Twenty-seven years ago, the remains of two Hudson River schooners were identified at a remote dock where they were abandoned in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Historic photographs of the schooners from 1914 and 1918 were located offering detailed information about their layout and rig. The New York State Division for Historic Preservation and Grossman and Associates Archaeology digitally recorded the more intact of the two hull bottoms producing photographs and a plan drawing. An article describing this project and summarizing the historic context of Hudson River sloops and schooners appeared in Sea History No. 77, Spring, 1996.
The Hudson River was New York’s “Main Street” for at least 200 years and sloops and schooners were the principle vehicles of its commerce. Even after the Age of Steam dawned in 1807, these boats continued to evolve and improve through the introduction of centerboards, greater carrying capacity and changes in working equipment. The last generation of these boats soldiered on until the end of the nineteenth century carrying bulk freights such as iron ore, sand and bricks. Their graceful movements and white sails were often captured by the artists of the Hudson River School and nostalgia for these quiet, powerful and non-polluting boats led to the construction of the Clearwater, a modified replica of a mid-nineteenth century example, launched in 1969.
Since this effort, more has been learned about the Hudson’s sloops and schooners. Intact examples with preserved decks, bowsprits, and in some cases deck cargos have been discovered well below the river’s surface through remote sensing technologies and diver surveys. Nevertheless, the schooners studied in 1993 revealed important details about the framing and configuration of these regionally significant boats not available in the sparse written record. We observed that the centerboards were placed on one or the other side of the keel so as not to weaken the backbone of these boats. To counteract the added weight on one side, we found that the mainmast of one was stepped off center on the opposite side. We also found evidence in the more intact hull of added frames and riders used ostensibly to reinforce an aging hull for continuing service. There was some evidence to suggest that the more intact hull was built as a single-masted sloop and later re-rigged with two masts as a schooner at a time when this was done to reduce crews in the face of rising labor costs.
Carla Lesh, Collections Manager and Digital Archivist of the Hudson River Maritime Museum and I visited the site at low tide several days ago. Ice and debris have demolished the more lightly framed of the two schooners but the one that was carefully recorded thankfully remains much as it did in 1993. The site is located on public land and protected under state and federal statute. Should you encounter this or other historic wreck sites, please refrain from disturbing them in any way. They are important touchstones of our maritime heritage and can still answer questions about our past that cannot be answered in the written record.
Mark Peckham is a trustee of the Hudson River Maritime Museum and a retiree from the New York State Division for Historic Preservation.
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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2018 issue of the Pilot Log.
Most of the people who lived in the Hudson River Valley 200 years ago are hard to spot now; all the more so, the black men and women from the Valley, who were invisible even at the time. We know that Blacks worked on the sloops, steamboats and canal boats, because - well, because they must have. They must have travelled along the canals and on the river, too. But we have not found many indications that they did.
New York State passed gradual manumission laws in 1799 and 1817, which led to slavery winding down until it was abolished altogether in 1827. [Editor’s note: Slavery continued unchecked in other states until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 abolished slavery for the entire nation.] During the years when it was still supported by law, there are advertisements for slaves who had freed themselves by escaping from their masters, or who were offered for sale. A $30 reward was offered in 1789 for Martineek, who was 19 and had been four seasons employed in a sloop between Albany and New York City. In 1794 an unnamed Negro man, 27, was offered for sale; he was an excellent hand for the slooping business, having been eight seasons employed on this river. In such cases, it is interesting, that the fugitive is richly, if briefly, described, while the owner, ironically is a blank, except for the name.
A warmer glimpse comes from a diary kept by an Englishman who travelled to Niagara Falls in 1800. The crew of the sloop he travelled on included Nicholas, a free Black acting as steward, cook, cabin-boy, &c. who had purchased his own freedom and that of his wife, hoping to soon buy his children; he "performs well on the violin, and is very smart. [3 days later] Went on shore; took with us Nicholas and his violin, the fiddle soon got the girls together; we kicked up a dance and kept it up till midnight. Treated with spruce-beer and gingerbread."1
Southern slave owners and their families fled the heat and diseases of the summer and headed to Ballston Spa and Saratoga. Naturally, they took with them their enslaved personal attendants. A striking glimpse of how oblivious the slave holders could be to the presence of their slaves is from one of a series of letters in a Boston newspaper about a trip along the Erie Canal, which shows a slave-holder from Tennessee discussing slavery in the hearing of his slaves with a Bostonian who hoped for the national abolition of slavery.
