
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT! THE EAGLES WERE MORE THAN JUST A WHIMSICAL DESIGN CHOICE, IT'S ALSO YET ANOTHER TUGS FEATURE SHROUDED IN REAL HISTORY!
Compiled from the following sources:
- Figureheads & Ship Carvings at Mystic Seaport, Edouard A. Stackpole, Marine Historical Association (1964)
- The Kennedy Quarterly - Volume 13 (1974)
- American Figureheads and Their Carvers, Pauline A. Pinckney (1969)