The Waterfront Museum was founded in 1986 to provide programs in education and culture aboard an historic vessel and to advocate for and expand public waterfront access in the NY Metropolitan area.
The Museum relocated to Red Hook, Brooklyn in 1994 as a permanent homeport after operating in Liberty State Park in Jersey City & Hoboken, NJ; Piermont, NY; and South Street Seaport, NYC.
Coming to Red Hook in 1994, an ambitious group of volunteers transformed a former dumping area into what has been cited by the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition as "an ideal example of open space and waterfront access which provides an excellent complement to waterfront development". The Museum's permanent collection includes a nearly one-century old wooden barge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Learn more history of the Museum and of Red Hook by clicking on the links at right.
Waterfront Museum History
The Waterfront Museum was founded in 1986 to provide educational and cultural programs aboard an historic vessel and to advocate for and expand public waterfront access in the NY metropolitan area.
The Museum is housed aboard the Lehigh Valley Railroad Barge #79, built in 1914. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the only floating wooden covered barge of its kind restored and ready to receive visitors.
The Waterfront Museum relocated to Brooklyn in 1994 as a permanent home after seven years of operations in a number of ports-of-call, including Liberty State Park in and Hoboken in New Jersey and Piermont and South Street Seaport in New York City.
Coming to Red Hook in 1994, together with Red Hook developer Greg O'Connell, an ambitious group of volunteers transformed a former dumping area into what has been cited by the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition as "an ideal example of open space and waterfront access which provides an excellent complement to waterfront development".
During this century, the NY Harbor was the largest seaport in the world. Despite this, there is limited access to the waterfront in most communities. The Museum's programs and the restoration of the Barge provide the public with a first hand view of the rescue and operation of the only known surviving wooden example of the railroad navy and its lighterage era (1860-1960). Visitors get to step into another era and experience some of the flavor of an earlier life along the river. Seeing videos and looking at artifacts on the walls and ceilings, they are reminded of how goods were handled prior to today's bridges and tunnels. They witness the impact that technology has had upon the shipping industry and our daily lives.
In its heyday, the Lehigh Valley Railroad Barge #79 was one of thousands owned by the railroads and plying the New York Harbor carrying cargo such as coffee beans or dates and nuts or bags and boxes of general merchandise. With the construction of bridges and tunnels and the modernization of the shipping industry, these wooden barges lost their mandate and became obsolete. The #79 worked until approximately 1960 and then was left abandoned. She was bought by David Sharps in 1985 from pile driver Harry Shelhorn. At that time, she was sunk in the mud in Edgewater, New Jersey.
By operating this unique vessel as a Museum which offers a diverse variety of free and low-cost activities (made possible through support from government, corporate, foundation and private sponsors), the Museum draws visitors from far and wide to enjoy its entertainment, participate in educational and outreach programs and help to develop the pierside community garden. By operating the cultural programs along the style of actual showboats that plied the NY harbor in the early twentieth century, the Museum perpetuates that era of family entertainment and highlights the importance of the waterfront throughout history as a center for community life.
As visitors begin to understand the factors that have resulted in dilapidated shores and abandoned waterfronts, they can begin to understand the present. As plans are being made to revitalize New York's waterfronts, the Waterfront Museum believes an essential element of appreciating this progress is to understand the people of our past who struggled, persevered, and succeeded in making this progress possible. The Museum was founded to preserve the flavor of life along the river by transforming an obsolete vessel into a cultural and educational facility. From the barge and pier, visitors are treated to a rare front view of the Statue of Liberty, and to the tugs, freighters, container and cruise ships which crisscross the harbor daily. The Lehigh Valley Railroad Barge #79 is an authentic floating artifact from the era of railroad lighterage in the New York Harbor (1860-1960). In 1914, the year the LHVRR #79 was built, New York had been the largest seaport in America for almost a century. It would soon become the largest seaport in the world, a position it would hold for the next half-century.
