What does one of the worlds most versatile elements have to do with a blog about 1950’s diesel engines? Well, we will get to that. Aluminum as we know it, is composed chiefly out of Bauxite Ore, which is ground into a powder and mixed with Sodium Hydroxide to produce Aluminum Oxide, which is then converted by electrolysis at an Aluminum smelter into Billets or Anodes, where it can be further formed. I am not a chemist, so if you want to know more about making Aluminum, look elsewhere.
In 1907, the Aluminum Company of America was formed, later known as Alcoa. Alcoa was the country’s leading Aluminum manufacturer, which was growing at a rapid pace with a slew of plants across the country by the time WWI rolled around. Alcoa was, however, not just an American company. They were worldwide by the teens, operating mines, refinery’s and smelters around the globe. In 1916, Alcoa opened a new Bauxite Ore mine in Moengo, Suriname, part of what was Dutch Guiana– about 70 miles Southeast of the capital city of Paramaribo.
To get to Moengo: We start at the Atlantic Ocean and begin a very short trip down the Suriname River. We hang a left just inside the harbor and enter the Commewijne River. The Commewijne heads South, and the Cottica River splits off a few miles in, and continues East, before making a hard turn and dropping straight south into Moengo.
Now, most of us are familiar with the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cuyahoga, which has literally burned 13 times, including a major fire in 1952, stretches (for the navigable section) 5 winding miles up the river to what is now the ArcelorMittal Steel Mills. Great Lakes Ships traversing the river, would typically need a pair of tugs (until Bow/Stern thrusters came prevalent), one on the bow, and one on the stern to navigate the rivers bends and bridges.
Well, the Cottica River, makes the Cuyahoga look like a drag strip. And it goes for 40 some miles.
In Moengo, Alcoa subsidiary Surinaamsche Bauxite Maatschappij operated the Bauxite mine, which would ship the ore by rail a short distance to the processing plant on the Cottica, where it would be transloaded into ships. From there, ships bound for sea would need to transit the Cottica, and naturally, a single screw steam ship of the day, would need an assist tug. That’s where Tams Inc. comes into play.
Alcoa, being an American company, went to Tams Inc. Naval Architects in 1952, and had them design a pair of sister tugs for doing assist work on the Cottica to replace some antique steam tugs. Joe Hack at Tams would design a pair of 103’ tugs, which would be based off the very well received Moran shipdocking tugs of the late 1940’s.
The tugs were operated as day boats, much like traditional NY Harbor Railroad tugs, and thus did not have a need for any major accommodations outside of a small galley and some pipe berths in the bow. For better control towing in the quick turns of the river, the stern H bitt was moved way forward. The unique feature, and what was foretelling for the future of tugs in general, was that the sisters had a second set of controls on top of the wheelhouse, under a simple sunshade.
Propulsion would come from a 1640HP Cleveland 16-278A driving a Falk MB reduction gear and Falk Airflex clutches. A pair of 30kW generatros driven by Detroit 3-71s would power the auxiliaries. The tugs were built by Gulfport Shipbuilding of Port Arthur,Texas. The tugs, owned by Alcoa Steamship Co., and operated by Surinaamsche Bauxite Maatschappij would be named the “Wana” and “Tamarin”, and were delivered in late 1952/early 1953. Both tugs were based out of Moengo. Cleveland Diesel covered the tugs in the March 1953 issue of Diesel Times.
Each day, one of the tugs would run upriver and meet the ship before the river became a roller coaster ride. According the the NYT article linked below, it was around a 10-hour trip, and it was not uncommon to brush up against the trees or run aground.
1964 NY Times : SCENIC ‘JUNGLE CRUISE’ FOR CARIBBEAN TOURISTS
Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to acquire some slides of the tugs in action, likely all taken by Alcoa Steamship passengers. Unfortunately I have no idea the photographer and cannot credit them for these rare views.
