Until They Bring the PHS Tugboats Back

history quarantine

The U.S. Public Health Service quarantine tugboats or "boarding tugs" were well-known to travelers crossing into American waters during the 1930's through the 1970's. Incoming ships would report to the PHS tugboats any illness or sick passengers aboard. If there were any, a PHS physician officer would board the ship to assess the passenger and safely transport him or her to medical care. This was all in attempt to prevent unknown diseases abroad from entering the U.S. Here is a brief 13 min video on USPHS medical officers inspecting incoming ships and crew members:

The Public Health Service tugboats are relics of the past. True symbols of a prevalent and public-facing health Service. Each tug bears the name of a PHS officer or scientist further promulgating the existence of the Service.

USPHS Walter Wyman

US Public Health Service tug

The USPHS Walter Wyman was a boarding tug constructed by Spedden Shipbuilding in Baltimore, MD in 1932. This vessel carried PHS service members to conduct the aforementioned health inspections to and from ships arriving in the U.S. It was commissioned from 1932 to 1957 and then transferred to the National Geodetic Survey.

Walter Wyman was the third Surgeon General and well known for his admirable handling of the San Francisco Plague from 1900-1904. In short, he was able to muster an effective handling of an outbreak that spread over years and was being downplayed for political reasons. I guess history repeats itself.

us public health service

USPHS W.H. Welch

The W.H. Welch quarantine tug was built in 1934 also by Spedden Shipbuilding. Welch was a renowned physician, microbiologist, and Army veteran. He was one of the four founding fathers of Johns Hopkins Hospital and founded Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. He was definitely worthy of having his name branded on a PHS tug! The W.H. Welch tugboat was docked at the Rosebank Quarantine Station in Staten Island, NY. The station was open from 1873 through 1971.

us public health service boat

USPHS T.B. McClintic

Now if there is an award for coolest tugboat, it would be for the TB McClintic. This tugboat is actually the last known remaining quarantine tug of its kind that is STILL in operation! It has been placed on the National Register for Historic Places.

It was launched by Bath Iron Works in 1932 and operated out of Boston, MA, Norfolk, VA, and finally in Baltimore, MD where it performed some "light" ice breaking work. It was sold in the 1960's and is now privately owned.

The boat is named after Thomas B. McClintic, a VA med school grad and 12 year PHS veteran. McClintic silently earned his valor in 1911 when he was detailed to Montana to research Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and succumbed to the disease at age 38.

USPHS W.H. Hutton

The tugboat below bears the name of "W.H. Hutton." Despite my best attempts, I am unable to conjure any history on this name that is relevant to PHS.
The vessel itself was assigned to the Miami quarantine station. It was diesel-driven and was the first of its kind in the U.S. due to it being all-welded, hand-puddled, and wrought-iron.
PHS tugboat wh hutton 

Until They Bring the Tugboats Back

Would it make sense to bring back USPHS tugboats? Unless we experience frequent, new waves of novel communicable disease, probably not. I can't help but wish the U.S. Public Health Service had something like a tugboat in its public health arsenal.

The reality is that there really is no tangible resource like a tugboat within the grasp of the USPHS Commissioned Corps. Of course, this reflects the lack of funding allocated to the Corps itself. It does beg the question, if the Corps did receive adequate funding, what tangible resources would it need?

Share your thoughts below!! 


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  • PHS Proud on

    Great video Alan, thanks for sharing! I’ll add the video link to the blog!

  • Alan on

    This short film shows a quarantine launch (not a tug) in action – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fivqyaBPPc

  • PHS Proud on

    It sure does, Carissa! Thanks for the feedback and there will be more to come to pride in the US Public Health Service, for sure!

  • Carrissa Nandlal on

    Wonderful history. It is true history surely does repeat itself. Great historical research work and thanks for sharing. Keep it coming.

    Knowing history facilitates self awareness and pride in our USPHS legacy!!

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