The importance of the barge and lighterage system to the successful operation of the Port of NY cannot be overemphasized. Thirteen railroads served the Port, representing an operating mileage of almost 40,000. Almost all had terminal facilities on the Port's New Jersey shoreline.
The renewed life of an obsolete barge serves to give a home and reference point to launch the many stories that would have gone untold if she had not been salvaged from the mudflats by David Sharps. David was introduced to the maritime world when, at the age of 21, he toured a juggling act on cruise ships in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. His love for barges surfaced as he was caretaker of a barge while studying theater in Paris. Coming to NY, he began again as caretaker for a film producer's sunken barge.
When development dismantled the last of the tug and barge dwellers, the Hudson Waterfront Museum was founded with David elected founding president. Largely at his own cost along with volunteers and donated materials, he floated and restored the Barge, placed it on the National Register of Historic Places (with the help of Norman Brouwer, curator of ships at Southstreet Seaport) and has developed a base of funding for free programs open to the general public.
Today, the Barge is a rarity based not only upon her historical significance and social impact but also upon her pristine state of preservation. David's story excites people and provides a real example as to how one person can make a difference in perpetuating maritime heritage and the flow of history's course.
Please help the continued preservation and upkeep of this historic vessel and support the Museum's cultural and educational programs with a contribution today.
Red Hook History
The Dutch established the village of Red Hook (Roode Hoek) in 1636. Red Hook was one of the earliest areas in Brooklyn to be settled. The area was named for its red clay soil and the hook shape of its peninsular corner of Brooklyn that projects into the East River. A map from the 1760s shows a developed village at a time when there was little else in Brooklyn. In the 1850s the Atlantic Basin opened and Red Hook became one of the busiest ports in the country.
Grain barges from the Erie Canal would wait at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal for their turn at the active piers. The book and film, "Last Exit to Brooklyn", set in 1952 Brooklyn is a dramatic tale of the lives of Red Hook dock workers and residents. H.P. Lovecraft's short Story "The Horror at Red Hook" (1925), the site about which Budd Shulberg wrote his famous screenplay, "On the Waterfront" and Arthur Miller's play "A View from the Bridge" has added to the area's notoriety.
Red Hook was always known as a tough section of Brooklyn. Al Capone got his start as a small time criminal there, along with his wound that led to his nickname, "Scarface". In 1950, at the peak of the era of longshoremen 21,000 people lived in the neighborhood, many of them in row houses second only in age to those in Brooklyn Heights. Most people lived in the Red Hook Houses, built in 1936 for the growing number of dockworkers.
Today the East and West Houses are home to the great majority of the neighborhood: an estimated 8,000 people or 73 percent of Red Hook’s total population. But after the peak of the 1950s Red Hook suffered a loss of jobs, population and geographical isolation. Over the next decade or so, the neighborhood bled jobs as shipping underwent a dramatic change. Shipping lines began moving goods in long metal containers, rather than the traditional break-bulk shipping of barrels and bales, which were gathered into large nets and hoisted out of a ship’s hold. Containerized shipping required greater upland space and fewer hands to load and unload. The waterfront jobs moved to New Jersey, and the economy of the neighborhood changed drastically. For an image of the neighborhood at the time, visit a 1911 Lithograph map of Red Hook and the New York Dock Company Holdings!
The Red Hook Houses, built in 1938, were originally built for families of docworkers and are one of the first and largest Federal Housing projects in the country. The 1990 Census estimated the population at just fewer than 11,000 with more than a third under age 18. That same year the average income per household was under $10,000. Unemployment in Red Hook was estimated at 30 percent among men and 25 percent among women. Two other major events influenced Red Hook’s fate: the 1946 opening of the Gowanus Expressway and the 1950 opening of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the borough.
