It’s said that the citizens of New York City reside in a place that is rich in a thousand ways. The fortunes won and lost on Wall Street, the fame and fable of the East Village, the museums, parks and activity that never ends. Of my favorite places in this city I include all of Little Italy and Chinatown. Like Frankie said, “a city that never sleeps”. But there is something about New York that seems forgotten, overlooked or ignored by many of her residents in the colder weather. Her status as a world class port. It wasn’t too long ago that the city’s maritime connection was well known to its population, since they likely arrived by ship. Nearly every immigrant family to arrive here since 1887 has had their first sight of the Statue of Liberty burned into their memory.
For nearly 400 years, ships of all kinds have moored along the banks of the Hudson and East Rivers and dropped anchor in the Upper Bay by the hundreds. Sailing ships, then steamers and yes tugs and barges from every corner of the world called here to pick up or deliver people and items from and to the farthest reaches of the planet. But the terminals and wharves that once employed our grandfathers are now either in shambles or reinvented as recycled real estate.
The port has become all but invisible except for the behemoths that pass under the Verrazano Bridge or those that lay at anchor in view of the ferries running between Staten Island and lower Manhattan. The port is “out of sight and out of mind”, it’s “somewhere in Jersey” now. The visible port activity is considered quaint as opposed to critical commerce.
Docks along the Hudson River that were once bustling centers of trade are now home to the commuter ferries or fishing haunts that sit perched on the bones of the New York Central, Erie Lackawanna, and Lehigh Railroad dockyards of Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City. Terminals that once housed coffee or soap processing plants in Edgewater are now shopping malls and walking parks with few if any of the residents realizing what transpired beneath their feet only a couple of generations ago. The Chelsea docks that were once the busiest in the city now house a recreation center and golf driving range. It’s easily acknowledged that the city is so transient that it’s residents tend to overlook its legacy as one of the greatest ports in the world.
But not everyone is oblivious to this city’s legacy. We can be thankful for the stalwart souls that pursue the quixotic endeavor of trying to save and/or showcase historic vessels and locations throughout the city. The organizations at large (to name a few) include the good people restoring and maintaining the Tug Pegasus. This classic tug was, and still is a workhorse with a worthy pedigree. Captain Pamela Hepburn brought the Pegasus to life and put her to work for many years before putting together the means to restore this classic tug to its original self. A true labor of love. The “Peg” is now a regular at “tug musters” and gatherings concerning the Hudson River Societies seeking to preserve the Port’s history and educate the community with real working vessels and the people that run them.
The retired M/T Mary Whalen serves as the nexus of the Portside Project for Ms. Carolina Salguero and her group of volunteers to help bring awareness to the Port of New York’s Brooklyn Piers and surrounding facilities. She has undertaken the task to rehabilitate the Mary Whalen as close as possible to her original working configuration with a few changes to accommodate her new mission. Her efforts to improve access and usability of the waterfront she has dubbed “the sixth borough” are a worthy endeavor that deserve support. (Ms. Salguero has earned the respect of many in the port for her unflinching multi-media documentation of the events on 9/11/01.)
The Fireboat John J. Harvey is another gem that has been fighting off the ravages of time with dedicated volunteers to keep her afloat and in our minds. A recently published memoir by her latest engineer, Jessica Dulong, offers a definitive dialog of her participation in the Harvey’s restoration and operation. The Harvey is a genuine working reminder of service vessels that have given above and beyond during their tenures in New York Harbor. I recommend this book to anyone with a desire to glean a deeper understanding of the kind of people who have lived, worked, and endured serving the port. Ms. Dulong has cited the contributions of the giants of history as well as the everyman in the Hudson River’s importance to all things New York.
The Old Mariner’s Home at Sailor’s Snug Harbor, Staten Island has transformed from its original retirement home for mariners to a world class museum that presents local lore and history in many forms that inform and applaud the Harbor that is New York. It has featured our local towing community as a long term exhibit. The Noble Maritime Collection, definitely worth a visit.
Soon the weather will be balmy and warm. The harbor will fill with recreational boaters and tour boats. Tugs and barges will continue their duties all the while dodging small craft and dressing themselves in a fresh coat of paint. The Circle Line boats will circumnavigate the island of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty is open for visitors as always. Fireworks will soon be showering the Statue and the East River will see dozens of wedding parties celebrating their big day. Taking a decidedly different tack on the tour business is the group running Hidden Harbor Tours. They take a closer look at places the Circle Line Boats might not have a desire to visit. The tours focus on smaller, less well known corners of the harbor. A look at places most guidebooks don’t include, definitely for the hardcore urban tourist .
Cruise ships will make their conspicuous yet stately passages from the North River, Bayonne and Brooklyn waterfronts to sea. The true spirit of the harbor will become a little more obvious as the summer heat moves everyone to the shoreline to catch a breeze.
In the years I’ve worked in and around the city, I’ve had the chance to witness the building and destruction of landmarks great and small. Like many, as a teenager I watched the World Trade Center rise on the skyline, and as an adult I watched it crumble. I was a deckhand when we were delivering sand and gravel for the foundations of Battery Park City.
I saw and participated in Op Sail 76, the Brooklyn Bridge Celebration of 1983, and the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday in 1987, that one easily beat all. My boat was hired to tow the fireworks for the first time that night. I had the good fortune to be able to host my family on the tug while the most impressive Grucci fireworks display I ever witnessed unfolded over our heads. I’ll never forget how you could feel it in your chest as each report from the detonations echoed though the World Trade Center complex that night. My 10 year old daughter was so frightened by the noise and paper from the exploded shells showering the boat that she hid in the pilothouse for the finale. I haven’t seen a fireworks display that could hold a candle to that show since that night.
The activity is year-round and everywhere. The vessels calling here are the most sophisticated transport systems afloat and carry an enormous amount of goods. The tugs moving oil and building materials still do it the New York way, quietly and efficiently, with skill and flair. I’ve listed only a few of the fine organizations that serve this port by keeping its legacy alive. Just thought I’d mention it…..in case you forgot.