In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cargo containers coming into New York Harbor were loaded from ocean-going vessels onto large barges with railroad tracks on the deck. Vessels like the steam tugboat New York Central No. 31 (built in 1923 for the New York Central Railroad) moved these barges between rail yards so that the containers could be attached to trains headed to the rest of the country.
These vessels had distinctively tall pilot houses, enabling the captain to see over the cargo on the barges in order to pilot the craft safely around the Harbor, as well as several windows for good visibility in all directions.
New York Central No. 31 was operated by a crew of 6 in the freight yards of Weehawken, NJ, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She retired in 1970, and the South Street Seaport Museum purchased her pilot house for the collection in 1980 with funds from the Seamen’s Bank for Savings.
Long a fixture on Pier 16, the pilot house had not been restored since 1989. When the Museum of the City of New York took over operations at the Seaport Museum, it was clear that the time had come for some preservation work, as the harsh weather conditions on the waterfront had damaged the structure.
In early May, Jim Clements and Glen Garver, both master joiners, came to the Museum to begin work. Jim and Glen have done extensive work both ashore and afloat, including several other pilot house projects. We were fortunate to have these two fine artists working with us on the restoration of the New York Central 31 pilot house.
The first step was to remove all of the rotting wood, exposing the internal structure of the pilot house along with a few surprises, including the original canvas roof and a graffiti record of 1980’s-era love.
Jim and Glen removed any material that was rotted and replaced it with historically – appropriate materials that would be able to withstand the harsh waterfront weather conditions.
Once the structure was updated, Jim and Glen primed the building for painting, which Sal Polisi, the woodcarver at the Seaport Museum’s maritime crafts center, completed. The pilot house had long been painted a greenish-gray color, but Norman Brouwer, a noted maritime historian who is consulting with the Museum on various projects, selected an olive green and bright red color scheme that is more historically accurate.
Sal also restored and repainted the name boards he’d made for the pilot house back in the 1980’s. These signs are exact replicas of the signs the vessel would have sported in the 1930’s.
Waterfront staff led by waterfront director Jonathan Boulware then moved the pilot house to a new location on the pier using pipe rollers and a forklift.
With a few coats of paint, the pilot house now looks cheery on the pier, and it currently serves as the ticket office for Trapeze School New York. Come on down and check out a piece of history before you go fly high over the East River!
The Seaport Museum, currently under the management of the Museum of the City of New York, is open seven days a week from 10:00 – 6:00.