One of the major tug boat companies on the East Coast is the McAllister Tug Boat firm founded in Greenpoint.
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.
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.)