Chapter One: Namesake

My River Chronicles Book Cover

Seventy-two years later, nothing more than a pegboard forest of disintegrated pilings remains of Pier 42, where pilot John Harvey met his fate. Today is Memorial Day 2002, and we, the crew of retired New York City fireboat John J. Harvey, are preparing to pay homage to our boat’s namesake.

Pilot Bob Lenney, who steered this vessel for more than twenty years while the boat still served the FDNY Marine Division, noses her slender bow toward the stubby remnants of the covered pier—a grid of timbers, their rotting tips sticking out just a foot or so above the water’s surface. Chief engineer Tim Ivory swings a leg over the side, clutching a small bouquet of all-white flowers that he has duct-taped to the end of a broken broom handle. A crowd gathers on the bow as he leans out over the water, holding on with just one leg, to stab the jagged handle-end into the top of one of the crumbling piles.

I know all this only by way of hearsay and pictures. From where I stand belowdecks, my fingers curled around the smooth brass levers that power the propellers in response to Bob’s commands, I can’t watch it unfold. Because I, fireboat Harvey‘s engineer, stand in the engine room the whole time we’re under way, this ceremony, like all the rest, is to me just another series of telegraph orders: Slow Ahead on the starboard side; Slow Astern on the port.

Between shifts of the levers, I steal glimpses of the harbor through the portholes—round windows just above the river’s rippled surface. Above decks, pilots use the Manhattan skyline for their points of reference, to know where they are or where they’re headed. Here, belowdecks, I use low-lying landmarks: the white tents where fast ferries load, the numinous blue lights in South Cove, the new concrete poured to straighten Pier 53 (which firefighters call the Tiltin’ Hilton) where, on February 11, 1930, FDNY Marine Division pilot John Harvey signaled his deck crew to drop lines and shot south at the helm of fireboat Thomas Willett on his final run.

Nearly three-quarters of a century after his death, as the fireboat named in his honor leaves the pegboard forest, I hold my own private memorial service, issuing a silent prayer. It’s something of a thank-you and something of a nod of acknowledgment: We remember. I whisper about the work we’ve put into preserving the boat over the past year. I tell him about rewiring shorted-out circuits. About our efforts to dis- and reassemble failing, rusty pump parts. About coating her steel surfaces with protective epoxy paints. All this, I explain, is done, in part, to pay homage to him—the man who lives on through this fireboat.

As the boat pushes through the water, I stand at my post, sweating. Though I can’t hear the slosh of bilgewater over the growl of the engines, I can watch it through gaps in the diamond-plate floor. Like every steel vessel, this boat fights a constant, silent battle with the salt water that buoys her. The river seeps through little openings in her seventy-one-year-old skin. It trickles, etching burnt orange stains into the thick white paint that coats the riveted hull. Sometimes the boat rolls and sways and a splash of green overwhelms my porthole view. That’s when I remember that I’m underwater. Less than a half-inch of steel plate separates me from the river.

Only after we’ve pulled away can I make out, through a porthole, a small speck of white where the flowers stand tall in the May sunshine. As the speck disappears against the muted gray of the concrete bulkhead at the water’s edge, the significance of the ceremony fades into the everyday rhythms of the machinery.

* * *

When I moved to New York City from San Francisco in 2000, I had never heard of a fireboat. Now I have found a home in the engine room of a boat born four decades before I was. During long stretches at the controls, when the drone of engines drowns out the mental clutter of my landside life, I wonder about the men stationed here before me. Did they feel left out of the action down here in the cellar? Did they chain-smoke, read, play cards to pass the time while they waited for the pilot’s next command? Career guys, most of them. Firefighters, with an engineering bent. Irish and Italian. Their uncles, fathers, and brothers—firefighters before them—had laid down the paving stones that marked their nepotistic path.

There were no paving stones for me. My father is a car mechanic in Massachusetts. I’m here only by blissful accident, having stumbled aboard in February 2001—a naive young upstart with a university degree. A bubble-salaried dot-commer. A striving, big-city editor. A woman.

When I look at the black-and-white photographs of old-time crews—ranks of short-haired men, some young, shirtless, and grinning; others defiant; a few older ones, impassive, their stern expressions suggesting what a handful the younger ones can be—I want to know them. But I’m not sure the feeling would be mutual. These men probably never imagined that someone like me would be running their boat, their engines. All my compulsive investigations began as an attempt to bridge that gap.

