The earliest tugs were modified sailing vessels that were made heavy duty to handle the weights they would pull. Their principal duty was to retrieve vessels that were inoperable, usually from damage at sea or to move a ship about in port so that when they were in clear water, they could sail under their own wind power. Obviously, the fact that wind was their source of power limited the time that they could be used, but it was just a fact of life back then.
Things changed in the early nineteenth century with the development of the first tugboat operated by steam engine. Fueled by coal it was big improvement, but it was quickly realized that their principal use was to tow a vessel. As the ports became busier and the often narrow canals were used to connect other much larger bodies of water, towing carried with it issues related to control of the towed craft and lack of ability to work in tight spaces like docks where multiple ships were moored. The answer was to devise a modified vessel of added equipment to square off the bow so that a pushed vessel could be controlled. Some new tugboats were built with a much broader and semi-blunt bow, yet they still couldn't make the connection to the squared off barges without sway. Men like the characters in my most recent novel and those who were experts in dock operation came up with a temporary solution to solve the problem. Take a tug with a broader bow and affix a heavy, thick and strong length of flat steel plating or heavy wood to the bow with attachments anchored to both the port and starboard sides for stability. This would allow the tug to line up cleanly with the barge and, when linked in place with proper pads to eliminate any damage on contact, to safely push large volumes of supplies. It also had another advantage. When it was necessary to use the tug to tow, the still intact sweep of the bow allowed it to cut through the water cleanly instead of acting like a battering ram squaring off with the force of the waves which would over time be very damaging.
From the time of the Civil War until the beginning of the internal combustion engine, these utility tugs served the people of places like the Chesapeake, Hampton Roads and yes, the Albemarle region of North Carolina. With the opening of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal in 1859, the more difficult journey to and from Norfolk and the Albemarle was improved. No longer would tugs and their cargo barges be at the mercy of the poorly maintained Dismal Swamp Canal. Instead they could take the new and wider, deeper route from the Elizabeth River to the Currituck Sound. And in modern times, with the Dismal Swamp Canal having been repaired and made more operationally sound, even that route is possible when needed.
Today, of course, tugs are much refined with large oceangoing vessels that can weather any storm and strange looking push boats that look like floating boxes capable of pushing monstrous volumes of goods around the docks effectively. But even so, those ingenuous and hard working tugboat operators of the past opened the door for things today. We might take them for granted today, but without the ability to use water transportation where it makes sense, the cost and schedules of shipping on increasingly crowded rail lines and highways would make things so much more difficult. Glory be to the workhorse of the waterfront, the tugboats and those who work them so effectively to make life better for all of us. They are something we all need to appreciate.