What lies beneath the Hudson River (besides a ton of PCBs) is… a trove of ships.
English navigator Henry Hudson sailed the river on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609, exploring its reaches in quest of a western route to Asia. Even before that, vessels plied the brackish waters of this most beautiful estuary in the world. And not all of them made it. (Hudson himself didn’t make it, since he and his son were cast adrift in Hudson Bay by a mutinous crew. Reportedly they had scurvy and were a pain in the neck.)
Sloops. Revolutionary-era gunboats. Barges. They line the silty Hudson riverbed, each one encrusted with barnacles in a layer as deep as a man’s forearm. Two hundred or so shipwrecks have been found along the course of the river between the Battery in New York City and Albany. Along with railroad cars and random loads of brick. Storms sunk most of them.
Scientists probing with sonar in advance of a new bridge to replace the Tappan Zee found a wreck just north of the bridge. It’s too murky to see down there, even with a powerful light.
Where did all these boats come from? One place is the Rondout. Where the Rondout Creek spills into the Hudson, part of Kingston, New York.
The Rondout emerged in the 1820s and ’30s as the primary Hudson River port between New York City and Albany when it became the terminus of the Delaware & Hudson Canal. It was 108 miles from Carbondale, Pa., and coal men with big dreams realized if they could haul anthracite from there to the Rondout, they could bring it down the Hudson to New York City. And make a fortune.
Shipbuilding concerns sprung up.
Gristmills, boatyards, dry docks, three freighting companies and a tobacco factory. Brickmaking and ice cutting also thrived. But it was really all about coal.
I got to know Rondout Creek when we had a house a couple of miles down Route 9W from the harbor, a sweet farmhouse in the middle of an orchard, where we were enveloped in springtime by the odor of honey from the apple blossoms. When we were not eating barbecue at a long table we brought out under the moon, surrounded by those low, gnarled trees, we’d go explore the Strand.
The shipyards had long since died away. In 1899, the D and H canal became a railroad. By the middle of the 20th century, the Rondout had fallen into its final slumber.
But boats still tie up there.
I remember boarding a crusty tugboat that belonged to a friend of a friend; this was its port of last resort. It was so exotic.
Today, my nephew spends time at the Rondout, where he is refurbishing Rosemary Ruth, a 40-year-old schooner with great lines.
He is undertaking the grungy yet glamorous work of bringing out the inherent seaworthiness and beauty of this vessel. At least glamorous if you’re Jesse.
He’s been scrambling around the foresail boom, enraptured.
Cutting the fore gaff line.
Considering what to do with the mast.
And getting the muck of her barnacle-preventing paint all over him. There, I said it, her. I always wondered why we have to call nautical vessels her. I remember spending time on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln years ago, and it always seemed weird to have an aircraft carrier, one with an undeniably male name, described with a womanly modifier. Actually, one of the female jet jocks I interviewed, who was looking forward to flying off that carrier, persisted in calling the Abe the Babe.
Rosemary Ruth is obviously a girl.
Jesse plans to take her out as a charter boat on glittering, cold Lake Superior. That Maine-sized body of water is so deep that if you lost a boat in there you could never find it. Even with sonar.
Beneath the placid surface of the Hudson, evidence of its sometimes angrier face comes clear. The wreck beneath the Tappan Zee Bridge is a coal barge headed south, a hundred years old. No one was smiling in the Rondout the day it went down.
I’m glad Rosemary Ruth is traveling back to her new Midwestern home on a flatbed.