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lehigh valley no. 79

Lehigh Valley No. 79: The Aerial Shot

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

Yesterday I posted two ideas for shooting the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it sails north on the Hudson River later this week to a Coast Guard-mandated drydock inspection in Waterford, NY. [Follow @museumbarge on Twitter for schedule details.]

Here’s another suggestion for those who like the aerial perspective: the 8th floor terrace of the new Whitney Museum. If you point your camera west you’ll get a shot of this historic barge, a rare monument to the Lighterage Era and currently a floating museum based Red Hook, as it passes the grand old Hoboken Terminal.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Designed by architect Kenneth Murchison, the Beaux Arts Terminal greeted passengers in a grand style by allowing the sun to stream through stained-glass windows made by Louis Tiffany. It opened as a rail and ferry terminal in 1907, just seven years before the Lehigh Valley No. 79 was built in Perth Amboy.  At night, the big red letters on the eastern facade of the Hoboken Terminal light up to read ERIE LACKAWANNA, and the recently restored clock tower marks time for vessels passing by.

There are a million other reasons to visit the Whitney (see my piece here about the history of the site the new building occupies), but on my mind today is Louis Lozowick, an Art Deco-era painter who emigrated from Russia the year before the Hoboken Terminal opened. I first discovered his work in the WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939 with the intent to “indicate the human character of the city, to point out the evidence of achievements and shortcomings, urban glamor as well as urban sordidness.” The editors selected Lozowick’s  wonderful drawing of a railroad barge being pulled by a tugboat to illustrate Lower Manhattan in the 1930s.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

After seeing that evocation of the lighterage system I embarked on a hunt for more of Lozowick’s work, found a giant archive on the Smithsonian’s website, and got lost for hours. He was devoted to bridges, buildings, river traffic — particularly tugboats — and the industrial iconography of cities: gantries, factories, smokestacks, water tanks: many of the elements folks love about the historic landscape of the High Line.  Most of Lozowick’s work was in black & white, which contributes a kind of moodiness and authenticity to his scenes.

It’s easy to fall in love with Louis Lozowick, and as I clicked through the pages of the archive I was amazed at the range of subjects he painted. His wife told the New York Times that “He always did what he wanted to do, he didn’t care about prevalent styles, nor about the market. He was doing abstractions when others were doing realist work, and when others were doing abstract things, he was doing realist pieces.”

What took my breath away at the Whitney Museum was Lozowick’s drawing of a lynching, which is part of a powerful collection of prints made to support a 1930s anti-lynching bill in Congress. It’s completely unlike the rest of his work, in part because it evokes a force of such raw humanity. There are a few other Lozowick’s in the Whitney’s inaugural show, “America is Hard to See,” including some of his abstractions; you can see all of the museum’s holdings here, including “Lynching” (1936).

And: if you’re there to watch the Lehigh Valley No. 79 sail by later this week, be sure to check out Victoria Hutson Huntley’s 1934 depiction of “Lower New York,” which includes an elevated railroad and a couple of tugboats; it’ll put you in just the right mood. The Whitney kindly allowed me to reproduce Huntley’s lithograph here. [As always, click an image to enlarge it.]

Victoria Hutson Huntley, Lower New York, 1934. Lithograph. Whitney museum of American Art, NY

Victoria Hutson Huntley, “Lower New York, 1934.” Lithograph. Whitney Museum of American Art, currently on view in the inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See” (May 1 – Sept. 27, 2015). Used with permission.

Okay, I confess this post digressed from its original purpose: to identify the best aerial spot in Manhattan to photograph the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it begins its northerly voyage in a few days. But this is what happens when you start thinking about railroads, tugboats, the Hudson River and Manhattan’s edge. Everything around us is connected to the past, and the Whitney is both glorious museum and grand, public parapet that puts so much of our cultural and industrial history on display. It’s what the WPA writers considered “urban glamor.”

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Yesterday’s post about the upcoming Hudson River voyage of the Lehigh Valley No. 79 focused on the three former terminal warehouses in view of the High Line: the Baltimore & Ohio’s; the Starrett Lehigh building; and the Terminal and Central Stores complex. But there are several monuments on the river itself that will make fantastic perches for shooting the floating museum as it heads north.

Pier 66 with Frying Pan, John J. Harvey, and railroad tracks

Pier 66 with Frying Pan, John J. Harvey, and railroad tracks

First: Pier 66, at 24th Street. Originally built for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad — later known as the Erie Lackawanna — this float bridge is now home to two historic boats: the John J. Harvey and the Frying Pan. As part of the preservation effort of this Lighterage Era structure the railroad tracks that once connected the barge to the Starrett Lehigh warehouse across today’s West Side Highway are still there, and you can ride a bike across them. You can also grab a beer and burger at the Bar & Grill while you wait for the Lehigh Valley No. 79 to pass by.

69th Street Transfer Bridge with Clearwater Sloop in the background

69th Street Transfer Bridge with Clearwater Sloop in the background

Or: head a bit farther uptown and you’ll find the gorgeous, brooding remains of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, once used by the New York Central Railroad to transfer railroad cars that had floated across the river from Weehawken, NJ.

