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MY RIVER CHRONICLES: REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE HUDSON

By Jessica DuLong

This is an excerpt from the first chapter of DuLong’s newly published book, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson (Free Press, September 2009).  In her dual roles as freelance journalist and one of the world’s only female fireboat engineers, Dulong offers a porthole-view narrative of the river and its social tapestry as a microcosm of post-industrial America.  For more information on Dulong or her book, visit www.jessicadulong.com.  Copies of the book can be purchased there.

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.

Photo by Sarah Lyon

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.

Photo by Richard Andrian

Photo by Richard Andrian

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.

***

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 bluecollar, 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.