Sunday, April 08, 2007


The vanishing ship graveyard

It was Easter weekend, and since it was a foregone conclusion that we would sleep through the Easter parade. It's probably better to let things be foregone and wake up at 1 p.m. with a clean conscience. I rolled over and looked out our bedroom window, vista of a brick wall and the blinded brother bedroom window opposite. The daylight peeked out from the building's margin on the right, and typically, it was impossible to tell if the haze I saw through the pane was the atmosphere outside, the accumulation of four decades of dust motes between the panes, or the murk in my brain. A collective memory of 25 other Aprils said it should be balmy and warm.

So up and out of bed, and to the task of not completely wasting a day of leisure. Val and I had talked about going out to see some of the ruins I blogged about a year and a half ago, never thinking I'd be living within driving distance of them. When she brought it up the previous night, it almost seemed negligent of me to not have organized an expedition sooner. Guiltily, I realized it was time to sack it up and go see what I could see.

So we ate, dressed, and hopped in Beaker for the trip out to Staten Island to visit the ship boneyard out along Arthur Kill Road, a place where a century of New York's distinguished and workaday maritime past now rusts in the reeking mud.

I had read about this place on Metafilter back in 2005, and it rekindled an old fascination for American ruins, for spaces long forgotten or neglected. I realize that those of us born in the '80s and '90s haven't got a fully formed notion of all the things our society has jettisoned in the name of progress. I wind up with a weird sympathy for older generation, for whom I'm sure "normal" has all been scrapped, razed, bypassed and buried.

I guess it was appropriate, will all these thoughts of the ghostly past, that the boneyard lies on the other side of a graveyard that dates back to the 18th century. It's a small cemetery, and many of the gravestones are crumbling. Some of them have worn away to blank slates of flaking, brittle stone, like pastry crust jutting from the earth. Their identities are dying just like the identities of the ships, whose nameplates have largely been scavenged for scrap, novelty decoration, or simply dropped into the water.

We pushed through the trees and through six-foot-tall reeds down to the tidal flats along the Kill Van Kull, dodging an international array of empty liquor bottles, old tires and driftwood. Once I think I saw a vibrator. When we emerged, we saw a stately red tugboat, a series of rotted barges to its right, and an undifferentiated mass of larger hulls and collapsed docks to the left. There were plainly more ships and boats on the other side of the debris, but there was no way to access it--it's fenced off from the road and abuts private property with well-posted warnings against trespassing.

We were silent for several minutes, just taking in the rank smell of the mud, the accumulated garbage sitting among the crushed-down reeds, and the warped vessels. There was little else to do but take a few pictures and try halfheartedly to figure out where some of the boats came from.

It was actually better than I had thought. Many of the pictures available online (That last one is NSFW!) were taken by kayakers who could actually paddle among these fascinating hulks. The posts I had read from visitors on foot were less descriptive. I had not expected to get as close as we did to these ruins. But even though we did, it feels like this ground has already been well covered. I can write about my reactions to this place, but I have to work hard to not simply repeat what others have said. And this site was once much more spectacular. Two decades ago, there were probably twice as many majestic hulks here. Gradually they've been scrapped or eroded until nothing existed above the waterline. Even the story of the afterlife of these boats is ending.

If I ever want to be able to write about something that hasn't been exhausted by time and prying bloggers, I'm going to have to get information firsthand. I don't know if I'm lucky enough to be in the right place to overhear a good tidbit.

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