75 minutes, including time spent walking around in Fort Hamilton
Best thing I saw or learned
The Pattern 1844, 24-Pounder Flank Howitzer. In 1864, the Army deployed eight of these to defend Fort Hamilton. The base installed two in the caponier, ready to mow down any unfortunate infantry that tried to attack it.
Getting to the Harbor Defense Museum requires a bit of doing and determination. First because it sometimes keeps odd hours–definitely call before you go and make sure someone’s manning the fort (literally).
Second, because it is located in Brooklyn in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. By subway, it’s at the farthest end of the R train. Its sister fort, Fort Wadsworth, situated across the Narrows in Staten Island, is run by the National Park Service.
And third, because uniquely among New York City museums, the Harbor Defense Museum stands within Fort Hamilton, New York City’s sole remaining active army base.
The views from Fort Wadsworth are really spectacular.
There’s no more scenic vista of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The Verrazano Narrows divides New York Bay into two bodies of water, the Upper Bay (what everyone usually thinks of as “New York Harbor”) and the Lower Bay, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. As a narrow body of water, the Narrows has always been strategically vital in defending New York from naval attacks. So it’s not surprising that fortifications exist on both the Brooklyn and Staten Island shores of the narrows.
Its narrowness also makes it a natural place for a bridge, so it’s also not surprising that Robert Moses built one of those there, too.
This project has given me a reason to visit all of the city’s extant historic harbor defense installations. I find them fascinating, particularly how fast-changing military technology rendered them mostly obsolete just a few decades after their completion. Nowadays, of course, we defend our port cities from naval attacks via long range missiles, not cannons and mortars.
I perused an article on the Waterfront Museum in “Hidden Places Magazine.” A bit of googling suggests it only published a single issue, consisting of the glossiest, most fashionable Red Hook promotional material ever created.
David Sharps is an adventurer, circus performer, and raconteur and seems like a very nice man. He’s certainly brave. He and his family have lived in a wooden barge, currently docked in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, since the 1980s.
It’s a life I find hard to imagine, and one that definitely affords a unique perspective on New York Harbor.
The barge itself is adorable — painted red, emblazoned with its name, “Lehigh Valley No. 79.” It dates to 1914, when longshoremen used thousands of craft like it to ferry cargo from large, deep-water ships in the harbor to railroad cars on the shallow New Jersey side of the Hudson.
Sharps discovered the dilapidated barge mired in the mud in New Jersey. Reportedly the very last of its kind, he got the Lehigh Valley floating again, and he’s been fixing it up ever since, docking in various places around the harbor. He launched the museum in 1986. Continue reading “Waterfront Museum”
150 minutes, including 26 queued to get in. I could easily have spent more (inside, that is).
Best thing I saw or learned
For all those who think technology progresses in only one direction, Intrepid offers a few counterfactuals, but none better than Concorde. From 1976 until 2003, people (very few, and very rich to be sure) jetted across the Atlantic in under 3.5 hours. I hope we see supersonic travel again in my lifetime. But I doubt it.
Driving up the west side of Manhattan helps New Yorkers exercise our jadedness. Here’s my routine with out-of-towners.
Oh, the Renzo Piano Whitney building. I was just there the other day.
Hmph, High Line. Too crowded with tourists.
Frank Gehry’s IAC Building is really showing its age, isn’t it?
I can sometimes be bothered to look up from my smartphone at midtown’s forest of skyscrapers.
Hudson Yards, a whole new city within the city, is an inconvenient and messy construction zone.
And that over there? Oh, that’s just our aircraft carrier.
I can act the part. But, oh, the Intrepid. I’m still a kid at heart. I love boats and planes and exploding things. And the Intrepid has all of that, including a Concorde, a nuclear submarine, and even a (sort of) space shuttle. I love that we’ve got an aircraft carrier, just parked next to Manhattan like its crew dropped by to see a show or go shopping on Canal Street.
