The Tyne Tug Caper

The Eppleton Hall — Scott Newhall


1971’s The Eppleton Hall: Being a True and Faithful Narrative of the Remarkable Voyage of the Last Tyne River Steam Sidewheel Paddle Tug Afloat — Newcastle-upon-Tyne to San Francisco, 1969–1970 delivers exactly what it promises in the title. However, despite the title’s remarkable lack of brevity, it neglects to mention that the Eppleton Hall’s voyage came exactly 150 years after the first paddlewheel crossed the Atlantic (a feat performed by the Savannah in 1819).

The 1970s voyage was historic, though I expect most people have never heard of it. I am familiar with this momentous event because the Eppleton Hall had two grasshopper steam engines. My grandfather, Scott Nicoll1, was the San Francisco Bay Area’s foremost expert on grasshopper engines, and just happened to sign on as Chief Engineer for the Eppleton Hall’s Atlantic crossing. While Scott is not a central figure in Newhall’s narrative (Newhall, the author of the memoir, served as captain for the adventurous voyage) he is mentioned — and, of course, he was a central figure in my family.

Because I left my copy of the book at home, I read my aunt’s copy. She has interleaved her copy with informative news clippings, which I found very helpful in preparing this review. She also had the letters my grandfather wrote about the whole affair, letters which shed some interesting light on his experiences.

Scott Newhall, flamboyant editor of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1952 to 1971, was a founder and trustee of the San Francisco Maritime Museum. He was also a close friend of Karl Kortum, then director of the museum. The two men wanted to add a paddlewheel steamer to the museum collection. As Newhall’s book makes clear, their covetous gaze fell first not upon the Tyne tug Eppleton Hall but upon its sister ship Reliant. The Reliant had one marked advantage over the Eppleton Hall: it was still seaworthy. Sadly, by the time Newhall arrived in Liverpool to arrange the purchase, the Reliant had already been claimed by the British National Maritime Museum. Despite Newhall and the museum’s best machinations — which, according to the narrative, do not seem to have been overly constrained by any concepts of legality or restraint — the Reliant remained beyond their reach.

The Eppleton Hall by this time was a burned-out hulk, slated for salvage. It was not clear that the boat could be made seaworthy at all. Even if that were possible, the project would involve a considerable amount of work and expense. But … the Museum didn’t face the same kind of competition for the Eppleton Hall that they had for the Reliant.

The tug was a pretty unpromising sight when first seen, but, as the subtitle of the book should indicate, it was not completely beyond restoration. In fairly short order the tug was restored, if not to its original condition, then at least to a state wherein it would not immediately sink as soon as it set out to sea.

That left two trifling problems: the first was that the Eppleton Hall was in Newcastle, 11,000 miles from San Francisco. Between the two cities lay the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and a fair stretch of North America’s Pacific coast. The second was that even when it was a new ship, the tug was in no way designed to make such a journey. Indeed, it was not even clear that it could carry enough fuel for the shortest possible Atlantic crossing, from Mindello in the Cape Verde Islands to Georgetown in Guyana. The margin of safety for the Atlantic crossing turned out to be 90 miles, or less than a day’s cruising. The craft had managed to run out of fuel partway across the Bay of Biscay, so it was by no mean obvious that the Eppleton Hall could make the much longer voyage.

The elderly tug made its way down the European coast, then across to the New World, taking advantage of currents to save fuel (despite which they had at several times a desperate shortage of both oil and kerosene). There was an ongoing race between the boat’s desire to fall apart in creative ways and the crew’s energetic efforts to keep their leaky home afloat and in motion long enough to reach harbour. As one can tell from the title, they succeeded — but the race was often very close.

The epic tale is told in a rather cheerful manner, despite the ever-present and very real possibility of watery doom. The author’s determination to be funny sometimes sabotages clarity. He seems to be amused by any interesting development, whether it is his own misadventures (he was the one-legged captain of the ship), near-catastrophic engine failure, the crew’s ongoing attempts at peeping-tommery, the curious behavior of the ship’s head during storms, run-ins with serious weather, and various bureaucratic snafus. Like the tug’s course, the narrative often meanders but also like the tug, it does eventually reach its destination.

Interestingly, a family member pointed out that my grandfather’s notes cast an entirely different light on the affair. Whereas Newhall is caught up in how much fun the whole enterprise was, my grandfather turns out to have been seriously concerned about the risks involved in getting the Eppleton Hall from the UK to the US. He was particularly worried by the fact that at least one of the crew was a minor, which gave the expedition a certain duty of care.

One can certainly tell when this book was written by its treatment of women and non-whites. However, it is not nearly as condescending as certain other works from the same period that I have read.

I wonder what happened to the younger members of the crew. Some must still be with us.

The current condition of the Eppleton Hall is reportedly not good, although at least it was not broken up like the Reliant.

This book must be beyond out of print but, unsurprisingly, there are several copies in my family. A quick glance at Amazon suggests that there are used copies to be had, for those with an interest in such matters, though such copies presumably lack the memorabilia my aunt so kindly supplied.

1: For reasons I cannot fathom, Newhall calls Scott a Scotsman (although he goes on to admit Scott was born in Hawaii) and “an Edwardian gentleman”. Not that Scott wasn’t polite but “Edwardian”? 

Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.