They're short, squat and not very glamorous, seemingly mere attendants to the great ships that ply the open seas. But without them, many of those great ships would be so much floating junk, unable to maneuver into ports to unload their cargo of goods and passengers.
They are tugboats, the powerful little vessels that spend their lives pushing or pulling vastly larger ships where they need to go.
"Tugboats seem to have a universal appeal," says Jackson Pearson, assistant curator at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro and a former tugboat captain and harbor pilot. "They're like little Davids moving big Goliaths. They aren't glamorous, but they're vitally important."
Actually, maybe tugboats are glamorous--if by glamorous you mean having a television series based on your exploits. Most Americans may be too young to remember, but from 1954-57 the syndicated TV series "Waterfront" dramatized a tugboat called Cheryl Ann and its skipper, Capt. John Herrick, portrayed by Preston Foster, who chugged around Los Angeles Harbor encountering smugglers, saboteurs, escaped convicts and other waterborne bad guys.
Pearson, the real-life skipper of the tugboat that portrayed the Cheryl Ann in location scenes for the TV series, doesn't remember running into any smugglers or escaped convicts when he was a tugboat captain.
"It wasn't quite as exciting as it was on TV," Pearson says.
But Pearson does have fond memories of tugs, so he and others at the Maritime Museum have put together an exhibit of photographs and memorabilia highlighting the Wilmington Transportation Co., the longest-operating tugboat company in Los Angeles. It is one of a series of "salutes to the maritime industry" planned by the museum.
Founded by Phineas Banning, known as "the father of Los Angeles Harbor," Wilmington Transportation Co., or WTCO, has operated tugs in Los Angeles Harbor for more than a century. Banning started a harbor tug and barge business in 1877, later incorporating it under the WTCO name.
Later, the company, then run by Bannings' three sons, purchased Catalina Island and used the company tugs as both tugboats and passenger ships taking tourists to the island.
In 1919, the Santa Catalina Island Co. was bought by William Wrigley Jr., who got the tugboat company as part of the deal. WTCO remains a subsidiary of the Catalina company and still operates a fleet of six tugs in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It is the oldest of four tugboat companies in the harbor area.
The tugboat exhibit will remain on display until the end of the year. The Maritime Museum on Harbor Boulevard at 6th Street is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.