Arrived in Worcester at 9. In a few moments I was in the stage coach wheeling towards Northampton. There was a gentleman with his family in the coach from Vicksburg, and two colored servants or slaves. They, together with myself, constituted the whole load. We had a prolonged and full conversation upon slavery. *** He observed that he had conversed with one of these fanatical abolitionists the evening previous, who knew nothing at all about the subject; that his feelings had been much irritated, and that he finally dropped the subject by telling his opponent that if he would come down to Vicksburg, they would argue the case effectually for him with a piece of rope. *** Before the conversation closed, however, his feelings seemed very much changed and softened, and he declared that he was not only willing to stand to law and government, but that he believed the whole system of slavery to be wrong and evil -- that free labor would be much better, and that he should be entirely willing and even desirous of emancipating all his slaves upon his cotton plantation and substituting free labor, if any feasible means of accomplishing it could be devised.2
The abolitionist either didn’t notice or chose not to mention the efforts of the enslaved personal attendants to hide any sign of their interest in the discussion.
An English traveler on a steam-boat up the Hudson wrote of noticing a respectably dressed Black woman who had not joined the other passengers at dinner. The woman explained that "white people don't like to eat with colored people," and yet sleeping accommodations on the over-night steamboats and on the canal-boats were bunkhouse style, with a curtain dividing the cabin, women on one side and men on the other, so that white people would have to accept sleeping in the same room with the colored.
1. John Maude. Visit to the Falls of Niagara in 1800, London, 1826, 5, 16.
2. American Traveller (Boston, Massachusetts), September 20, 1836.
Editor's Note: Enslaved in a Free State
As northern states began to pass manumission laws in the early 19th century, slavery, once the law of the land, began to become legally complicated. Free Black communities dotted the landscape of New York State throughout its history, but even free people were never truly free. Solomon Northup was the free-born son of a freed slave and a free woman of color. He and his wife Anna were living in Saratoga, NY in 1841 when he was lured to Washington D.C. on the promise of a musician’s job (he was an accomplished violinist). When he arrived in the slaveholding city, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in New Orleans. His harrowing journey is recounted in his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853. He eventually returned to New York with the help of abolitionists, and was freed in 1853.
In 1857, Dred Scott v. Sanford came before the Supreme Court. Scott had been born into slavery in Virginia, but was moved to the free state of Illinois in 1830 and later to Wisconsin Territory (also free), where Scott was legally married to Harriet Robinson (also enslaved). At that time, slave marriages were not recognized by law. When the slave owner returned to Missouri, he left Scott in Wisconsin Territory and rented out his services, which was illegal under territorial law. When the slave owner died, his wife inherited the Scott family and continued to lease out their services. When they attempted to purchase their freedom, she refused, prompting Dred Scott to sue for his freedom. After ten years of litigation, the case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1857, where Scott argued that having spent time in a free state, he was legally entitled to freedom. Their decision is widely regarded as one of history’s great injustices. They ruled that no Black person, free or enslaved, could claim citizenship, and were therefore unable to petition the court for their freedom. Only two justices dissented.
In New York State, abolitionist sentiments were strong. The Erie Canal was used as part of the Underground Railroad and helped many enslaved people escape to Canada. Hudson River sloops were also frequently mentioned in runaway slave notices as avenues to freedom. Thanks in large part to the New York Manumission Society, which was founded in 1785, New York State passed gradual manumission in 1799. At that point, any child born after 1799 was legally free, but was instead required to serve as an indentured servant until age 28 for men and 25 for women. In 1817, another manumission law was passed which freed all enslaved people born before 1799 by 1827. Indentured children continued to serve out their terms until they were of age, meaning that people remained enslaved in New York until as late as the 1840s.