For the ideal shot, position yourself on the river’s edge and point your camera so you can capture both the Lehigh Valley No. 79 and the infrastructure of the float bridge as the barge passes by. This way you can get a bit of living history in motion. The day I shot the photo above I was lucky to capture Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Sloop as it tacked across the river just a bit north of the transfer bridge.

Follow @museumbarge on Twitter for updates about the barge’s schedule.

For more information about the lighterage system read this excellent short history that includes reminiscences from the men who captained and worked on the tug barges.

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History Sailing By the High Line

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other railroad warehouses: Central Stores (at right) and B&O (at left)

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other former railroad warehouses: Terminal and Central Stores (right) and B&O (left)

One of the great monuments in view of the High Line is the Starrett-Lehigh Building, a behemoth that straddles the superblock between 26th and 27th Streets on Eleventh Avenue. Look at it for more than a minute anytime, day or night, and you’ll most likely see a light flashing in one of the eight miles of windows that circles this enormous building. That’s because it’s filled with design, magazine, new media and advertising firms, and many of its offices double as photo studios.

But in 1931 this 2.2 million square foot building served a very different purpose: it was a terminal warehouse for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, built with funds from the Starrett Investment Corporation. It played a vital role in the Lighterage Era, a time before bridges and tunnels enabled food and commercial goods to be swiftly transferred across the Hudson River. The workhorses of that era were the railroad barges, giant floating platforms that could carry as many as a dozen boxcars from terminals in New Jersey to warehouses in Manhattan. Known as “lighters” or car floats, they were a fixture of the Hudson River landscape for decades. In the 1930s, National Geographic reported that as many as 5,000 barges crossed the Hudson every day. Phillip Lopate, in his excellent book Waterfront, observed that “In their heyday, the barges were almost as synonymous with New York’s iconography as its skyscrapers.”

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

But not every barge carried actual boxcars; a significant number of vessels in the lighterage system were constructed of wood and ferried “less than carload lots” of perishable goods like coffee, flour, rice, sugar, and spices in their protected spaces. Goods were brought on board by longshoremen at a railroad terminal or were transferred on the water from a ship. These tug-powered barges were the only link between ships and railways, allowing cargo that had traveled across oceans to be offloaded and transferred to a railroad terminal like the one built for the Lehigh Valley Railroad on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Once inside, the goods could be stored, re-packed and re-shipped to their final destination.

In the days before trucks hit the newly built Interstate Highway System and airplanes took to the skies, the lighterage system was a vital part of America’s commercial transportation network. It was how stuff got from one place to another.

Later this month millions of us, from the Hudson River’s southern gateway all the way north past Albany, will have the chance to witness a rare and exciting event as the 101-year old Lehigh Valley No. 79, the only surviving all-wooden unit from the Lighterage Era, makes a 35-hour voyage up the river to a dry dock in Waterford, New York. Visitors on the High Line will have the opportunity to watch a very particular bit of history in action as the barge passes three former railroad warehouses located between 26th – 28th Streets: the Baltimore & Ohio (now the site of Bedrock Mini Storage at 241 11th Avenue); the Starrett-Lehigh and the Terminal & Central Stores complex (home to shops, art galleries, and a furniture company). [Note: click on the first image in this post to enlarge it and see all three.]

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

Today the barge is the Waterfront Museum, founded in 1986 and dedicated to promoting an understanding of New York’s maritime history and the ecological importance of the Hudson River estuary. It’s also the home of David Sharps, a former cruise ship entertainer who rescued the barge from the place where it lay grounded in New Jersey, cleared 300 tons of mud that had settled in the hold, and restored it to seaworthy condition. He raised his two daughters on the barge and still lives there at Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Sometime in the next week the Lehigh Valley No. 79 will depart Red Hook and begin its voyage north. There are countless spots on both sides of the Hudson River, from Brooklyn to Waterford, where you can watch this marvelous historic barge pass by. The actual date will be announced soon, but for now there’s a 7-day window, beginning June 23rd. Follow @museumbarge on Twitter or the official Facebook page for details about timing and location. Folks traveling on the barge will Tweet constant updates so you can position yourself on a bridge, at a park, on a mountaintop, or anywhere along the river to take your photo and share it with the world.

The Lehigh Valley N0. 79 has made only three trips up the Hudson River. This summer’s passage was mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which ordered the vessel to be dry-docked and inspected after Hurricane Sandy. Any necessary repairs will be made in Waterford and then the barge will return to its home in Brooklyn. It’s an expensive project, and the Museum is gratefully accepting donations; go here if you’d like to contribute. I just donated $79 in honor of the official number the barge was assigned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad when it rolled off the Perth Amboy Dry Dock in 1914 and assumed its role in the vibrant marriage of river and rail that constituted the Lighterage Era.

For more information about the Waterfront Museum and Lehigh Valley No. 79, visit the official website here, or download the National Register of Historic Registration form [PDF] which includes architectural details about the barge and history of the Lighterage Era.

 

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