Alcoa (now locally Suralco) would open up a new smelter and refinery in nearby Paranam in 1965, as well as building a massive hydro-electric dam, which would ultimately power most of the area. Unfortunately, finding information about 67-year-old tugboats in South America, can be a bit of a challenge! According to Tim Coltons Shipbuilding History page, the “Wana” was renamed the “Coermotibo” by 1968. After finding one of the local facebook pages for the town of Moengo, and translating some posts, I was able to find out the “Wana” was unfortunately tripped while towing a ship in the river and sunk, killing her 5-man crew. The tug was apparently raised and rebuilt, along with being renamed. The upper wheelhouse was rebuilt into an actual enclosed wheelhouse at this time.
The history of Moengo and nearby Paranam mirror our own Rust Belt in America. The industry pulled out, and the towns went into a slow downward spiral. Alcoa/Suralco closed the Paranam refinery in 1999, and the smelter in in 2015. Alcoa was by far the largest employer, as well as owning a good portion of the area including company housing projects. The Bauxite mine in Moengo would operate until 2015 as well, however I can’t find out if they were still shipping by ship, barge or whatnot. At one point Alcoa even sold tickets aboard their ships to visit Moengo.
A fantastic read on the fate of the town of Moengo: https://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/suriname/economy/
As well as a story on Paranam and Alcoa in Suriname:
At the end of the day, I can’t find a peep on what happened to the “Tamarin” or the “Coermotibo/Wana”. I regret not talking to Joe Hack about them. Quite a few former American tugs are working nearby in Guyana, however its unknown what became of these sister tugs. I suppose they COULD still be running around somewhere down there…
If anyone happens to know what became of them, shoot me a message!
Since writing this, it has turned into one of the most viewed pages on VDD! Be sure to scroll down to the comments below to read some read memories of former crew and families that ran these tugs.
Some additional reading:
Railways of Surinam – http://www.internationalsteam.co.uk/trains/surinam05.htm
I cant read it, but this is a great gallery of a trip down the Cottica-
9 thoughts on “Aluminum in the Jungle – American Tugs in South America”
Fabulous stuff, Paul. Maybe I should go to Surinam to do some local research?
[…] but certainly worth a look, Paul Strubeck has come into some vintage photos on a South American river assisting bauxite ore boats in the narrow waterways . . […]
As a former suralco employee who happened to be a captain on both the tow and pushboats I was very pleased with your report because for quite some time I was looking for a story through the eyes of an outsider. It is very pleasing to now have found it. I am still looking for a similar story concerning the pushboat operations which was my pride.
William, thank you very much for comment, great to see a former employee! I would love to hear any stories you might have and maybe help fill in the blanks. Do you happen to know what became of the tugs by chance?
The SURALCO operated tugs where sold and for a while the bauxite transport from Coermotibo to Paranam was done by the contractor J.P.KNIGHT. The SURALCO stopped her operations in our country about 10 to 12 years ago. The tug Wana sank in 1965 after a mechanical problem while towing a loaded vessel. 5 crewmembers drowned. The tug was salvaged an repaired. She came back in operations under the name Coermotibo.. The sinking was caused by a failing clutch to the propulsion shaft. Due to the very short towing line she was overrun after losing propulsion. As the tugs didn’t have a quick release hook there was no time to cut the towing line. After this accident both tugs were fitted with electric remote controlled quick release hooks. The absence also caused the capsizing of the Tamarin but in that case no lives where lost. The Tamarin was also salvaged, repaired and placed back in service.
Thanks for posting. I was in that trade a few years. Running Moengo-Tembladora, Trinidad. Even have a few trips Paranam – Moengo with the DISPATCHER
I was on the WANA when she was overrun by the DISPATCHER. I thank Mr. William Spalburg for his eloquent explanation of the technical mishaps that caused the terrible accident. I was 8 years old that day. My father Stanley Silos was captain of the Wana. We were in the upper wheelhouse. Everything went very, very fast! I have lost 5 good caretakers and dear friends that day. The sorrow and pain stays with me until my own departure one day.
Reading this article brings back fond memories from my time growing up in Moengo and taking vacation trips on the shutlers. My father knew every crew member on both tugs and recall when he mentioned about the incident with the Wana,was a sadd time.
Yes Andy it was a very sad day.it was the 5th of December.i worden at the time at the haven en loodswezen and taxi toonk me to the job cause we had to go to taken care. it was’nt nice to see someone you have known as a young boy.iwill never forgot his name. mister Mack Nack. Next December it will be 57 years