Baby Bootlegger was a 1924, 29-foot 10-inch speedboat with a 240 horsepower engine. She was designed by George F. Crouch, built by Henry B. Nevins of City Island, and owned by Caleb Bragg. She won the Gold Cup in 1924 and 1925 and I’m sure no rum was ever run in her.
“New York” conjures very specific images. Possibly positive, possibly negative, but distinctive, and related to density, height, congestion, diversity, and creativity. Extremes of wealth and poverty. And yet New York also contains neighborhoods that feel nothing like “New York.”
The City Island Nautical Museum aims to tell the story of arguably the least “New York” place in all of New York City. Despite its misleading name, City Island does not feel “city” in any way. Rather, it’s a quiet village, whose heritage and livelihood has long focused on the waters of Long Island Sound.
City Island was part of the massive tract of land ceded by the Lenape to Thomas Pell (whose story the Bartow-Pell Mansion recounts) in 1654. It developed into a fairly self-sufficient seagoing community. Oystering supported City Islanders for many years, until the oysters ran out. And boatbuilding was a massive industry. Eight America’s Cup winning yachts were built at City Island from 1870-1980. And they built mine sweepers there during World War II.
Today, sailors still have reason to go — it’s home to some five yacht clubs. But for most New Yorkers, City Island barely registers in their consciousness, except as a curious, far-flung corner of the city.
A Schoolhouse Full of Stuff
The City Island Nautical Museum occupies the island’s old schoolhouse. Its four rooms each focus on a specific theme:
the School Room, focused on the island’s schools and kids who went there;
the Nautical Room, on boats and boatbuilding;
the Community Room, on life on City Island from pre-colonial days to now; and
In addition to various books, copies of Yachting magazine going back to the 1930s, and neat ship models, the library currently houses a temporary show of local artwork memorializing the City Island Bridge, recently torn down.
A Charming But Chaotic Collection
I’d call this museum “charming,” if I’m feeling charitable, and “chaotic” if I’m feeling less so. It’s a bit of both. This is a museum by accretion, like the Maritime Industry Museum.
But the Maritime Industry Museum is a paragon of military-grade organization. It’s dense but not dusty, its artifacts are well cared for, and you know every object there has been carefully cataloged.
By contrast, the City Island Museum is a hodge-podge. Things on display aren’t always in good repair. It feels like the museum may not even know all that it has. And that’s sort of a shame.
Then again, I have to say much of the collection feels random and not very important. For example, the museum has an array of outboard motors that look like they date to the 1940s-1960s. Whose outboard motors were they? Are they historically important for some reason? Who made them and why? There’s a case of arrowheads. A bunch of old bottles. Old cameras. Nothing feels…documented. The artifacts kind of tell a City Island story, in that they all presumably were used there at some point. But they don’t tell it in coherently. And they crowd out things that would give a better understanding of the island’s people and times.
Stories I wish the City Island Museum told:
City Island’s days as a weekend getaway — it used to have public beaches and an easier connection to the city. Could it have become a northern Coney Island?
The short-lived, dangerous City Island Monorail (amazing story; see the Bowery Boys link in the box at the end of this review).
The changing population and demographics of the island. Who lives there now?
Early ambitions for City Island — the name comes from a bout of marketing optimism that it’d someday rival New York as a maritime port.
Should You Visit?
Like the Old Stone House, this museum isn’t really for tourists. Or, it’s only partly for tourists. It’s a center for the community, a place where people can come and research family ties to the island, and a place where clam diggers (i.e., native City Islanders; the rest of us are “mussel suckers”) can contribute bits of their own legacies to be part of the greater story.
You should go to City Island, unquestionably. It’s unique in New York. And if you go, to sail, to just look around, or to have a piña colada at Johnny’s Reef Restaurant (which I personally recommend) then, sure, stop in at the City Island Nautical Museum. It’s a thing to do. But I would not recommend planning a trip to the island just to visit this small, charming but too-chaotic museum.
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.
