Home on the Hudson

Ruth Woodward

NY Central Barge Marinovich means “son of a sailor” in the Croatian language. Mary Marinovich of Harvey Cedars acquired the name by marriage but she is a true daughter of a sailor. She spent her earliest years living on a Hudson River barge, with the deck as a play area and the whole panorama of the Hudson waterfront to stimulate her interest in faraway places. In the days before container ships, the Hudson River was dotted with barges, and Erie Barge 271 was the “old homestead” for Mary.

A barge on the Hudson was a busy and exciting place for a small child to live. Ships from all over the world docked at piers along the New York Harbor. Barges were dispatched to meet the ships and transport their cargoes to factories, refineries or railroad cars. Large sliding doors on the roof of a barge’s freight house would be opened and part of the ship’s cargo would be lowered into the barge. The longshoremen on the dock would board the barge to arrange the cargo which was usually bundled in large burlap bags. The bags would be stacked until the freight house was filled. With the barge loaded the captain signed for his cargo and learned its destination from the dock master. As soon as one barge was loaded it would be pushed to another part of the dock and the next barge moved into place to be loaded. Tugboats would then pull the barges to the piers where the cargoes were to be unloaded -- to Hoboken, Brooklyn, West New York.

As soon as a barge captain reported that his cargo had arrived a ramp would be raised from barge to dock, the longshoremen would come with their hand trucks and load up. For the young children on the barge it was fun to watch the men run up and down the ramp and dump their cargo on the dock. When the barge was unloaded the captain reported to the office on the dock, where there would be orders waiting, telling him where to pick up the next load.

May Marinovich’s story has its beginning on the island of Losinj in the Adriatic Sea. This was in the province of Istria, part of pre-World War I Austria. The land on Losinj was too poor to make much of a living from farming, so it was an island of sailors. Like so many European men around the turn of the century, young Joseph Sokolich left his wife and small son in the old country and came to America alone to try to make a better living for this family. He was a seaman and he wanted to be near water so he fund a job on the Judson, on an Erie Railroad barge. When he was ready to send for his wife and son, he applied for a barge with living quarters for a family. Men with families were given priority when applying for boats with two or three rooms for living quarters.

Living on a barge was a good way for a young family to get a start in the new country. Most families who rented apartments found it necessary to rent rooms to make ends meet, but the barge captain and his family had privacy and independence, as well as free rent. Coal for the stove and kerosene for lamps was provided by the Erie Railroad. Cargoes were usually things like rice, coffee, flour, sugar, spices, coconut – bags broke and the barge family was welcome to whatever spilled out. And you could barter with other captains when you docked for the evening. Those with refrigerated storage always had fruit to trade. The Judson was so clean in those days that you could take a rowboat and go under a dock to crab or fish. And if you happened to have along haul down the center of the river, you could throw a line in and sit and fish while the tug was pulling you to the dock to unload. You might run out of fresh milk and eggs because there wasn’t always an opportunity to leave your boat to get to a store. But there was always plenty of food and the family was sheltered and warm and cozy in the barge.

Mary was born in Hoboken because her mother new of a good midwife there. Mother and baby returned to the barge when Mary was ten days old. Later, when sister Tina was born, the midwife came on board the bare to deliver the baby. Whenever word got out that a g=pregnant woman was aboard a barge, the tugs would signal the news to each other with a signal to “Be Careful! Don’t hit this barge hard.” When a woman’s time for delivery drew near, the dispatcher would see that the barge was sent to drydock for repairs or had some other excuse for staying docked in one place until the baby was safely delivered. To all of the immigrants it was a great source of pride to have a child born in America.

The Sokolich barge had a cabin with two large rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom. The bedroom had built-in bunks and the kitchen, dominated by the big, black stove, had built –in cupboards. The deck in front of the cabin could be used as porch or yard or outdoor sitting room and when the freight house was unloaded and empty, it was a room of many purposes. There was room here for Mary’s other to set up the washtub and do the family wash. Water had to be brought on board only when the barge was docked in designated areas. The captain would be given a little extra time in order to take on water and this was usually a good time to get at the washing. The freight house was also a large playroom for the children. When it was empty, Captain Sokolich would put up gates so that the children could play there in safety. But Mary remembers sometimes playing in the freight house when it was loaded. “We’d jump all over the bags and play hide and seek. We didn’t have any trees to hide behind, so we hid behind the bags instead.”