If the history of Red Hook is to some extent the retelling of what once was, because of its isolation much of the neighborhood was left unchanged. In the present the neighborhood continues to draw the curious from outside. Added to the trickle of tourists, however, are the residents of the Red Hook Houses, who along with a swell of activists and artists drawn to Red Hook over the last two decades by the low rents, industrial, old world charm and astounding views. The history of the neighborhood to the present day is also intertwined with the ill-conceived plans of state and city government.
In June 1994 the neighborhood and the community board released its 197a plan, a document submitted to the city pointing the way for waterfront revival. According to the 197a, in 1972 the city approved an urban renewal plan to develop 230 acres of waterfront for a modern container port, waterfront park and 225 units of housing for those who would be displaced by the container port. The proposal, according to the plan, “put a cloud of condemnation over many residential blocks which were eventually not taken due to changes in the internal container port design. This led to further decline and abandonment of housing.”
The city the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has a troubled history in Red Hook. Acording to one local tour guide, “The Port Authority has divested itself of several hundred acres with little or no long-term planning,” Gov. Mario Cuomo’s campaign literature in 1994 advertised the neighborhood’s Fish Port as a $27 million investment in the neighborhood that created 700 jobs. What the ad forgot to mention, was that the Fish Port had closed well before the literature was distributed, just six months after it opened. He and others have estimated it cost $42 million to build including leasing fees and other expenses. In 1993 the Port Authority sold the property for $2 million to Erie Marine Associates. They then rented a portion of the property to the City who redeveloped the waterfront into an evidence impound lot. “The most stunning views on the Harbor are commanded by broken-down cars,” At Bay and Columbia streets a cheerful green-and-white Fish Port logo still points the way home. To their credit, the police department, as part of the sale agreements, built the Columbia Street Pier, a public esplanade that extends out into Gowanus Bay. The agency also agreed to pay $50,000 toward the annual maintenance of the Firefighter Louis Valentino Pier and Park at the end of Coffey Street.
The Valentino Pier, completed summer after much wrangling and pressure from the neighborhood, does command one of the best views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty in the city. In another transaction, the Port Authority in 1992 sold developer Greg O’Connell 28 acres, 10 of them on the waterfront, for the bargain price of $500,000. O’Connell redeveloped the Beard Street Pier into space for small manufacturing and has helped bring several businesses into the neighborhood and to provide a half-mile of waterfront public esplanade.
This first phase of the public waterfront access plan is constructed as an open pier where O’Connell hosts to the annual Red Hook waterfront arts festival, the Young People’s Performance Festival and the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition exhibits. Red Hook is also home to the largest concentration of Civil War-era warehouses in the city. In 1995 the Port Authority finally sold the Grain Terminal, built in 1922 off Halleck Street to receive grain shipments coming through the Erie Canal.
O’Connell’s Beard Street Pier was once home to the Trolley Museum. Red Hook resident Bob Diamond started the small museum in the 1990s with the intention of linking the neighborhood to Carroll Gardens once again. He received $210,000 through the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA), in 1996, and started constructing the project but he experienced financial troubles and the project's future is uncertain.
The main neighborhood attraction is the Waterfront Museum located in the Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79, a wooden-covered cargo barge. The barge is the only surviving example of its kind and is anchored at Pier 44 off Conover Street. The museum sponsors educational programs, circus acts and a sunset music series. It is available for rental and hosts a variety of events. What makes the location so wonderful are the fantastic sunsets and amazing waterfront views.
One can only marvel at Red Hook reinventing itself. New residents of "the back" are in awe of the inspirational views of the Statue of Liberty while others enjoy the newly renovated library and commend the opening of Independence Savings Bank, now Santander Bank. From the creation of many community gardens to the recent renovation of an Olympic size swimming pool, this neighborhood is on a rebound. Red Hook is beginning to enjoy the success of its neighbors in Carroll Gardens and Gowanus. Propelled by a community spirit that will fight for positive change, new investment and residents and the investment by business, Red Hook is once again becoming a favorite Brooklyn neighborhood.