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.