Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2017 issue of the Pilot Log.
The economic, military and social history of New York is inextricably linked to the role of its abundant waterways and deep harbors. The pervasive influence of shipping and naval defense in the development of the state over four centuries of Euro-American history is rarely recognized. Historians have investigated some of its highlights, such as the pioneering efforts of Fulton and Livingston in the development of steam propulsion, New York’s role in the development of scheduled packets, and the state’s contributions to the clipper ship, but far less is known about the workaday ships, boats and barges that built and sustained the economy and security of New Yorkers well into the twentieth century. Even less is known about the highly skilled individuals who made their lives building and operating these craft or the communities of sailors and mariners that they formed. Underwater archaeology is a relatively new avenue of inquiry that can offer new and important insights into this history.
New York State’s extensive waterborne navigation and trade inevitably led to accidents and sinkings. The state’s numerous waterways, and cold fresh waters have in many instances preserved these ships, their cargoes, and their people. It is estimated that there may be 10,000 shipwrecks in New York. At least 300 have been observed through remote sensing in the Hudson River alone. The State’s bottomlands represent one of the greatest maritime museums in North America. As such, this extensive collection of shipwrecks and all they contain must be managed and interpreted for the benefit of all.
While not as immediately accessible as our brick and mortar museums, wreck sites offer direct and unbiased evidence of the past, including both familiar and unfamiliar episodes. Documented shipwrecks and submerged battlefields have provided dramatic insights into New York’s role in the French and Indian War, the naval defense of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War, and the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay during the War of 1812. As expected, well-preserved canal boats have been found in deep water in the Finger Lakes and Lake Champlain and larger carriers under steam and sail have been documented in the approaches to New York harbor and in lakes Erie and Ontario. The physical and archaeological integrity of New York’s shipwrecks comes as a surprise to many. In the cold deep waters of the Great Lakes, sailing ships are often physically complete with masts still erect, as if someone placed a plastic ship model in an aquarium. Some contain human remains and the personal effects of those who perished. Canal boats in the Finger Lakes have been seen with window glass in the cabins and household items scattered inside. In the Hudson River, sunken sloops are sometimes protected by deep accumulations of sediment and still contain undelivered freight such as a deck load of brick or a hold full of intact earthenware -- virtual time capsules of life and industry in the nineteenth century.
Unexpected wreck sites have also appeared. Often, these challenge our understanding of the past. In recent years, our underwater museum revealed the presence of a fantastic, multi-faceted French and Indian War gun battery fitted with gunports and propelled by sweeps; forensic minute-by-minute evidence of evolving ship formations during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776; alternatives to the pivoted centerboard in commercial sloops and schooners; sailing canal boats with hinged masts for transit through canal, river and lake; and cargoes of commodities and manufactured goods reflecting the evolving economy of the Empire State. Imagine the insights to be learned when, in the future, we discover the wreck of a seventeenth-century sloop engaged in trade between New York, Albany and perhaps the West Indies?
All museums face challenges in keeping the lights on, caring for and preventing the loss of collections, establishing appropriate climate control and finding new educational approaches to engage with ever-changing audiences. New York’s underwater museum is no different. There is little public money available to help. The artifacts in this museum are constantly under threat of theft and vandalism, and there is no hope of meeting museum climate control standards. Perhaps the biggest challenge is indifference. For all but few, shipwrecks are truly ‘out of sight, out of mind’. As a consequence, state and federal agencies have been slow to address the much needed management and protection of these resources. Progress in this area is further complicated by the fact that no single New York State agency is responsible for managing archaeological properties on the state’s bottomlands. A series of state agencies have tangential jurisdictions and policies related to shipwrecks and underwater lands, but without unified leadership, new and more effective policies and approaches are unlikely to emerge.
