Official shipyard portrait in the Marietta Manufacturing Company ad in the WJ of October 14, 1939. (David Smith collection)
Old Boat Column

A Modern Diesel Boat Followed The Alexander Mackenzie At MMC

While the Marietta Manufacturing Company (MMC) was completing and outfitting the big steam towboat Alexander Mackenzie (WJ October 9) at its Point Pleasant, W.Va., shipyard, the first steel for the hull of a modern diesel towboat was being formed. This boat would be the second built by MMC for the Marquette Cement Manufacturing Company of Chicago. The first was the diesel prop William Dickinson, designed by T. Rees Tarn. From the inception of the Inland River Record in 1945 the build date of the Dickinson was shown as 1933; however, issues of The Waterways Journal, the “List of Merchant Vessels” and the “Shipbuilding History” website show it to have been built in 1930.

The WJ of October 22, 1938, carried a large story on page four that detailed expansion plans by Marquette Cement. These plans included a new terminal near LaSalle, Ill., to handle incoming coal shipments, three new 195- by 35-foot hopper barges and a new towboat similar to the 700 hp. Dickinson. Both the barges, built by Dravo, and the proposed towboat were also designed by Tarn. According to the article, Marquette officials had met with Tarn in his Pittsburgh office on October 18 to finalize plans for the new boat.

The new boat was to have dimensions of 124 by 26 feet, slightly larger than the Dickinson, but have the same type engines, Atlas Imperial diesels of 350 hp. each. Whereas the William Dickinson had a single deck with a slightly elevated pilothouse above that, this new boat was to have a full cabin beneath the pilothouse containing a “very fine lounge and the officer’s rooms and a guest room,” all described as “unusually commodious.” The name of the vessel was to be Nicholas Duncan in honor of the late Marquette chairman of the board and one of the company founders who had died in 1927.

Nearly a year later, the October 14, 1939, issue of the WJ had a small piece on page nine that said the Nicholas Duncan had been completed by MMC and would be departing Point Pleasant “immediately for St. Louis.” It was expected to arrive there on or about October 17, in time to be “available for inspection by the delegates attending the Mississippi Valley Association Convention.” Following this it was to proceed to LaSalle, Ill., on the Illinois River, “where appropriate dedication ceremonies will be held.” On page eight opposite this story the full-page ad for MMC featured a prominent photo of the new boat and a brief description that also stated that it had been “constructed with Marietta’s typical high standards” and that it “is assured of a long and dependable life with minimum operating and repair costs.”

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The WJ  of October 28, 1939, carried a lengthy story of the christening and dedication ceremonies for the Nicholas Duncan. A special train had been arranged to convey some 75 members of the Marquette Chicago office staff to LaSalle for the event. Master of ceremonies was Richard Moyle, a company vice president, who described the late Nicholas Duncan as having been born in 1856, a son of Irish immigrants who entered the banking business in 1894 by organizing the LaSalle State Bank. In 1898 he was one of the founders of Marquette Cement, along with R.C. and William Dickinson. Helen Duncan Haskins, granddaughter of Mr. Duncan, served as sponsor of the vessel by breaking the traditional bottle of champagne on the bow.

Mr. Walter A. Wecker, president of Marquette Cement, officially turned command of the new boat over to Capt. John Luchow, who had previously been in charge of the William Dickinson. Many guests had made parts of the delivery trip from Point Pleasant, including designer Tarn. Mr. Wecker, along with his wife and son, had been aboard from Louisville to Brookport, Ill., and Donald T. Wright, owner and publisher of The Waterways Journal, had been aboard from St. Louis to Peoria, Ill. Lachlan Macleay, president of the Mississippi Valley Association, had joined the boat at Peoria for the last leg of the trip to LaSalle.

Photos of the Duncan under construction at MMC show a hull that somewhat resembles a barge. A scow-type bow rake did include a center skeg, and the stern was long, culminating in a similar rake. There were but two small flanking rudders located inboard of the twin propeller shafts. The big Atlas engines were direct-reversing, of 400 hp. each and with a control stand located in the lower engineroom. The pilothouse and upper lounge look to have had fine wood paneling, and rather than the painted wooden cabinets found in most towboat galleys, the Duncan had metal cabinetry.

The superstructure had a pleasing curvature to the front of the pilothouse and cabins, and there was a single smokestack. Four towknees were arranged across the bow, and two capstans were located on the head deck for barge handling and facing up. The boat was to be based out of the Marquette Cement facilities at Cape Girardeau, Mo., towing to and from that area. It continued in service to Marquette until 1964, when it was sold to Missouri-Illinois Barge Line Company of Cape Girardeau.

At some point in the mid-1960s, the boat was repowered with a pair of Cat D398 diesels totaling 1,530 hp. In 1970, it suffered a serious fire, and there must have been some question as to whether or not it would be rebuilt, since it did not appear in the 1970 edition of the IRR. The October 2, 1971, WJ reported in the St. Louis News column that the rebuilt Nicholas Duncan had been placed back in service. It had been extensively rebuilt by Missouri Dry Dock & Repair, and now was a single-deck retractable boat for Illinois River service. Capt. Mike Rushing of Missouri-Illinois Barge Line was quoted in the story.

The Nicholas Duncan at Ohio River Mile 809 on August 17, 1974, following a 1971 rebuild. (Jeff Yates photo)
The Nicholas Duncan at Ohio River Mile 809 on August 17, 1974, following a 1971 rebuild. (Jeff Yates photo)

In April 1973, the Nicholas Duncan was transferred to Western Rivers Towing Corporation, Cape Girardeau. In 1976 it was sold to Will-Grundy Leasing & Towing Inc., Channahon, Ill., operated by Marseilles Marine & Fleeting Inc., Ottawa, Ill. In November 1988, it was sold to Delmar Marine Inc., Pekin, Ill. The boat last appears in the 1994 edition of the IRR, in the Off The Record section. It states that it had been converted to a shop barge by the owners.

The Nicholas Duncan operated some 54 years, adding some credence to the claim that MMC made in 1939 that it would be “assured of a long and dependable life.” It went through this period without ever having a change of name. Capt. Dave Dewey had a pet name for the boat that those who know him will have to ask him about.

Caption for top photo: Official shipyard portrait in the Marietta Manufacturing Company ad in the WJ of October 14, 1939. (David Smith collection)

Capt. David Smith can be contacted at