These famous accounts illustrate just a few of the problems Black communities, both free and enslaved, faced during the first half of the 19th century, even in free states.
George A. Thompson was a teacher and then a librarian, before he realized that what he really wanted was to be a harmless crackpot who goes time-travelling in 200-year-old newspapers. Being aware that our society values crackpots but doesn't reward them, he did not quit his day job, of course. Now that he is retired, he spends as little time as possible in the 21st century. One of the fruits of his travels was finding a paragraph in a newspaper from 1823 that reported on the earliest known baseball game in America -- it made him famous for about 72 hours.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2018 issue of the Pilot Log.
A remarkable family of African American river men participated in the transition from working sail to steam during America’s Industrial Revolution. Sometimes referred to as the Black Schuylers, the family began with one or more sloops early in the nineteenth century and seized the opportunity to acquire steamboats early in the 1840s. The Schuyler Steam Tow Boat Line figured prominently in the operation of steam tows on the Hudson River and by 1888 reportedly employed eighteen boats in Albany in the towing of canal boats on the river. The family acquired real estate in Albany’s south end between Pearl Street and the river, traded grain and coal, issued stock, and invested in railroading. Their wealth placed them in Albany’s elite business and charitable circles and their esteemed status led to their burial in Albany’s prestigious Albany Rural Cemetery alongside Albany’s other business and political leaders. That so little is known of this family and its accomplishments may be more a reflection of their race than of their accomplishments. The family’s identity as Black, while not a barrier to their early success in business, may have played a discriminatory role in their lack of prominence in the historical record. Ironically, the lighter skin of later generations may also have played a role in their lack of visibility in more recent Black History scholarship. While incomplete, it is hoped that this account may spur further research into the life and contributions of this Hudson River family.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Albany’s commerce and financial opportunities were almost entirely dependent upon the city’s position at the head of ship navigation on the Hudson River. The river served as New York’s “Main Street” well into the nineteenth century and Albany was strategically situated near the confluence of the upper Hudson River and the Mohawk River. Although Albany received larger ships, much of the freight and passengers coming in or out of Albany before the 1807 advent of steamboats was carried by single and double-masted sloops and schooners of 100 tons capacity or less. These sailing vessels continued to carry freight into the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, even as steamboats soon attracted much of the passenger business. Captain Samuel Schuyler, the progenitor of the Black Schuylers, began and sustained his career with these boats and raised his sons Thomas and Samuel on them.
Albany grew rapidly in the 1820s and 1830s as a direct result of the surge in freight handling brought about by the much heralded completion of the Champlain and Erie canals in 1823 and 1825 respectively. Both canals terminated in Albany. Freight moving east and south from Canada, Vermont, the Great Lakes region and the interior of New York was shipped on narrow, animal-towed canalboats with limited capacity. 15,000 such boats were unloaded at Albany in 1831. These cargoes needed to be stockpiled and transferred to larger sloops and schooners for trip to New York City and other Hudson River towns. Over time, steamboats became more efficient and reliable, especially after Livingston-Fulton monopoly on steamboats in New York was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1824.
One innovation with implications for canal freight was steam towing which presented an economical alternative to “breaking-bulk,” the laborious process of unloading and transferring cargoes at canal terminals. Steam-powered sidewheel towboats appear to have been introduced on the Hudson River in the 1840s and could tow long strings of loaded canalboats directly to their destinations without unloading. Captain Schuyler’s sons capitalized on this concept and transitioned from carrying freight on sloops to towing rafts of canalboats and other craft behind powerful steamboats. They were at the right place at the right time and had the experience and extensive business connections to make the most of this innovation.
Captain Samuel Schuyler (1781-1841 or 1842) was one of Albany’s first African American businessmen. His origins in Albany are obscure but his surname suggests that he was enslaved by the Dutch-American Schuylers who were among Albany’s wealthiest and politically most prominent families. Philip Schuyler (1733-1804), known for his role in the American Revolution and early advocacy for canals, held slaves in Albany and at his other properties. Slavery was practiced extensively in Albany County until gradually abandoned in the early nineteenth century.
