In Hidden Corners of New York Harbor: Three Treasures

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

With the ability to paddle through the shallowest water and the narrowest gap between rocks and pilings, and the motivation to poke into obscure corners, a kayaker sees things in New York Harbor that those on larger boats miss.  Most affecting—because they too were once alive—are the remains of the vessels that at one time or another were left in an out-of-the-way corner of the harbor and never moved again.  Here are three such places:

1. Graveyard of Ships

The Graveyard of Ships is tucked away in a bend of the Arthur Kill, the busy commercial waterway at the back of Staten Island facing New Jersey, at Rossville.  With a colorful history stretching back to the 1930s, at one time the Graveyard contained the remains of over 400 vessels, some more than a century old.

Even today, the Graveyard is a maze of half-submerged tugs and ferries whose flooded open decks one can paddle through.  Especially on a raw gray day, paddling through the Graveyard is an eerie, unsettling experience, gliding silently past rusted plates and over unidentifiable twisted metal things just glimpsed under the surface…

Habitat for geese…

But with each trip to the Graveyard, we see fewer and fewer of the old favorites, as they are broken up for scrap or simply yield to the forces of nature.  In the meantime, geese nest in the ruins, and trees sprout from the decaying wooden barges.  Left to itself, the Graveyard would one day merge again into the landscape, just like the rolling hills of another, adjacent dump, the Fresh Kills Landfill…

Nature is reasserting itself… The hills of the Fresh Kills Landfill are in the distance.

Outside the Graveyard proper, there are numerous additional wrecks scattered in odd corners along the Arthur Kill.  Across the Kill from the Graveyard is Major General William H. Hart, not yet very far advanced in decay…

The Major General William H. Hart

The Graveyard of Ships is a popular kayaking destination (reports and photos by FrogmaDarren Caffery, and Tugster, who identifies many of the wrecks) as well as a magnet for brave land photographers (Opacity, Undercity).  More of Vlad’s photos of the Graveyard of Ships and other wrecks of the Arthur Kill are here, here, and here.

2. The Yellow Submarine of Brooklyn

Half-submerged in the shallow waters of Coney Island Creek there lies… a submarine.  It’s not exactly like this , but neither is it like this : it is a surprisingly serious submarine.

And it was built by a Brooklyn Navy Yard ship fitter named Jerry Bianco for a serious mission: To raise the Andrea Doria, an Italian luxury liner that in 1956 collided in fog with the liner Stockholm and sank off Nantucket.  The story is well told in Forgotten NY:

The Andrea Doria was known to be bountifully loaded with such diverse items as a $250,000 solid silver statue of a mermaid; thousands of cases of liquor; tons of provolone cheese; 200,000 pieces of mail that the federal government would pay 26 cents a piece for; the ship’s bronze propellers, worth $30,000 each, paintings locked in air-tight vaults; industrial diamonds; the ship’s $6 million metal scrap value; passengers’ personal property left in several vaults and more.

Bianco believed he could build a vessel strong enough to descend to 240 feet of water, where the liner rests at the bottom off Nantucket, and could actually raise the sunken vessel by filling it with inflatable dunnage bags; when filled, the bags would lift it off the bottom or to the surface — or so the theory went.

Lest this sound crazy, Bianco did succeed in forming a corporation, selling stock, raising more than $300,000, and building a 40-foot, 83-ton submarine that passed Coast Guard inspection with flying colors, and, in October 1970, was ready to be launched.

But for want of a nail…  Bianco was chronically short of money (the yellow paint of the submarine, some of which remains today, was the cheapest he could find).  Because the launch was to be paid for by the pound, he did not ballast the submarine fully, and it capsized upon being lowered into Coney Island Creek.

And there it has remained ever since.

More of Vlad’s photos of the Yellow Submarine are here.

Update (October 9, 2011): The “Forgotten NY” page has apparently disappeared, but here is a New York Times article instead.

3. Schamonchi

At the border between Brooklyn and Queens, Newtown Creek zig-zags for several miles inland from the East River, becoming narrower and more tortuous and spanned by numerous low bridges.  So we were very surprised to find, on a recent kayak expedition into the Creek, in one of its terminal branches a large ship… Schamonchi.

Schamonchi proves to be an ex-Martha’s Vineyard ferry, sold in 2005 to a New York company to be refurbished as a party boat.  But plans apparently went awry, and Schamonchi has now retreated from a respectable mooring near the mouth of Newtown Creek to its furthest extremity, and appears to be used as an immobile houseboat.  So, although Schamonchi still supports life and even parties, the writing is beginning to appear on the wall…

More of Vlad’s photos of Schamonchi are here.

Update October 16, 2013: New developments for Schamonchi… the newspaper headline is “Hipsters forced off floating crash pad”. For details see here and here.

15 responses to “In Hidden Corners of New York Harbor: Three Treasures

  1. colleen williams

    Ahh, the Schamonchi, I enjoyed many trips from New Bedford to Vineyard Haven Harbor on her, and even thru the Cape Cod Canal to watch whales in the spring. The old push-me/pull-you double ended MV Islander is moored on the SE corner of Governor’s Island. Is NYC where old Vineyard Ferries go to retire?

    • The various fates, mostly sad, of a number of the old Vineyard ferries are well described in a 2010 article, Final chapter: The Islander and other bygone ferries, in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.

      Yes, it would seem that New York City is often their final destination. Not only Schamonchi and Islander, but also New Bedford has ended up in New York Harbor. New Bedford, now hardly recognizable, is at the very same Graveyard of Ships that we described in this post. In fact, as identified by Tugster here and here, she is the partially submerged, heavily leaning wreck with the tall rusted smokestack that appears on the right of the first and fourth of our Graveyard of Ships photos (something we did not realize until just now)…

      Islander is no longer at Governors Island. According to the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine article, in 2010 she was moved to Port Newark, NJ, for scrapping, and by now she too may well have been scrapped…

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  3. These are beautiful! And my old stomping grounds, of a sort. I grew up in NJ and misspent much of my youth in Staten Island, though I didn’t spend time kayaking through ship graveyards, more’s the pity there. In a story that’s become famous in family lore, my brothers (when they were like 11 and 12 or so) decided it would be a great idea to captain an old rowboat they found on the beach in Sewaren across the Arthur Kill to Staten Island. They were picked up by a tugboat and taken to an office from where my parents (none too pleased) were called to come get them. I may be making the story more dramatic but I do think they were starting to take on water. Ha! I’m sending this link to them both, I’m sure they’ll love it.

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  8. I did not know about these graveyards – all very interesting. Also, I enjoyed the photos :)

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