His Personal Walden

The siren song of the sea has been the inspiration for countless odes. While many are romanced by the cathedral chant of underwater diving or by the salty sailor's shanty, it takes a particular breed to catch the singular tune carried by the workhorse of the water: the tugboat.

Wade Streeter heard it a long time ago. He is a tugboat captain, and partner in Ferriss Marine Contracting located in the Del Ray neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. He fusses over his tugs, the Magnetic and the Norma B., like a proud father, annually painting them Ferriss' signature colors of red, green and taupe and photographing them incessantly. He's one of those guys you just immediately know loves his job.

Streeter caught the tug bug when he was just 15 and living in Bay City. An interest in antique cars led to a fascination with the Titanic. Then he found sheet music to the classic Great Lakes dirge, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." He started hanging around his local docks, where a kindly tugboat engineer took him under his wing and patiently answered his endless questions. As he puts it, "The rest was history."

Now 36 and a Southwest Detroit resident, Streeter has turned his juvenile fascination with maritime history into a career that, while less than glamorous, is also his passion.

His company owns six barges in addition to the two tugs. Located on 3 acres with about 800 feet of River Rouge frontage, Ferriss occupies a corner of Detroit that few are familiar with.

The thing that really struck me about De Ray after spending some time down in the Ferriss yard (besides the infamous smell) is that, to my 21st century eyes, the neighborhood operates much the way it must have in the early 20th century when my grandfather clocked time there in a dredging yard. It is harsh and industrial and dirty and productive. It is not pretty or fresh or friendly or smiling. It is too busy for any of that.

The yard is located right across the Rouge from Zug Island, along the natural branch of the river's Y-fork that created manmade Zug. There's only one other commercial user of that leg of the river, although it remains a federally navigable waterway. (Translation: It's open to any legally registered watercraft, if you are so inclined).

So the yard is busy while the barges that the Ferriss tugs push up and down the river are loaded and unloaded and the tugs are serviced, but it is a "quiet, peaceful place, even with industry all around you," Streeter says. "It's busy in the day but at night, when that stops, it's peaceful and quiet."

The bread and butter of Ferriss' operation are its barges. They can be used as a place to stand cranes along the edge of the river — such as current work at the foot of Bates Street for the new Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority terminal. They are also used to move heavy bulk material like stone and scrap metal and fireworks. This last kind of job is why I found myself stepping gingerly over wires connecting several tons of explosives in order to jump onto the Magnetic. Her job this particular evening was to push a barge thusly loaded up the river for the Detroit International Jazz Festival fireworks.

It was weather favored only by ducks, certainly not auspicious for fireworks, but the crew hurriedly fastened down tarps and hoped for the best. After the leisurely — a tugboat's power is reserved for its work and not for speed, after all — cruise up the river past Fort Wayne and under the Ambassador Bridge, we reached Hart Plaza. The rain had delayed some of the music, meaning that we had to sit around for an extra hour before the fireworks could be set off.

I didn't have a front row seat for the show; I had an eye-of-the-storm view of them. I didn't know where to look: up, for a dazzling display of light and color; towards the barge we floated next to, to see rockets launching and artisans lighting fuses in precisely ordered maneuvers; or towards the shore, to see the fireworks' reflections dance across downtown's buildings.

I didn't have to swivel my head to hear the sounds. The pops, the bangs, the booms and the whizzes. The cheers and the applause. And then, when the display ended, the voices of the fireworks crew that made it happen expressing relief, extending each other congratulations and reveling in the crowd's raucous appreciation of their handiwork.

And then it was back to work for the Magnetic. Built in 1924 for military use, the 53-foot boat has already seen it all. She's been the behind-the-scene make-it-happen tug once or twice before, and right now her job was simple: head home with her lighter payload signifying a job completed, and sit at the dock again until called into action some other day.

This brief, five-hour peek into the life of a tugboat helped me hear that particular siren song that Streeter did, way back 21 years ago. I heard the quiet of Zug Island at night. I saw the great big city lights of downtown and a dedicated crew perform an exacting task in less-than-perfect conditions. I saw a little boat push a great big barge for hours without hearing a note of complaint.

I jumped off the Magnetic and back onto land with a whole different perspective on the city and on the Detroit River, its lifeblood. I think I saw a little bit of what drew a thoughtful young teenager to find his place in the world on, of all places, a tugboat.

When we first spoke about this article and the somewhat unusual occupation he had selected as his livelihood, Streeter referenced a Henry David Thoreau quote that he aimed to live by: "To live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach."

The Rouge River is far from Walden Pond, but to Wade P. Streeter, that matters little.

Wade Streeter and Tugboat Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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