Growing up in NYC, boat rides were a staple of our school trips. Whether it was the now defunct Hospital Boat or the Circle Line, traversing the waterways of New York had been an integral part of learning about this City and its history. Since the ’90s, however, the legacy of sailors, shipyards and deckhands has diminished, starting with the closing of the US Coast Guard station on Governor’s Island and culminating with the transformation of the South Street Seaport into an ever-expanding mall. (Click through gallery above for more photos)
But with NYC’s building boom, the City’s planners along with the Port Authority, have brought back the old methods of moving freight. Tugboats now busily ply the waters of the harbor, bringing loads of gravel, stone and wood from the rail lines in NJ to their clients in Gowanus, Redhook, Newtown Creek and the Rockaways. The City even brought the long dormant freight rail lines in Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx back to life to meet this insatiable demand.
I called up Jim Brown of Thomas J. Brown & Sons to hitch a ride on the Joyce D. Brown and get a first-hand view of the resurgence of marine towing in New York. Our day started out in Port Richmond, Staten Island where our schedule began to fill up with last minute orders. First we had a load of gravel to straighten out along the “stake barge” moored by the Statue of Liberty. Next was a load of oil and lumber that we brought from Newark to the freight rail line at 65th street Brooklyn. Then it was another run of gravel from the stake barge to a concrete plant in Gowanus. Then back to the stake barge with the empty or “light” barges. From there it was over to Red Hook where we picked up another load of gravel and brought it to the Thomas J. Brown, which was then bound with its cargo for the Rockaways. As a final run we took another empty barge up the Hudson to the Hoboken Shipyards. Along the way, the Brooklyn waterfront was plastered with much colorful graffiti as well as plentiful waterbirds such as horned grebe, double crested cormorants, buffleheads and laughing gulls. Brown mentioned that the harbor “is as clean now as it has ever been.”
All of this criss-crossing the Harbor with heavy barges made it clear that tugboat operations are physically demanding and often dangerous, as a recent fatal accident off of Long Island shows. But the need for tugboats and the goods they deliver continues to grow apace with the redevelopment of the City. Many of the family owned companies such as Thomas J. Brown & Sons, McAllister Towing and Moran Towing, all based along the North Shore of Staten Island, are finding it difficult to find qualified deckhands and pilots to meet this rising demand. As a result, “all New York boats” — boats staffed by hands that live in NY, as Brown says his is — are uncommon these days as many workers have been priced out of the City. “Staffing a day boat is very hard,” said Brown. “Most guys work one or two weeks on and then one week off. Many of the guys we get have to be trained up from scratch.”
So while a new crop of glassy millionaires ponders the benefits of a free-market economy whilst gazing upon the Hudson, let them take a moment to consider the men and women who risk their lives every day to bring them the wine they drink and the beds in which they sleep. Special shout out to Jim and the crew of the Joyce D. Brown, stay classy!