After a brief crossing aboard the Staten Island ferry John F. Kennedy, we started our tour at the St. George Ferry Terminal, which is visited by 75,000 commuters every day. This area of the island used to be a terminal for the Baltimore & Ohio and Staten Island Rapid Transit railroads, which transported freight from New Jersey across the Arthur Kill to the cargo ferries in St. George. Service along this north shore line was abandoned in 1953, but much of the track still remains (though it has been rendered unusable by neglect), and there are a few scattered remnants of the piers that once lined the Kill van Kull.
Massive container ships are a common sight in the harbor. The containerization of cargo played a large role in the decline of New York City's waterfront. Ports required far more space when they became integrated sea, rail and trucking hubs for containers, but they also required far less manpower, leading to the disappearance of jobs for stevedores and longshoremen, who had previously made up a large portion of the city's working class. Now with direct links to interstate highways and railroads, containers don't need to be unloaded until they reach their final destination. Unfortunately, due to our huge trade imbalance with China, most of the containers that arrive on our shores are eventually scrapped because they cannot be filled with enough goods headed back to East Asia to make the journey cost-effective.
After we finished our tour with lunch at R.H. Tugs, we stopped by the Sailors Snug Harbor. Originally established as a rest home for retired sailors with a bequest from Robert Richard Randall in 1833, the residence closed its doors in the 1960's. The site was then rescued by the New York City Landmarks Commission, becoming the first place in the city to earn landmark status, and in 1976, it opened to the public as a museum. We visited the Noble Maritime Collection, which displays the work of John A. Noble, an artist who depicted the waterfront in transition, when Staten Island was ringed by wooden ships scuttled in shallow waters. His work is hauntingly beautiful, and remnants of what he saw can still be seen today in the island's ship graveyards along the Arthur Kill. Perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibit is his houseboat studio – constructed from scraps of wooden ships, including a yacht owned by Kaiser Wilhelm II and a ship used to transport bodies to the city's potter's field on Hart Island, his studio barge was towed around the harbor so he could work close to his subjects. The studio has been completely reconstructed inside the museum, though the barge portion has been removed.
When the weather turns warmer, the John J. Harvey, a restored fireboat from 1931, will have cruises and picnics open to the public – they are also always looking for volunteers to help with maintenance, education and running the ship.
You don't have to go down to the water with a pair of binoculars to know what is going on in the harbor. All large vessels are equipped with an Automatic Identification System, or AIS. You can track vessels in real time and get information about their dimensions, speed, heading and destination online, and not just in New York Harbor, but anywhere in the world.
PortSide New York is a project to develop a site for waterfront events and interpretation of the city's maritime history. The project is centered around a 172-foot tanker the Mary Whalen, which is being repurposed into a floating performance and exhibition space. The ship moves frequently, but it will soon be docked at its permanent home in Atlantic Basin in Red Hook.
And thanks to our tour guide, Bernie Ente. We hope to go to a lot more WHC events in the future.
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