The underwater museum is also beset by a long list of myths and misconceptions spread by fiction writers, treasure hunters and hucksters. The actual laws relating to shipwrecks and cultural resources are virtually unknown. Many falsely believe that shipwrecks are primarily important for the gold they may have and that the principle of “finders-keepers” is valid, allowing divers to take whatever they want from historic wreck sites. Some believe that newly discovered wreck sites may be “arrested” by salvors for private enrichment, setting the stage for negotiations with the state over what may be taken and what may be given back to the state. In New York State, disturbing historic shipwrecks for anything other than permitted archaeological investigation is prohibited. Unfortunately, the theft of archaeological materials is difficult to investigate and rarely a priority for law enforcement. In addition, many fail to appreciate that most materials submerged underwater for long periods of time cannot survive removal from the water without laboratory treatment. Many ‘would-be collectors’ have discovered this the hard way when their prized wooden souvenirs turn to dust and are lost forever.
Those wishing to visit the underwater museum may inadvertently damage its collections through carelessness. Unlike brick and mortar museums which provide staff and are able to greet visitors as they enter and leave, our underwater lands are unstaffed and unable to ask patrons to refrain from handling the exhibits or maintaining buoyancy control. Over time, divers can damage fragile wrecks by anchoring boats to wrecks, climbing onto and into wrecks, and handling or snagging fragile elements such as rails, tillers, wheels and small parts. The practice of dragging an anchor until it snags a wreck is particularly damaging. Eventually, it destroys the wreck. An especially well-preserved canal boat in Seneca Lake was ruined some years ago when a dive boat anchor pulled her fragile cabin off and left it upside down in the mud. Dive preserves with independently anchored mooring buoys effectively prevent this kind of damage and must be expanded throughout the state.
History has stirred the imagination of others who would remove entire wrecks and place them on land for exhibit. In all but a handful of attempts, these projects have underestimated the long-term cost of recovering and conserving a shipwreck, and overestimated the public funding and gate receipts available to finance these projects. This is a recipe for defeat and destruction. Failed recoveries in New York State in the early twentieth-century included a French and Indian War sloop in Lake George, the Revolutionary War gunboat Duke of Cumberland and the armed Revolutionary War schooner Royal Savage. The poster child for all that can go wrong with such projects is the Great Lakes schooner Alvin Clark in Michigan. The intact 1847 schooner was raised by enthusiastic amateurs in 1969 and after being pumped out actually floated on her own keel. Full of determination but with little appreciation of the costs involved and no realistic plan for conserving the ship or financing the operation, the project quickly soured, ruining the schooner and the project’s chief promoter. The sinking, rotting and collapsing schooner was dragged onto land where she was bulldozed only 25 years later. Successful recoveries are rare. They require a publically compelling ship, a science-based plan for long-term conservation, and a sober budget with realistic sources of continuing revenue. The Swedish warship Vasa, Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose, the Confederate submarine Hunley and the turret from the U.S. ironclad Monitor are among the very few success stories to date.
Environmental conditions present challenges as well. While in-situ preservation, the equivalent of “do no harm” in medicine, is often the best available option for most wreck sites, chemical degradation including oxidation, biological agents including mussels and worms and natural forces including erosion and moving debris all play a role in the gradual deterioration of shipwrecks. These forces are greatly lessened in deep, cold fresh water, but are still present. The advent of invasive species such as zebra mussels represents a new and growing threat. Mussels rapidly colonize wrecks, hasten the degradation of iron fasteners and add considerable weight to fragile structures.
Historic wreck sites may also be damaged through dredging, the remediation of contaminated bottomland soils, and the construction of pipelines, cable conduits, bridges, marinas and bulkheads. While these undertakings are reviewed and licensed by state and federal agencies, the destruction of archaeological resources typically proceeds if alternatives are found to be impractical. Attempts are made to offset the destruction through recordation and, in some instances, the salvage and conservation of some artifacts.
New York’s rich and extensive collection of historic shipwrecks provides a rare educational opportunity to re-examine the past and to gain fresh insights into how this state evolved into the Empire State.
