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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. David and his wife raised their two daughters on the barge and still live 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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