Albany County manumission records report that a slave named Sam purchased his freedom in 1804 for $200 from Derek Schuyler. It is possible, but by no means certain, that Sam is the same man later referred to as Captain Samuel Schuyler. The fact that Samuel married in 1805 so soon after this date lends further credence to this possibility.
Samuel Schuyler is described as a “Blackman” in the Albany tax roll of 1809 and a “skipper” and free person of color in the Albany directory of 1813. He was involved in the Hudson River sloop trade and owned property in the area of the waterfront which appears to have included docks and warehouses at the river and a home on South Pearl Street. He married “a mulatto woman” named Mary Martin or Morton (1780-1847 or 1848) and had eight or more children with her including Richard (1806-1835), Thomas (1811-1866) and Samuel (1813-1894). Richard was baptized in Albany’s Dutch church on North Pearl Street. Captain Schuyler came to own a flour and feed store as well as a coal yard at or near the waterfront. His sons joined the business which was known as Samuel Schuyler & Company in the 1830s.
The elder Captain Schuyler died in 1841 or 1842. After his burial, or perhaps after their mother’s burial in 1848, the younger Schuylers erected an imposing monument in the new Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, established in 1844. The monument is a tapered, four-sided column resting on a plinth. It is significant that the column is engraved with a realistic bas relief anchor commemorating his sailing career and the three chain links denoting the fraternal organization Odd Fellows to which he apparently belonged. An inscription notes that the monument is dedicated to “OUR PARENTS.” That Schuyler and his family were accepted in a prominent location in the cemetery in spite of their African-American heritage is noteworthy because at the time the Albany Rural Cemetery had a separate section designated for African-American burials.
The younger Samuel Schuyler (1813-1894) and his brother Thomas (1811-1866) both began their careers in the sloop trade. Thomas began his career as a cabin boy in his father’s sloop and progressed in skill and responsibility. Samuel attended the old Beverwyck School in Albany and began his apprenticeship aboard the sloop Sarah Jane at age 12. He became the master of the sloop Favorite and later the Rip Van Winkle. He then purchased the Rip Van Winkle and together with his brother Thomas bought the sloops Anna Marie and Favorite. Samuel Schuyler married Margaret M. Bradford (1816-1881) and Thomas Schuyler married Ellen Bradford (1820-1900). The brothers appear to have bought their first steamboats, including the Belle, in 1845. The towboat enterprise was operating in the 1840s as the Schuyler Towboat Line and may have been incorporated in 1852. In that year the Schuylers financed and built the America, the powerful and iconic flagship of their fleet. Samuel became the company’s president and Thomas became the firm’s treasurer. Both men were active in Albany business and charitable circles serving as officers of bank, stock and insurance companies, trade organizations and charitable endeavors. Their business interests extended beyond towing as evidenced by a $10,000 investment in the West Shore Railroad built along the Hudson’s west shore through Newburgh, Kingston, Catskill and Albany.
Schuyler’s towboat business clearly prospered. In 1848, Samuel bought a relatively new but modest brick house at the corner of Trinity Place and Ashgrove Place in Albany’s South End and greatly enlarged it. Among other changes, he added an imposing round and bracketed cupola at the roof, making the house one of the largest and most stylish in the neighborhood. The house still stands. Thomas appears to have been a driving force in financing and building a new Methodist-Episcopal church nearby at Trinity Place and Westerlo St. in 1863. The Albany Hospital and the Groesbeckville Mission also benefitted from his philanthropy. Thomas died in 1866 and was buried alongside his father beneath a Gothic-style tombstone. His brother Samuel published a tribute to his brother which memorialized his many contributions to the Albany community.
An 1873 stock certificate indicates that the Schuyler’s company was at that time doing business as Schuyler’s Steam Tow Boat Line. The certificate proudly includes an engraving of the America and indicates that D.L. Babcock served as
president, Thomas W. Olcott as secretary and Samuel Schuyler as treasurer. Thomas W. Olcott, a wealthy White banker prominent in Albany society was known to be sympathetic to African Americans, most notably having an elderly Black servant buried in the Olcott family plot in the Albany Rural Cemetery.