The distance between us is what first fueled my fascination with the fireboat’s history—a fascination that escalated to obsession, then swelled to encompass the history of the Hudson River, whose industries helped forge the nation. I’ve since fallen in love with workboats, with engineering, with the Hudson.

As American society continues to become more virtual, less hands-on, I’m a salmon swimming upstream. I have come to view the transformation of our country through a Hudson River lens. More and more, my days are defined by physical work—shifting levers, turning wrenches, welding steel. As I work and research, a picture begins to form of the history of American industry mapped through personal landmarks. As the United States faces economic upheaval that challenges us to rethink who we want to be as a nation, I have discovered that it pays to take stock of who we have been: a country of innovators and doers, of people who make things, of workers who toil, sweat, and labor with their hands.

My own, personal compulsion to understand the country’s progression was born out of the ashes of the steamship Muenchen. Maybe not being able to witness, firsthand, the leaving of the flowers is what drives me to dig up the details.

* * *

Classic Fireboats in Action 1900-1950 isn’t available on DVD, so when it arrives in a brown padded envelope, I have to pull the TV down from a shelf in the closet instead of just sliding a disc into my laptop. Perched in front of the twelve-by-eight-inch screen that I’ve wired to an old VCR, I rewind the tape over and over again, playing back the same scenes, dredging for details. I slow it down, letting the video advance frame by frame, watching the billowing smoke head toward heaven in a sequence of awkward jumps. The boat I’m straining to find is fireboat Thomas Willett.

The raw footage is grainy. Long scratches gouged into the original film squiggle across the television screen. Abrupt lighting shifts flash every few seconds, casting the images in new shades of black, white, and gray. At the center of the frame, the SS Muenchen lists precariously to port. The North German Lloyd passenger and cargo ocean liner is not only afire, it’s sinking under the weight of all the water the firefighters are using to try to save her. I scoot my chair in closer and squint, my face inches from the screen. Even though I know how this story ends, it doesn’t diminish the knot in my gut as I prepare to watch it unfold.

According to newspaper reports, the Willett (named after New York’s first mayor, who served in the 1660s) was the first of New York City’s fireboat fleet to respond to that morning’s alarm call from her station, fewer than ten piers away. The court records I dug up at the National Archives revealed that the Willett‘s pilot, John Harvey, a forty-eight-year-old career firefighter with nearly twenty-four years on the job, was unmarried and lived at 82 Jane Street with his “permanently crippled” brother William F. and his unwed sister Sadie V.; John J.’s salary, it seems, supported them all. But it’s the Classic Fireboats narrator who reveals that February 11, 1930, happened to be Harvey’s last day before retirement.

Alongside Pier 42, at the foot of Leroy Street in Manhattan’s West Village, the Muenchen sits tipped disconcertingly close to the building on the pier. Her masts, taller than the two-story pier shed beside her, disappear in cumulus clouds of smoke. Firefighters pummel her with water from all sides. Multiple streams—at least five, maybe more—surge through pier-shed windows. Where the water makes contact with the fire’s heat, bursts of smoke leap out, then head for the sky. Less than a hundred feet off the ocean liner’s starboard side, a fireboat delivers still more water, sending ferocious jets of spray onto the ship’s superstructure. But through the haze of the smoke, I can’t tell which boat it is, and the narration—generalities with no play-by-play—offers little assistance.

In the next shot, I watch a few nameless, faceless, helmeted firefighters shifting equipment on the aft deck of a fireboat positioned off the Muenchen‘s stern. This low-quality footage has the film-speed hiccups characteristic of early motion-picture photography, which makes it hard not to assume that people actually moved all Chaplinesque and chicken-like back then, in an age before color existed. The entire shaky video has a security-camera quality to it. Even my frame-by-frame viewing isn’t enough to bear witness. But at least I can make out the nameboard on this boat that’s just moving into view: the James Duane, sister ship to the Willett. I’m getting closer.

But then, as quickly as it begins, the two minutes of tape just ends, midblaze. The video skips ahead to 1932, to the next big fire—a five-alarmer at the Cunard Line’s Pier 54, at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and Fourteenth Street, that was one of the worst pier fires in New York City history. This was the first chance the rookie fireboat, the new flagship of the fleet, had to demonstrate that the $582,500 invested in building the largest, most powerful fireboat in the world was worth every city penny. Making her on-screen debut is the FDNY Marine Division’s first internal combustion-powered vessel, “my” boat: fireboat John J. Harvey. My chest fills up at the sight of her. But with her arrival, I realize that the story I’m so hungry to see has happened off-camera.

