The New York City’s cemetery where ships go to die
As with the legendary elephants’ graveyard, ships go to die at Rossville on Staten Island, although this wasn’t always the original intent of the space.
Squeezed between Staten Island and New Jersey is Arthur Kill waterway (“Kill” is merely a dutch word for “creek”, in this case not as creepy as it sounds) and the Witte Marine Equipment Company.
Since the 1930s, the company would dredge, salvage, and resell materials from the wrecked and disused vessels of the New York and New Jersey waterways – the space originally being called the Witte Marine Shipyard, dismantling hundreds of ships that once crowded the bustling piers of New York’s coastline. However, also with a steady stream of salvage work and deconstruction, many old tugboats and smaller harbor ships have accumulated on the shores of Arthur Kill and now rot in shallow water.
For decades the Witte Marine Equipment Company has given mothballed, scuttled, abandoned and wrecked ships of all sizes a final port and, through the years, it has become, an “accidental marine museum,” as a nautical magazine described it.
A 1990 New York Times article reported that 200 ships were sharing space in the Tugboat Graveyard, but there were up to 400 vessels, some dating from before World War I.
Some say because of the company could not keep up with the incoming stock, but it seems that the owner and founder John J. Witte would just straight out refuse to dismantle a majority of the ships that came his way. He was known as an eccentric and would keep a very close eye on his property, scaring off any unsolicited visitors himself.
In any case, he managed to collect hundreds of warships, including a submarine destroyer that was the first ship manned by an all-black crew in World War II, and a New York Fire Department Fireboat that served from 1903 to 1958 and was named after Abram S. Hewitt, who was mayor of New York City in 1886. The ship helped save many lives in its lifetime, including the passengers from the General Slocum, a passenger boat that sunk in 1904 in the East River.
Among the others, there were an old railroad-car barge with a high elevated wheelhouse, old ferryboats that transported New Yorkers in more romantic times and the New Bedford, which started her career in 1928 as a New England Passenger Steamer and ended her days as a British transport at D-Day.
However, since John J. Witte, died in 1980, his successors have been simply dismantling the ships.
Seen from far away, the “cemetery” looks like trash floating off the coast in an incredibly polluted waterway, but with a closer look, it becomes clear that the jumble of wood and metal parts are actually the ghosts of New York’s shipping era, slowly sinking into the murk. Rusted tugboats bump tilt in the mud, elbow to elbow with other dredging vessels as they slowly decompose.
Today, kayakers visiting the area report that there are fewer than 25, each a jumble of broken beams and rusted metal, and many of the more fragile skeletons sank after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Over time, all the useful parts have been stripped or stolen. The hollow shells of these ships now stand alone to greet explorers with an mystic silence amidst the slow and muddy current of Arthur Kill.
Images from web – google research