By 1886, Howell & Tenney’s encyclopedic History of the County of Albany has little to say about Schuyler other than a perfunctory sentence that he “now employs eighteen boats, used exclusively for towing canal-boats.” Other Albany businessmen and industrialists are profiled at considerable length, but aside from a brief sentence about Schuyler and his very large business, nothing further is mentioned. Is it possible that his African American heritage, despite being half “mullato” from his mother, had now become a negative consideration in his social standing in the community?
Samuel Schuyler sold his large 1857 towboat Syracuse to the Cornell Steamboat Company in Kingston in 1893. He died in 1894 and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery some distance away from his parents in a new but equally popular area of the cemetery. His burial plot is located near the “Cypress Fountain” where other prominent New Yorkers including the Cornings and U.S. President Chester Arthur are buried. Close at hand is the imposing monument dedicated to Revolutionary War Major General Philip Schuyler. Samuel’s ponderous granite monument is designed in the popular Victorian style of the day and is a proportional expression of the family’s wealth. Samuel and Margaret’s children and possibly his grandchildren are buried alongside of him.
There are many unanswered questions about the Schuylers and their careers on the Hudson River and conflicting accounts that need resolution. It is hoped that this brief account may lead to new research that could shed light on this family, its social and business contributions and the ever evolving issues surrounding race in eighteenth and early nineteenth century New York.
Samuel Schuyler Jr's granite stone monument in section 32 of the Albany cemetery. His monument is near that of the Erastus Corning family (steamboats and railroads) and near the mid-nineteenth century monument erected to Rev War Major General Philip Schuyler. It is in what was one of the premiere areas of the cemetery in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Stefan Bielinski, The Colonial Albany Social History Project; The People of Colonial Albany, website hosted by the New York State Museum, exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov
Howell & Tenney, History of the County of Albany, W.W. Munsell & Co., New York 1886.
Abbott, Reverend W. Penn, Life and Character of Capt. Thomas Schuyler, Charles Van Benthuysen & Sons, Albany, 1867.
Albany County Hall of Records, Manumission Register.
Tashae Smith is a former Education Coordinator of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. She has a BA in History from Manhattanville College and is attending the Cooperstown Graduate Program for her MA in museum studies.
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.
The Hudson River sloop was the main means of transportation on the Hudson River from the early days of Dutch settlement in the 17th century (1600s) until the advent of the steamboat as an affordable alternative in the 1820s. Based on a Dutch design, this single-masted sailboat carried passengers and cargoes up and down the Hudson River between New York and Albany and points in between for over two hundred years. There were hundreds of these vessels. A trip between New York and Albany could take anywhere from 24 hours (a very fast trip) to several days, as speed was dependent on wind and weather conditions. Passengers prepared by bringing food and drink to enhance what was offered on board, and something to do with their time, like books and sewing in case the wind was light. Sometimes if there was no wind a sloop would anchor, and passengers would go ashore for a picnic or a stroll.
For cargo that was perishable, a slow trip by sail could be a problem, but for many cargoes speed was not as crucial. Food produced in the Hudson Valley was important for centuries to the citizens of New York City, and sloops carried all manner of produce and live animals to provide meat for New York, as well as hay for the horses that traversed the city streets. Lumber, stone, and bricks to build New York City were also transported by sloops on the Hudson. Long after passengers had left the slower sloops for the new speedier steamboats, Hudson River sloops continued to carry bulk cargoes used to build the city. In fact, as late as the 1890s some of the sloops were still being used to transport heavy cargoes like stone, as the sloop was the cheapest way to ship when speed was not that important.
Today a replica Hudson River sloop, the Clearwater, sails the Hudson, as she has since 1969, carrying passengers and teaching them about the importance of cleaning up the Hudson and keeping it clean for the benefit of people and wildlife. A pioneer in the movement to improve the quality of the Hudson River for everyone, the Clearwater has been joined by several other similar and equally important organizations devoted to the cleanup and improvement of the Hudson River.
The Clearwater is also a testament to the beauty of the once common Hudson River sloop.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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.
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