History being sunk in the Hook

February 22, 2007 at 12:46 am Leave a comment

A lightship is the old maritime equivalent of a crossing-guard in a bright orange vest, a twin-mast “be careful” sign meant to float amidst the ocean’s risky shoals.

And for the past 12 years, the masts of one such 683-ton crossing guard have poked out of the greenish water next to the silver-cone of the Revere Sugar refinery, a sunken safety boat beneath an old ruin.

This week, the masts were junked.

It was a fitting, if unceremonious, end for the Coast Guard’s “Lightship No. 84,” a beacon made obsolete by technology and left to live out its days in a state of leaky disrepair. There was little hope that after a decade underwater, No. 84’s steel hull would be saved.

“I don’t want to say that salvage would be impossible,” said David Sharps, founder of the neighborhood’s Waterfront Museum, “but the longer a boat stays under, the closer to impossible it is.”

Sharps knows the challenge intimately.

The Waterfront Museum lives inside the nation’s last surviving wooden railroad barge. Ninety-three-year-old “Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79” was so neglected when Sharps bought it that he worried it could fall apart, sink and float away as driftwood.

That was 12 years ago and Sharps is still obsessively, meticulously, restoring the caboose-like freighter, now a quirky tourist destination listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To him, the loss of the lightship is tragic simply because it didn’t have to happen. With care and investment, the old boat could have had the same kind of productive afterlife as his barge.

“Red Hook could have had another historic vessel on the waterfront,” he said. “The challenge now is making people realize the value of these structures, assign them use and save them.”

Sharps makes a good point.

The old lightship sank because it wasn’t used. Once submerged, it again served a function. The New York Police Department’s Harbor Division trained divers on its waterlogged keel. People talked about it: the neighborhood curio so underground it was actually underwater.

And now as rubble, the floating lighthouse has again served a purpose, leaving in its wake one final warning.

“Now it’s a reminder of all the rich history that we have in this harbor to preserve, and to enjoy,” said Tom Fox, president of Red Hook–based New York Water Taxi.

Talk a walk in Red Hook now. Notice the broken-down warehouses once built for coffee traders. Listen for the toots of the forever-bustling Erie Basin Barge. Step on the cobblestones. These pieces of history work for us. If preservationists want to keep them, they’d better work, too.

Brooklyn South
By Ariella Cohen
The Brooklyn Paper

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