And the freight house was the “company room.” As soon as the barge docked for the night families looked around to see whether any friends were at the same dock. Each barge captain had a distinctive ornament or figurehead on his boat so that it could be easily recognized. There were German, Dutch, Belgian and Austrian families plying the river, all people who had made their living on the water in Europe. Friends would gather in one of the empty freight houses for the evening. There was always wood floating on the river so the men made benches and tables for the freight houses in their spare time. The tables and benches were brought out when company came and the men settled down to an evening of cards and the women to sew and chat. With the abundance of flour and sugar available on the barges there were always homemade cakes and breads and rolls to pass around.

Mary remembers that one of the nicest things that could happen was to learn that a ship was expected to be two or three days late arriving in the harbor. Then the barge could stay in one place for a few days and there would be time for her mother to go shopping to buy shoes for the children and fabric to make them clothing. If they were in an area where they had friends living ashore they could fit in a rare visit.

The children first learned to read from the signs along the river. They spelled out “Lipton Tea, Coffee, Cocoa.” as the sign flashed on and off as they approached Hoboken. their geography lessons came when they passed ships of all nationalities docked in New York harbor. Mary remembers seeing Japanese ships with the crew sitting on the deck eating from a large communal pot. Her mother would tell the children where the ship was from and what the men were eating. Most exciting would be to pass a German passenger ship with a brass band in the bow. The children could prance to the sound of the oom-pah-pah as long as they could hear the music.\

When Mary’s brother Joe reached school age, he first stayed in Hoboken at a boarding school run by the church, joining the barge only on weekends. But he was homesick for this family and as soon as he was able to travel by himself, he came back to the barge after school each day. Every afternoon Father would telephone from the dock, leaving a message at the school telling this son just where the barge would be docked for the night. And young Joe would travel by trolley to wherever his home happened to be. This was customary for the barge children. Even the tiny ones learned the trolley routes and traveled across the city to get home each night.

Even with the camaraderie of the other barge families on the river, it was a lonely life for the women. It was difficult for them to shop and it was difficult for them to get to church. The barge was the responsibility of the captain so some member of the gamily usually had to stay on board, though occasionally another bargeman could be asked to keep an eye on the boat for a short time. When barge people left their boats, they talked of “going up the street.” But it was difficult for the women to get up the street because it meant walking through the dock areas and the railroad yards and it was not always safe. The captain had to be ready to move whenever orders came, but if a captain knew that there would be an hour’s time before a tug’s arrival, he would “go up the street” and bring back a bucket of milk. Mary still remembers what a treat this was as a change from condensed, canned milk.

To while away the time on the barge, Mrs. Sokolich learned to play dominoes and taught the children to ply. She carved picture frames from cigar boxes and she delighted in making paper flowers. “My mother’s barge was the talk of the river because she loved flowers so much. Right in front of the cabin she had a big pot of ivy and she had window boxes for flowers. And when she couldn’t grow plants, she made them. She would take a piece of straw from the broom and cover it with green crepe paper for the stem. Then she would cut and fold paper to make petals and turn them on a matchstick to create her own “ roses.” She worked had to make our cabin homelike. She scrubbed the wood floor until it was white and her stove was always polished like a mirror.”

Life for the barge families changed abruptly when the United States entered World War I. Instead of flour and sugar and spices the barges hauled barbed wire, machinery and ammunition. It was no longer safe for families to live on the boats and they move ashore to a house in West New York, New Jersey. All of New York harbor was declared a war zone, since it was used for troop embarkation and debarkation Captain Sokolich and the other barge men had to show their credentials whenever they came on the piers and they had to leave the area as soon as they were off duty. Many people were suspicious of the German and Austrian men, even though they had become American citizens.

The Sokolich family never returned to the barge to live. “Once we were able to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread, we never wanted to go back,” Mary says. “I can still remember how exciting it was when we moved to shore and turned on the faucet and got all the water we wanted. My mother never could get used to letting the eater run!”

When the war ended, Mary’s father found a job on a Lackawanna Railroad lighter. A lighter was an open boat with a small cabin in front. The freight area was open and the lighter carried heavy articles like tires, cars and steel pipes that could be exposed to the weather.

John Marinovich laughingly reminded his wife that when Captain Sokolich no longer had his family on board that he had “another woman” on his boat. The Captain had a life-sized cardboard figure of a Moxie girl, advertising a popular soft drink. The Moxie girl was a pretty and had a winning smile and he took the head from the figure and attached it to the cabin window with springs. As the lighter plied the river, the men working on the docks would wave and grin and flirt with the girl who was smiling and nodding to them from the cabin window. Sailors on the Rhine had the Lorelei to tempt them, but the men on the Hudson had a Moxie girl!