In order for shipwrecks to become meaningful to the public, they must first become much more accessible. Scuba diving is not for everyone and not all wreck sites are or should be visited by divers due to depth, hazardous conditions or fragility. For divers, historic shipwrecks throughout the state that are safe and interesting should be identified and designated as submerged heritage preserves and equipped with anchored mooring buoys and orientation signage. Submerged heritage preserves support tourism and have positive economic impacts for host communities. Divers and their families spend money on lodgings, restaurants, local retailers and other area attractions in addition to air fills and boat charters. For non-divers and divers alike, wrecks can be made virtually accessible on land through imaginative interpretation. Traditional museum interpretive techniques including photography, graphics, sonar images, conserved artifacts, models and touch screen monitors that encourage topical exploration have an important function. New techniques such as shore-side information and signage, underwater video footage, virtual tours and real-time monitoring should also be explored in order to further enhance these experiences.
Sound museum practice requires shared goals, a well-defined management structure and accountable leadership in order to protect the public’s interest and the future benefits of collections. Incidentally, these are the same elements required in protecting our land and water resources. As codified by the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987, historic shipwrecks are in most instances public resources that must be managed by each state for the educational and recreational benefit of the public. In spite of the efforts of dedicated civil servants, educators, and technical experts over more than three decades, New York State government has yet to create the coherent management structure anticipated by the Act. Until it does so, the state cannot fully tackle the needs of these resources nor fully realize their potential benefits. In the interim, our brick and mortar maritime museums can help by convening interested individuals, supporting surveys, establishing inventories, creating exhibits and engaging the public in the continuing quest to learn, conserve and promote preservation and strong diving ethics. We must also educate our elected representatives and agency officials on the important role they can play in supporting this work through improved management, law enforcement and grants to not-for-profit organizations.
 Chief NYS agencies in this area include the Office of General Services which serves as the state’s landlord over public bottomlands; the State Museum which manages archaeological resources on public lands for the benefit of the People; the Division for Historic Preservation which is charged with identifying, documenting and protecting historic and archaeological properties; the Department of Environmental Conservation which is responsible for historic and archaeological properties within its major parks and environmental protection (including cultural resources) throughout the state; the Department of State which assists communities in waterfront planning and tourism; and the Office of the Attorney General which defends the state’s interests.
 Historic shipwrecks in NYS are protected by Section 233 of NYS Education Law and the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, both of which define historic wreck sites as public property.
 State and Federal agencies are required to consider impacts to historic and archaeological sites before building, funding or licensing projects under the National Historic Preservation Act, the State Historic Preservation Act, and other laws that institutionalize historic preservation.
 Submerged Heritage Preserves have been established in Lake George and Lake Champlain as partnerships between the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and several not-for-profit organizations. The NYS Department of State is attempting to create additional preserves in the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes and the waters around Long Island. The Hudson River is not considered a safe environment for recreational diving as it is particularly dangerous for divers, with strong current and near-zero visibility. Novice divers should not attempt expeditions in the Hudson River.
Mark Peckham is the First Vice President of the Board of Trustees, Hudson River Maritime Museum. Peckham recently retired from the New York State Historic Preservation Office and has a deep interest in the submerged maritime history of the Hudson River.
Editor's Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article written by George W. Murdock, for the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman newspaper in the 1930s. Murdock, a veteran marine engineer, wrote a regular column. Articles transcribed by HRMM volunteer Adam Kaplan. For more of Murdock's articles, see the "Steamboat Biographies" category at right.
No. 80- Chrystenah
The “Chrystenah” is one of the vessels of the Hudson River that is not so well known- yet she saw service in a variety of places and carried hundreds of passengers without the recorded loss of a life.
The wooden hull of the “Chrystenah” was built by William Dickey at Nyack, New York, in 1866, and the engine from the steamboat “Broadway” was rebuilt by McCurdy & Warren of Jersey City and placed in the new vessel. Dimensions of the “Chrystenah” are listed as follows: Length of hull, 106 feet five inches, breadth of beam, 30 feet two inches; depth of hold, nine feet three inches; gross tonnage, 571; net tonnage, 417; powered by a vertical beam engine with a cylinder diameter of 50 inches with an 11 foot stroke.
