How A Greenpoint Family Became The Tugboat Kings of New York Harbor

McAllister Towing is one of the oldest and largest tugboat and marine transportation companies in the United States and it has deep Greenpoint roots. James McAllister, a native of Cushendall in the North of Ireland, started the company back before the Civil War in 1864 in the Lower East Side. McAllister was starting a tugboat business at just the right time. After the Civil War, New York harbor would boom with business and there was a huge demand not only for tugs, but also for lighters—vessels that could carry industrial goods and raw materials. Locally, the oil business was making Greenpoint the largest place for oil refinery in the country and these oil refiners needed a firm to haul their wares.

McAllister met John D. Rockefeller, the king of oil refining and the President of America’s largest firm, Standard Oil, who contracted McAllister to haul crude oil from New Jersey to Newtown Creek. Before long, McAllister had settled in Greenpoint. His brothers Daniel and William soon joined him and soon they had brought over many of their friends and family from Cushendall and today many of the oldest Greenpoint Irish-American families have roots from Cushendall. James began with a single-sail lighter (a vessel that moves cargo between pier and ship) and named his firm the Greenpoint Lighterage Company.
Expanding into towing, McAllister’s first tug boat began operating locally in 1876 while the Brooklyn Bridge was being built. James had four sons and six daughters in his first marriage and all the sons entered the family business, along with many of their cousins and other relatives. Father and sons formed McAllister Brothers and moved to new offices at South Street along Manhattan’s East River waterfront, but the heart of the business was still very much on the Greenpoint waterfront. In 1909 they acquired the fleet of excursion steamboats with regular runs to Coney Island, the Statue of Liberty and Bear Mountain. They employed a local tough guy as bouncer on these excursions, The King of Greenpoint, Peter J. McGuinness of McGuinness Boulevard fame. James died a rich man in 1916 leaving a fleet of more than a hundred different kinds of crafts.

1916, the year of James’ death was also a critical year for Ireland, which proclaimed its independence from Britain and New York played a key role in its fight for freedom. Some locals claim that McAllister ships and employees helped the Irish by hiding wanted men on ships anchored in the harbor and secreting guns and money out of the port of New York on its way to Ireland. In 1922 New York’s mayor Jimmy Walker called James McAllister Jr. to see if he could pick up Ireland’s President Eamon de Valera who had just landed in Hoboken to raise funds in Manhattan for the Irish cause. The captain sent his son Anthony, then 22, to New Jersey to bring de Valera over to New York. More than 30 years later when Anthony and his wife were visiting Dublin and passed by Parliament House, the residence of the Irish leader, they asked the guard to extend their compliments to the prime minister. To their astonishment, de Valera asked the McAllisters to come back later for a visit. Perhaps de Valera knew that the McAllisters had done more than ferrying him over to Manhattan, but the Irish leader graciously received the McAllisters all the same.

The family firm continued in the business. It was hit hard by the Great Depression and barely survived; the firm was reduced to a single tug. In 1935 James Jr. died at 66, broken by the sorrow of seeing the once mighty McAllister fleet so greatly reduced. However, the firm began to revitalize during World War II. McAllister won contracts to haul explosives in the harbor. The family built the company back up in the 40’s and 50’s, eventually operating fifty tugs in six ports. Today McAllister Towing and Transportation Co., Inc. is one of the nation’s largest marine transport companies, working in ports all over the East Coast and Puerto Rico, and it is still a family run business. The McAllisters became a prominent Greenpoint family and the descendants of the friends and relatives they brought still live locally today.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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