|Should you go?|
|Time spent||76 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||A scale model of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in full swing during World War II. I can only imagine the hours and focus and attention it required YNC Leo J. Spiegel USN (Ret.) to build it. Scaled at 1 inch = 50 feet, it depicts 46 naval vessels (all called out by name on a sign below), 273 shipyard buildings, 8 piers, 6 drydocks, and 659 homes in the surrounding area. BLDG 92, eat your heart out!
A Visit to Fort Schuyler
Throg’s Neck is a peninsula in the Bronx just at the point where the East River becomes Long Island Sound. In the Age of Sail, the extreme currents of Hell Gate and the general narrowness of the narrows afforded New York natural protection from naval attacks from the Sound. With the advent of steam power, however, that changed, and so in the 1830s the government acquired a good chunk of Throg’s Neck and built Fort Schuyler there. And a few decades later Fort Totten across the narrows in Queens.
That’s Schuyler as in General Philip Schuyler, father of the Angelica, Elizabeth, and Peggy Schuyler and so Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law. It’s a tenuous Hamilton connection, but I’ll take it.
Fort Schuyler today is home to the State University of New York’s Maritime College, where you study if you want to join the merchant marine. It’s also home to the Throg’s Neck Bridge, which flies right over the school. And SUNY Maritime also houses the Maritime Industry Museum, which provided me with one of my oddest museum experiences on this project.
The Post-Apocalyptic Museum
I drove out to SUNY Maritime on a lovely June Saturday. The gate at the head of the campus opened for me, and I proceeded in. I didn’t see a soul.
The Maritime Industry Museum is located within the old defensive bastion of Fort Schuyler, which also contains SUNY Maritime classrooms and administrative buildings. It’s fantastic that the old fort is still so intact, and so open for exploration. The museum is large, and yet they make it surprisingly hard to find. I wandered around the fort for a while, discovering things like a tiny drawbridge and the Bouchard Tugboat Simulation Center. I did not, however, see any people.
I feel pretty sure that on weekdays during the term, the campus buzzes with life. But on summer weekends, wow. It’s post-apocalyptic.
Finally, I discovered a door with a small brass plate. This may be the most stealthy museum I’ve yet visited. I tried the door, and it opened. So in I went.
And…no one. Not an elderly volunteer greeter. Not a guard. Not a docent. Definitely no other visitors. I was all alone in the heart of Fort Schuyler, in the midst of an amazing assortment of maritime memorabilia.
This museum is sort of what I expected the Noble Maritime Collection would be like: bunches of forgotten nautical knicknacks, tons of didactic explanations in verbose wall texts from 30 or more years ago. But its scale and scope impress. And there are treasures galore for those who explore here.
The Floor Plan
Sprawling across two floors (or A Deck and B Deck) and a good arc of the fort, the museum covers:
- SUNY Maritime’s history and its training ships
- Famous alumni, and memorials to those lost at sea
- A very brief history of sailing in the ancient world
- A history of the U.S. merchant marine that ends in the 1980s
- A lot about World War II
- A section on famous ship disasters (General Slocum, Andrea Doria, Titanic…)
- Information about the evolution of shipping, including containerization and supertankers
- Ocean liners of the past and present (mostly past)
- Lighthouses and lightships
I feel certain I have omitted things. The philosophy here diverges sharply from the minimalist, less-is-more aesthetic of some contemporary museum curators. I can’t possibly tell relate everything I saw that made me smile. So here are just some highlights.
Just Some of The Things I Saw
A model of an Egyptian Funerary Barge, all decked out with oars and a mummy. I’m not sure Funerary Barge Pilot on the Nile is really a going merchant marine career path these days, but you never know.
This crazy pentagonal gizmo, which showed a map of New York Harbor and all the key ways the region contributed to the war effort during World War II, color coded to differentiate logistics from training from wartime industry from defense installations. Touch a button for a place and the relevant spot or spots light up. I can’t conceive who would’ve made this or where it was originally. It’s an amazing piece of pre-touchsceen museum interactivity.
Gershenoff’s Locker, a “replica of a circa 1940s cadet’s locker stowed with care.”
A deck chair from the S. S. United States.
A large-scale model aircraft carrier. (If you’d like a bigger aircraft carrier, I recommend the Intrepid.) Models of just about every type of seagoing vessel you can imagine, actually.
And an entire place setting from the Queen Elizabeth 2’s 30th anniversary “maritime enthusiasts cruise.”
And a model of and story about the Savannah, the first nuclear merchant ship. Do they still have those? I feel like I’d know if there were nuclear powered container ships buzzing about on the seas. I feel like people would be worried about it.
My Own Private Maritime Museum
The museum’s space actually forms the hallway between the SUNY Maritime classrooms that occupy Fort Schuyler. If I were studying there, I’m not sure how I’d feel having all this historic stuff cluttering up my hall. On the one hand, it’s a link to maritime tradition going back centuries. On the other hand, it’s a bunch of cases of stuff you’re unlikely to be tested on.
As a non-student, I loved this museum. I loved historic Fort Schuyler, I loved the “lost treasures in the attic” aesthetic, and the exciting, “what’s around the next corner?” feeling. And I especially loved being all alone in it. I have never had that experience before. My own private maritime museum.
But Should You Visit?
Despite my strong enthusiasm, I’m not going to insist that everyone rent a car or hire a Lyft and get themselves out to Fort Schuyler. The Maritime Industry Museum is a diamond in the rough. The collection has grown through gifts from alumni and others. For example, many of the ship models come from the collection of Frank W. Cronican, a bequest to the museum in 1993. It feels like the museum has accreted over time like a coral reef, with only periodic thought to editing or curation.
Whatever the topic, “accretion” style museums can intimidate. And they can frankly be really boring if you don’t have a metaphorical chart to navigate by. And even though the maritime industry is worth $14 billion annually in New York State alone–guess where I learned that–most people won’t care enough about it to justify the effort or the drive.
However. If you love boats or ships of any sort, or if you’re interested in maritime history, then, obviously, you must go. And if you like museum-ology, that would also make this place a must-see.
The Maritime Industry Museum has vast potential. I hope they unlock it someday, though it’ll take a passionate curatorial voice and direction, and a very large grant, to make it happen.
|Address||6 Pennyfield Avenue, Bronx|