A quote from a guy who works at a set design firm based in the Navy Yard today: “This building built ships and now we build Saturday Night Live in it.”
BLDG 92 is the vowel-challenged, fascinating, historical center of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It tells the story of the Navy Yard through artifacts, an interactive tabletop, and a comprehensive timeline. Continue reading “BLDG 92 at Brooklyn Navy Yard”
The Museum is home to the Alan Govenar & Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection. The current modest Gus Wagner show is like a teaser for what they might be able to do once material in the collection (Wagner’s notebooks and such) is conserved and stable. I was sad to learn the Staten Island Tattoo Museum is no more, so I’m hopeful this enables the Seaport Museum to fill that gap.
The South Street Seaport Museum just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and its establishment contributed to the survival of a collection of historic buildings in the face of Lower Manhattan’s relentless pressure for development. The museum includes a print shop (worth visiting; great cards), the museum building proper, and the “street of ships,” a collection of historic vessels, several of which are open for tours when the museum is open.
The museum itself is still not fully back on its feet following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. This is unfortunate because a significant part of the museum’s space is not currently open, and the exhibits on display now are long on words and short on artifacts — the science fair school of museum displays, wherein you might as well just read about it on the internet. Told that way, even something as fun as the story of an early 20th century tattoo artist is only so engaging.
Until it fully reopens, the museum by itself is not worth the time or $12 to visit. However, the museum also offers the chance to tour the lightship Ambrose and the tall ship Wavertree. And the museum also runs the sailing vessel Pioneer (which needs to be booked separately) which is an awesome way to get out on the Harbor.
I only had time to visit Wavertree, but she’s impressive. Immense, steel-hulled, and built in 1885 as a cargo ship, Wavertree just completed a massive restoration effort that has helped put her back in seaworthy condition. The brief public tour gives a taste of what life was like for sailors (i.e., tough) and the officers (i.e., less tough) aboard. She’s still a work in progress, which is interesting too: there’s always staff or volunteers performing some work or other on her.
Ambrose is a lightship, which was a sturdy class of ship used as a floating lighthouse, in places where terrestrial ones weren’t feasible. She went into service in 1908 and helped ships navigate the entrance to Lower New York Bay until 1932.
The collection is completed by two sailing vessels, Lettie G. Howard and Pioneer, and an adorable wooden tugboat named W. O. Decker.
I want to be more enthusiastic about the Seaport Museum than I am. I love ships, the sea, and the city’s history. South Street Seaport is about as central as it gets, while many of the city’s other maritime museums are in far flung locales like Staten and City Islands. Still, in its current state, it’s operating at only a fraction of its potential, and having two historic boats to tour only goes so far. With regret, the best I can muster for it is a lukewarm nod to anyone with an interest in those topics.
The largest Fresnel lens in the U.S. was installed at Makapu’u Point Lighthouse on Oahu in Hawai’i in 1909. It was made in France and was featured at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The National Lighthouse Museum is a museum in its infancy. Located a short stroll from the ferry terminal in St. George, Staten Island, the museum describes the history, technology, and design of lighthouses. Continue reading “National Lighthouse Museum”
John Noble made his art in a houseboat studio that he cobbled together, Frankenstein’s Monster-like, out of sundry boat bits and bobs over years. The Collection acquired his studio, restored it beautifully, and moved the whole thing into a room in the building, where you can peek inside.
This museum suffers from a misleading name. I walked into the Noble Maritime Collection expecting a dark basement full of dusty old nautical stuff, with a stuffy aristocratic bent. Instead, the collection occupies three light-filled, airy, beautifully restored floors of Building D at Sailors’ Snug Harbor.
It covers four main topics:
The life and art of John Noble, for whom the collection is named and who primarily made prints and drawings that captured the life of the harbor.
The founding and establishment of Snug Harbor in the early 19th century
The lives of sailors who retired to Snug Harbor
Robbins Reef Light, and Kate Walker, the remarkable woman who served as lighthousekeeper for over thirty years.