Built expressly for the New York-Nyack route, the “Chrystenah” soon gained a reputation as a very fast steamboat. Although she was only a medium size vessel, she was a creation of beauty, judged by the construction of steamboats of that period. When she first appeared, the “Chrystenah” left Nyack in the morning, sailing to New York and returning in the afternoon. Later when it was discovered that she possessed speed in abundance, her route was extended to Peekskill and she made one round trip per day from that city to the metropolis. It is a matter of record that the “Chrystenah” was one of the fastest one-pipe steamboats that ever plied the waters of the lower Hudson River.
In 1907 the “Chrystenah” was purchased by Captain David C. Woolsey and Captain Nelson and continued on the same route for some time. Later her owners took her to Newburgh where she was chartered out for excursions during the summer months on the upper Hudson River. Occasionally she was chartered to the Hudson River Day Line and used for carrying baggage for the Day Line vessels. In 1911 the “Chrystenah” was brought to New York and used in service between New York and Coney Island.
The following year (1912) the “Chrystenah” was placed in service on the route between New York and Keansburgh, New Jersey, running in opposition to the regular Keansburgh vessels. She continued plying this route until 1917 when she was transferred to the Stamford-New York route. Later she became an excursion steamer in and around New York and Long Island.
In the fall of 1920 the “Chrystenah” was laid up at New Rochelle, and during the winter was wrecked by a storm, being blown into the mouth of Echo Creek and wedged between the stone walls of the creek. The insurance company paid a total loss to her owners. The City of New Rochelle acquired title to the wrecked steamboat and sold her at public auction for one dollar. Frederick Wenck purchased the remains of the “Chrystenah” and floated her at high tide, towing her to Oyster Bay with the intention of rebuilding her into a ferryboat. This reconstruction never occurred and the “Chrystenah” was dismantled, her machinery removed, and the hull run aground on the beach on Long Island Sound, opposite Oyster Bay.
George W. Murdock, (b. 1853-d. 1940) was a veteran marine engineer who served on the steamboats "Utica", "Sunnyside", "City of Troy", and "Mary Powell". He also helped dismantle engines in scrapped steamboats in the winter months and later in his career worked as an engineer at the brickyards in Port Ewen. In 1883 he moved to Brooklyn, NY and operated several private yachts. He ended his career working in power houses in the outer boroughs of New York City. His mother Catherine Murdock was the keeper of the Rondout Lighthouse for 50 years.
The Hudson River was integral to the development of the Delaware and Hudson Canal. The Canal was conceived by Philadelphia dry goods merchants Maurice and Charles Wurts in the second decade of the 19th century, in order to transport anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines to New York City. The coal traversed the 108-mile-long Canal, winding through the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink, Bashakill, Sandburgh and Rondout valleys before arriving at the Hudson River near Kingston, NY. From there, the cargo would travel south on the Hudson for over eighty miles to supply the primary market in New York City. Coal was also shipped north to Albany—about forty-five miles—and from there it could be transported on the Erie Canal to support the westward expansion of the population.
Island Dock in the Rondout Creek showing coal loader machines made by the Dodge Coal Storage Co. of Philadelphia. The canal boats behind the steamboat have had their rear compartments 'hipped', the addition of higher sidewalls to accommodate a greater load, and appear to possibly rafted together to be towed by the steamboat. D&H Canal Historical Society Collection, #73.22.
Benjamin Wright (the chief engineer of the middle section of the Erie Canal) oversaw the original plans for the D&H Canal, which date from 1823. He believed that “the Canal boats may navigate the Hudson. A steam boat of 50 horse power will tow ten of them, and if double manned will perform the trip to New York and back in 2 days, the distance 100 miles.” However, the earliest canal boats, which were 75 feet long and 9 feet wide, with a capacity 30 tons, proved unsuitable for travel on the river. As a result, coal had to be offloaded from canal boats to other vessels at Rondout for transport on the Hudson River—a time-consuming and costly process. In Steamboats for Rondout Donald Ringwald writes, “...the canalboats obviously had to be small size and because of this and a need to keep them on their regular work, they generally did not go beyond the Company works on Rondout Creek.” By 1831, the Company had begun purchasing barges for use on the Hudson. The first two were the Lackawanna (146 feet in length) and the James Kent (135 feet in length), and to tow them, the D&H Canal Company “chartered and then purchased an elderly sidewinder named Delaware.”