Instead, I will hunt down the details of that day in the electronic databases, on microfilm viewer screens, and in archives, with their dusty docket books of tissue-thin pages filled with elegant, slanted script.

Before the Muenchen departed Bremen, I learn, dockworkers had loaded the ship’s cargo spaces with thousands of different items: thirty-five cases of hosiery, five cases of artificial flowers, thirteen cases of hollow glassware (pharmacy vials for Eli Lilly), an entire household’s worth of goods—from linens to bric-a-brac, belonging to a Mrs. Hilda Schaper—and seven thousand canaries.

Back then this assemblage of mismatched break-bulk cargo was the norm. Uniform products like coal or grain that could be sent tumbling loosely down into ships’ holds constituted bulk cargoes. But break-bulk comprised diverse items of all shapes, weights, and sizes packed side by side, one on top of the other, in the gaping maw of a ship’s hold—everything from easels to kid gloves to crockery.

Newspaper articles offer some clues about the fire. Short “reaction” snippets tell about the thousands in New Jersey who “gathered at scores of vantage points along the Palisades [to watch] huge billows of smoke rising from the liner.” Feature stories reconstruct events in full, lurid detail. It is in one of these longer pieces, tucked into a little sentence at the end, that I first read about the canaries. Along with Harvey’s fate, the birds’ story has me transfixed. I can picture the birds in the dark hold, lonely for their lost mountain home.

More details surface at the National Archives, where my big break comes, by chance, in one of the docket books on the rolling cart that the researchers drag out to a special pencils-only (to protect the documents from ink) room. The docket book leads to an extensive paper trail: files full of court claims for lost-property damages or, in Harvey’s case, a loss of life. Sadie Harvey filed a claim for her brother, and stacks of other documents reveal innumerable quotidian details about the lives of Muenchen passengers: masons, housewives, barbers, carpenters, and tailors with names like Otto, Heinrich, Kasper, Barbara, August, and Paul. Along with foreign tourists and returning American vacationers, the steamship carried scores of immigrants planning new lives in the United States. These pages catalog the lives and property that pilot John Harvey had been called upon to save.

* * *

Reported by wireless:

February 10. S.S. Muenchen, Bremen to New York (North German Lloyd Line), was 500 miles east of Sandy Hook, due 11th, 9 a.m.

Landfall was still a night away when the Muenchen steamed past New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, through the Narrows, and into the open mouth of New York’s Upper Bay at nine thirty p.m. on Monday, February 10. According to law and tradition, Captain Feodor Bruenings dropped anchor at New York’s Quarantine, the public health station where, for decades, inbound steamers had been stopping for inspection by immigration and public health officials. In the predawn darkness, a mail tender tied up alongside, and 1,757 mail sacks shot down canvas chutes onto the tender’s deck for delivery to the General Post Office the following morning. In their cabins, vacationers savored their last night aboard, enjoying the calm seas inside the protected harbor, while immigrants tossed and turned with anticipation, knowing that no familiar bed awaited them ashore. All the while, Gotham’s lights twinkled in the distance.

When dawn broke on Tuesday morning, the weak winter sunlight did little to warm the frozen air. As engineers down below fired up the ship’s two triple-expansion steam engines, a rhythmic throb and hiss vibrated up through the decks, telling passengers their wait was over. A pack of assist tugs, with their snub-nosed bows and tall, cylindrical stacks puffing white steam and black coal smoke, shepherded the Muenchen into New York harbor.

Upon entering the mouth of the Hudson, passengers could see the moss-green Statue of Liberty standing guard on the left as they passed Governors Island on the right. Straight ahead, at the very tip of Manhattan Island, a squat, round fort at the water’s edge, Castle Clinton, came into view. Built for the War of 1812, Castle Clinton served as America’s first official immigration center from 1855 to 1890, before passing that torch to Ellis Island. Here, at the tip of Manhattan Island, the feet of ten million immigrants first touched American soil.

* * *

Sitting in the glow of a microfilm reader, I scan the ship’s manifest, silently pronouncing passengers’ names, wondering which of them braved the wind on the deck to watch the seemingly endless expanse of ocean give way to the bustle of New York harbor as they followed a path taken by millions before them. How long did they plan to stay in the United States? inquired immigration officials. “Always,” came the reply.

