Historic Sunderland tug lives on 5,000 miles away in San Fransisco

MUSEUM EXHIBIT: The Eppie pictured in San Francisco.
MUSEUM EXHIBIT: The Eppie pictured in San Francisco.
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TODAY we travel across the Atlantic to take a trip back in Wearside’s history.

A PIECE of Wearside history has sailed into the centre of a museum revamp – more 5,000 miles around the world.

ALL ABOARD: The Eppleton Hall - now a floating exhibit in San Francisco.

ALL ABOARD: The Eppleton Hall - now a floating exhibit in San Francisco.

Hyde Street Pier – built as a ferry terminal before the Golden Gate Bridge opened – has just been “reborn” as part of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

A square-rigged sailing ship from 1886, a three-masted 1895 schooner and a 1890 side-wheel ferry are among the park exhibits attracting visitors from around the world.

But it was a modest and slightly rusty 1914 tug boat which drew the eye of Wearside holiday-maker Graham Pratt during his recent trip – as it hailed from Sunderland too.

“The pier has only recently become part of the park,” he said. “I’d never ventured along it before, although I’d admired the vessels from the harbour close to it.

Eppleton Hall Tug October 1964 old ref  number 32 - 3764

Eppleton Hall Tug October 1964 old ref number 32 - 3764

“When I eventually paid a visit, I was rather taken aback to discover it is the resting place of another Sunderland exile - a paddle tug called Eppleton Hall.”

Commissioned by the owners of Lambton and Hetton Collieries, the tug was built by Hepple and Co of South Shields and spent most of her days working on the River Wear.

Affectionately known as the “Eppie,” the spirited little workhorse was last of a once ubiquitous fleet of paddle tugs first seen on the Wear during the 1820s.

“They were propelled by side-lever steam engines and originally wooden-hulled. Construction materials later progressed from iron to steel,” said Echo shipping writer Neil Mearns.

ALL AT SEA: The Eppie undergoing sea trials in 1914.

ALL AT SEA: The Eppie undergoing sea trials in 1914.

“Even the introduction of screw tugs towards the end of the 19th century would fail to completely oust the paddler for many years to come.”

The Eppie, with her ‘Grasshopper’ engines, was specifically designed to tow ocean-going coal-carrying ships to and from riverside coal staithes at speeds of up to 12 knots.

Following the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947, however, the ageing veseel was sold to France Fenwick - then the dominant North East tug-owning company.

“Operating 26 vessels on the Tyne and Wear, the firm had swallowed up many competitors and become the sole ship-handling operator at Sunderland by this time,” said Neil.

TOURIST ATTRACTION: The Eppie on show in America.

TOURIST ATTRACTION: The Eppie on show in America.

A revamp saw Eppie - named after the Lambton family’s ancestral home - modified to obtain a Passenger Certificate, allowing her to transport officials from newly-launched steamers.

But, following the introduction of diesel tugs in 1955, the old paddle vessels started to become surplus to requirements.

“The Corsair and Lumley were scrapped by JJ King of Gateshead that year, with Wexford being dismantled in 1956 by Sunderland shipbreakers, Thomas Young and Sons,” said Neil.

The iron-hulled President also ended her days at Young’s in 1959, but the remaining tugs Roker, Houghton and the Eppie survived until the 1960s. “Roker, built for Sunderland Towage Company in 1905, was sold to Forth tug owners in 1962, but was scrapped four years later,” said Neil.

“Houghton, another former Lambton collieries vessel, was broken up by Clayton and Davie at Dunston in 1964, while the Eppleton was sold to Seaham Harbour Dock Company that same year.”

Sadly, Eppie’s sojourn at Seaham inevitably ended with a one-way voyage to the breakers’ yard in 1967. After being sold for scrap, it was left sitting on a mud bank in Dunston.

News of the fate of little Eppie reached a director of San Francisco Maritime Museum two years later, who volunteered to acquire the now-derelict vessel and restore her.

“Restoration work was carried out at Bill Quay in Sunderland from 1969-1970, when the tug was modified to enable her to cross the Atlantic under her own steam,” said Graham.

“She then sailed all the way to America through the Panama Canal, up the Pacific coast and under the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco - where she has remained since 1970.

“By my calculations, it’s about a 7,000-mile journey by sea. Quite a feat for a wee vessel. She really can be called a star attraction.” The Eppleton Hall is today one of only two surviving British-built paddle tugs – the other being the former Tees Conservancy Commissioners’ vessel, John H Amos. “She is one lucky lady to be able to live her retirement in San Francisco Bay! It is great to see part of our heritage so far away,” added Graham.

The Stag

WEARSIDERS were left in mourning after a tug capsized while towing a ship from the Tyne on February 11, 1950.

Gale-force winds and driving rain battered the City of Manchester as she was towed back to Sunderland by seven tugs after being fitted out in Newcastle.

Just six of the tugs would return home. The seventh, the Stag, sank in the storm.

Thomas Timms, skipper of the Fulwell tug, told reporters: “There was a terrific gust of wind and the Manchester suddenly bore down broadside, towering over us. We just got out of the way when suddenly the wind caught the Stag and she turned right over. She went over on her side first, then her funnel went over. Then she turned swiftly on her keel and she went straight down in two minutes.’’

The Fulwell and other tugs closed in and tried to pick up survivors.”

Two of the Stag sailors were rescued as they drifted past the Fulwell - Captain Ernest Baister, of James William Street, and fireman George Brown, of Perth Road.

Those who perished included mate William Brown, of Harold Street, deckhand William Noble, of Havelock Street and engineman Alex Mollinson, of George Street East.

The youngest victim of the tragedy was deckhand Ronald Wigham, of Waterworks Road, who was just 17.

Captain Baister later told the Echo: “I am thankful to the Lord that the Fulwell was handy to pick me up. There was nothing we could do.”

l A memorial service was held aboard the Eppleton Hall at the site of the tragedy exactly one year later.