As the Canal Company prospered, the Canal was enlarged. In the 1840s, the depth was incrementally increased from four to five feet, with no change in the original width of thirty-two feet. In 1847, anticipating increased traffic from a deal with the Wyoming Coal Association (which later became the Pennsylvania Coal Company) to transport their coal on the D&H Canal, the company enlarged the waterway, which reached its final depth of six feet and width of forty to fifty feet by 1850. The new dimensions of the Canal accommodated boats that were ninety-one feet long, fourteen and a half feet wide, and could carry up to 130 tons of coal.
Safe navigation of the Hudson was considered so important that, in a letter dated January 21, 1852 from head engineer Russel Farnum Lord to President John Wurts, a discussion of the new boats for the enlarged canal noted: “The Birdsall Lattice Boats derive their advantage of carrying the largest cargoes, mainly, if not entirely, from the difference in their weight when light – Their plan of construction however is such that there is a reason to doubt their durability and substantial ability for use on the river.” Later, referring to boats from a different builder, he wrote: “From the experience had, it is evident that the Round Bow Section Scows are, and will be, the best and most desirable for the Coal Canal business – With them an important and permanent reduction in the rate of freight may be established – The only draw back is, whether they will be competent for the river transportation.” The cost of handling the coal at Rondout was uppermost in their minds and the larger boats that the company ordered proved Hudson River – worthy.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, rafts of up to 100 canal scows were frequently encountered on the Hudson. On August 18, 1889 The New York Times wrote:
Very few persons who journey up or down the Hudson River either upon the palatial steamers or upon the railway trains that run along both banks of this great waterway know how great an amount of wealth is daily floated to this city on the canalboats and barges that compose the immense tows that daily leave West Troy, Lansingburg, Albany, Kingston, and other points along the river bound for this city…. From Kingston, which is the tide-water outlet of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, another class of merchandise is shipped in the same manner. From the mouth of the Rondout Creek, which forms the harbor of the thriving and busy city of Kingston, can be seen emerging every evening huge rafts of canalboats, tall-masted down-Easters, and barges of various sorts, laden with coal, ice, hay, lumber, lime, cement, bluestone, brick, and country produce. Many of these craft have received their cargoes at the wharves of Kingston, while others have come from the coal regions about Honesdale and Scranton, in Pennsylvania, all bound for this port and consigned to, perhaps, as many different persons as there are boats in the tow.”
From its opening in 1828 through the closing of most of the canal in 1898—and even through 1917, when the section from Rosendale to Rondout finally stopped carrying cement—the Delaware and Hudson Canal was responsible for vast amounts of traffic on the Hudson River. Indeed there would not have been a Delaware and Hudson Canal without the Hudson River!
 H. Hollister M.D., History of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. Unpublished MS c1880. p. 22.
 Donald C. Ringwald, Steamboats For Rondout, Passenger Service Between New York and Rondout Creek, 1829 Through 1863. Steamship Historical Society of America, Inc. 1981. p. 17.
 Larry Lowenthal, From the Coalfields to the Hudson. Purple Mountain Press. 1997. pp. 142-48.
 The letters of Russell F. Lord, chief engineer of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, June 1848 to October 1852. D&H Canal Historical Society collection #2016.01.01. Transcribed by Audrey M. Klinkenberg.
 New York Times, August 18, 1889.
Bill Merchant is the historian and curator of the D&H Canal Historical Society in High Falls, NY. He lives in a canal side, canal era house in High Falls with his wife Kelly where he also works as a double bass luthier and antique dealer.
This blog is written by:
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.