A few months earlier, on October 29, 1929—Black Tuesday—the stock-market plunge had rattled the city and the nation. Then, as now, the U.S. economy was in a state of flux. But New York City still buzzed with activity. Each morning, men in hats and ties filled the avenues on their way to work. In the Wall Street district alone, half a million commuters continued to staff banks; railroad corporations; insurance and telegraph companies; steamship builders; and coal, iron, steel, and copper dealers. Ticker tape machines rattled off trades, and meanwhile, all along the waterfront, and up and down the Hudson River, the world’s cargo changed hands.

Shipping had fueled the city’s economy, making Manhattan the dominant American seaport since before the Civil War and one of the world’s major international ports by 1900. On that Tuesday morning in February 1930, West Street teemed with trucks ready to transport the barrels, crates, and pallets full of cargo that was soon to arrive, for the shipping news that filled page after page of a dozen New York dailies had announced the names of no fewer than seventeen liners due into port. Pictures from the 1930s offer glimpses of what the morning of February 11, 1930, may have looked like. Covered piers fanned out like fingers around the edge of Manhattan—a “horizontal city” that extended over the water, spreading like reflections of the skyscrapers above that stretched skyward. Steamers, ferries, and tugboats pulling strings of barges behind them created rush-hour traffic on a laneless thoroughfare. Although no one in the harbor that day could have heard the change coming above the harbor’s busy hum, the wave of waterfront industry on Manhattan’s shores was already beginning to crest. Within decades, it would vanish.

Steaming north up the west side of Manhattan, the Muenchen entered a major hub of maritime trade, the center of commercial shipping. En route to Pier 42, the ship passed crowded freight piers operated by a multitude of railroads. Typical of most transatlantic steamship terminals of the time, the North German Lloyd Line’s pier shed was built on a platform supported by a field of wooden piles driven one hundred feet into Hudson River mud. On this dais stood an ornate two-story building supported by exposed steel framing with catwalks, which extended above the shed’s peaked roofline, serving as hoisting towers for loading and unloading. Clad in a skin of tin or copper sheeting, the building had large wooden cargo-bay doors along the lower level, while the upper level housed a long, open hall for passengers, with skylights that ran the length of the ceiling.

As the Muenchen approached, the longshoremen were waiting. Having read about offloading jobs in the papers the day before the ship pulled in, hordes of dockworkers had assembled on the streets near the piers, dipping now and then into local saloons to take shelter from the cold. The lucky ones whom the bosses had picked for work braced themselves for what would be a grueling day, well aware that hundreds of men stood ready to take their place should they falter.

Whenever a ship pulled in, the longshoremen worked for days on end with little more than a meal break. They labored in sweltering ship holds in summer, navigated rain-slicked gangways in spring, and on winter days like February 11, 1930, skidded across icy docks, all while hefting up to three-hundred-plus-pound loads. A worker was expected to move one ton each hour. It’s no surprise they suffered three times as many injuries as construction workers and eight times those suffered in manufacturing. Brutal as it was, the work paid better than anything else readily available to a blue-collar worker without a high school education.

When the Muenchen came into view, the first crew of longshoremen, specially picked for preparations, kicked into gear. They opened pier doors and readied gangways, lines, and fenders. After the fleet of helper tugs nudged the Muenchen into the slip, the unloading race began—for people and cargo alike. At 9:10 a.m. the first passengers went ashore. First-class passengers disembarked first, of course—the notables among them posing for pictures that would run in the evening papers. In 1930, ship dockings still made news.

For the next hour offloading gangs rigged the deck, readied the slings, nets, and trucks, and started uncovering the ship’s cargo hatches. Hollers and whistles erupted as men heaved sacks onto platforms, snagged carton edges with sinister-looking wood-handled steel hooks, and rolled wood barrels up steep planks. Movement of most goods demanded sheer brute force. Though offloading had begun, there was still no sign of the fire.

The dock was soon covered with a jumble of paper cartons and wooden casks and crates. Five cases of umbrella cloth, thirty-seven tubs of cheese, forty-three cases of harmonicas, and twenty cases of bronze wire—these items and hundreds more, stowed in a single cargo hold, had been loaded into place by hand. Efficient shipping depended on filling every inch of usable space, so dockworkers in Bremen had crammed cargo into compartments with little regard for what items might not keep good company. That’s the way things were done. And such imprudence kept New York City’s fireboats in business.

* * *

When pilot John Harvey rounded up on the south side of Pier 42 at 11:30 a.m., he maneuvered fireboat Thomas Willett into position off the starboard quarter of the Muenchen, adjacent to Hold Six. As firefighters on board readied the deck guns to spray water, Harvey held the boat on station just a few feet from the burning liner. Just then, a tremendous blast erupted.

Showers of glass flew off the Muenchen as the ship’s portholes shattered. A large steel plate shot into the sky and landed inches from a firefighter, who froze in his tracks. The 263 crew members still aboard the ship scurried like insects, sliding down ropes and jumping to the decks of nearby barges and small craft.

Captain Bruenings rushed to his cabin to snatch up the ship’s papers and the logbook. Discovering he was trapped inside, he chopped through a wood partition with an ax, then slid down a mooring line to the pier to escape.

Three more explosions followed in quick succession, blowing the bottom out of the aft end of the ship. The river rushed into the lower hold as her ragged flanks settled into the mud. Despite the flooding, the ship continued to burn from the inside out, the fire feeding on cargo and the woodwork in the cabins.

Meanwhile, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which happened to be holding a two-day conference at the Hotel Pennsylvania, suspended the day’s sessions to stand on the roof and watch the inferno.

* * *

A year after the Muenchen fire, a rivet gang, at the foot of Twenty-third Street in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Bay, set to work fitting steel. Crews were building, under New York City contract, the largest, most powerful fireboat the world had ever seen. At 130 feet long and twenty-eight feet wide, she would pump eighteen thousand gallons of water per minute—as much as twenty fire trucks. The rest of the FDNY Marine Division’s boats ran on steam; this was to be the first powered by internal combustion. With five engines that generated direct-current electricity to run the propeller motors, she would run 18 miles per hour, and only slightly slower while pumping.

On June 23, Fire Commissioner John Dorman drove the first rivet into the first hull frame. By October, a mere four months later, the boat, dressed in ribbons and bunting, slid down the shipway, with what must have been sparkling cider still dripping off her bow—champagne would have been illegal, with Prohibition still in effect. Mayor Jimmy Walker attended, as did the commissioner and his daughter, clutching several dozen roses in her gloved hands. When the boat was put into service that December, it was said to be the “last word” in marine firefighting apparatus. The model of modern fireboat engineering, the John J. Harvey, designated Engine 57, would set the standard for all fireboats to come.

Meanwhile, at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, another crew of ironworkers threw up steel, still warm from Pennsylvania mills, at the staggering pace of four-and-a-half stories per week. Though lingering on the cusp of the Great Depression, America was still expanding. Four-man rivet gangs perched on wooden planks balanced hundreds of feet above the street. The “heater” would fling a red-hot, mushroom-shaped nugget up to the “sticker-in,” who would catch the rivet in a metal can, pluck it out with tongs, and jam it into an empty hole. Next the “bucker-up” would fit a dolly bar over the mushroom cap-like button-head to brace the still-hot rivet. Then, with a deafening clatter, the “gunman,” or riveter, drove the protruding stem with an air hammer called a rivet gun. The gangs moved at a record clip, because there was money at stake. Not just the cash-filled envelopes the bosses handed them on payday, but also the coins and bills they’d tossed into the hat as a wager that their trade’s gang would beat out all the other trades’ gangs in the sky-high race to build the Empire State Building, a symbol of American engineering prowess that could be seen from miles away.

I caught my first glimpse of the Hudson River from an office in the Empire State Building. The river, like the building, has long since transformed from an industrial site into a tourist attraction. Today, standing in the belly of the fireboat that was born in the wake of steamship Muenchen‘s demise, I look through the engine-room portholes at the meager few finger piers that still remain. I register the gaps, like empty spaces between the teeth of a broken comb.

Buoyed by history, I consider how the past informs the present. The Hudson is known as the river that flows two ways, its waters a brackish mix of seawater from tides pushing upstream and fresh mountain runoff pushing down. I know what it’s like to feel pulled in two directions at once. I oscillate between worlds: white- and blue-collar, virtual and physical, human and machine, preservation and obsolescence, land and water. My days on the Hudson transport me through the past to the present, granting me uncommon access to the lasting lessons of history that somehow, as they likely have through time immeasurable, feel more important today than ever before.

Excerpted from “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America; A Personal and Historical Journey” by Jessica DuLong. Copyright © 2021 by Jessica DuLong.

More to Read


Chapter One

Chapter Two