Talking About the John J. Harvey

Friday, June 10, 2005
By Don Sutherland

Everybody talks about the John J. Harvey, and quite a few of them are doing something about it. The chipping, scraping, and painting you'd expect a 74-year-old fireboat to require has proceeded since the vessel became privately owned in 1999, but that's only the beginning of the discussion. For within the city the fireboat served for its first sixty years, a peculiar love/hate seems to have developed toward the harbor. That, more than leaks, can influence the future of the most historic of vessels, even as it affects contemporary ones doing their daily chores. The John J. Harvey was built for these waters in 1931, launched into them by the Todd shipyards at Brooklyn and serving them steadily, reliably, even heroically. She was New York's first fireboat with an internal combustion engine, and is characterized as the first "modern" fireboat. Her missions included the harrowing fire aboard the ammunition ship El Estro in 1943, and the fire that doomed the Normandie the year before. She was placed in reserve in 1991, and declared surplus in 1995. After all that time, after all that work, the vessel might have been considered as inseparable a symbol of the city as the Statue of Liberty. A fixture of the harbor diorama for three generations, it would seem appropriate to find the old boat in retirement cruising her waters at leisure, as a human retiree might stroll Central Park. Notwithstanding its nobility and service and even its good looks, a fireboat is a tool. Tools wear out, and they get replaced. They may have earned gratitude, but how to express it? The men at the FDNY possibly thought someone should do something about the John J. Harvey. But as an agency, their mandate is putting out fires. If somebody wants to preserve the sight, the symbol, the inspiration of this grand old icon, they're perfectly welcome to come to the auction. Which is exactly what a group of citizens did, outbidding the scrappers by an intended ten dollars. Interesting to consider how the outcome might have been different, at today's steel prices. Cold Potato Initially a half-dozen owners pooled cash to buy the old fireboat and see to its upkeep, but two in particular are most quoted. "I think I must have had too much to drink one night," said Huntley Gill, an architectural preservationist who had been restoring a wooden boat at Pier 63, North River, "and decided it would be a cool thing to have a fireboat." Pier 63's operator, John Krevey, had previously interested himself in restoring another retired fireboat, the Archer, but plans fell through. There seemed to be little enthusiasm for providing dockage by the proprietors of the Hudson River Park, which controls most of the Manhattan shore from the Battery to 59th Street. Then the Harvey became available, and Mr. Krevey already had fireboat-restoration plans on paper. "It was a no-brainer. All I needed was a few fools to help pull it off." Mr. Krevey had taken the water route to find his fools. Raised in Seattle, which he describes as a sliver of land surrounded by boats, an electrical contractor by trade, he found himself one day in Maryland, buying the lightship Frying Pan. It had been sitting on the bottom for a couple of years. "Why buy a sunken lightship? You wake up one morning, and it seems like a good idea." The mind can easily skip the tactics and strategies required to restore a sunken vessel, and go straight to the fruits of it all. "It's like having a country house - except that with the country house, you always go back to the same place. That's boring. With the boat, we could go anywhere."

Using his electrician's skills, Mr. Krevey installed a system of batteries that could hold enough of a charge from the generators to keep the lights and appliances running. "It was quiet, and the boat is big enough that you don't rock with every wave." Anchored offshore, the lightship became the Kreveys' home for a half-dozen years, from which they commuted to towns like Annapolis, Philadelphia, and Cape May by rowboat. "We were pretty nomadic," he recalls. Finally he made New York, taking a berth adjoining the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum. "I was looking for an office for R-2 Electric, my electrical business, and found the location at Pier 63," which is 23rd Street and the North River, just north of the structures now known as Chelsea Piers. "At the time they were trying to build Westway, but were being stopped by concerns over the snail darter, or something like that. So they were giving only short-term leases. We've been here mostly for 30-day terms, never more than a year officially, since 1979. More recently, instead of Westway it's been the Hudson River Park. Under the legislation that created the park, we've got to go," as does Basketball City, an emporium and mecca for basketball culture with its six available courts, which became Mr. Krevey's landlord years ago. An eviction, if enforced, would be harder on the basketball facility than Pier 63 Maritime, for that structure is not exactly a pier. It's an old Erie-Lackawanna Railroad spud barge, inspired by the use of similar structures by the Intrepid museum. "We had the hardest time finding a barge," Mr. Krevey recalls, "and had to go from dock to dock on a search. We finally found this one, rusty and rotted, used by an automobile dealership on Staten Island." If required for the future, the old spuds can be raised and the operation moved from 23rd Street. Pier 63 could become Pier Something-Else, and still play host to its ships of fools. A pier which is itself an historic floating structure is bound to be a magnet for other historic floating structures. The North River Historic Ship Society has formed with John Krevey's dock as its locus, an assemblage of private restorers of rusting relics. Members of the organization characterize it as a means to champion the common ground (or water) of like-minded enthusiasts, who otherwise compete for the limited resources available to them. The competition for dockage could be severe in Gotham, as real-estate speculation along with parklands gobble-up the shoreline (although the legislation creating the Hudson River Park does allow for "compatible" commercial waterborne uses). The problem was somewhat relieved by Pier 63 policies, which include low tie-up fees and a requirement that tenants do something useful, such as giving free public cruises, tours or lectures in the public interest. Contractually compelled to mount their own soapboxes, the restorers rise to their obligations. The centerpiece of the pier, or more exactly its endpiece, is Frying Pan, the lightship that started it all. Soon the 1887 tugboat New York Central 13, ex-Hay-De, will return to the pier, after a couple years ashore for hull restoration. The tug Bertha, with a complete rebuild from the main deck up (See "What's In John Garner's Pocket," MN, May 2004 issue) will resume its station at Pier 63. New York Water Taxi uses the pier as its Chelsea stop (see MN, March). But unlike the sterile terminals of the formal ferry services, whose purpose is to usher people quickly between harbor and city, Pier 63 has a restaurant and a bar, sometimes live entertainment, and a railroad caboose. That, and the John J. Harvey.

What You Pay For? Vessels facing retirement seldom receive lavish sums for their maintenance. The Harvey sat in reserve, then in retirement for the better part of a decade, before being auctioned. A survey was made in the middle of retirement, March 1997, by Charles C. Deroko, Inc. whose repeated adjectives include "wasted:" "Frame 30 is totally wasted with no rivet connections below the waterline," "Rivet heads are severely wasted." "Hull frames are wasted in the forward end of this space. Bulkhead stiffeners show similar damage. Rivet waste is widespread in this area." "The transom floor and portside cant frames, in the stern, are wasted with poor connections to the hull plating." Other disconcerting adjectives flow frequently throughout the report, and the casual boater might find the list of repairs a bit daunting. In the opinion of Huntley Gill, the report is a thoroughly accurate and unbiased appraisal, whose authors understood it was in their sponsor's interest for the boat to sound bad. The sponsor was the South Street Seaport, which like many others in maritime New York recognized the importance of the artifact and the icon embodied in the Harvey. They wanted to add it to their collection, but were stopped, in John Krevey's view, by that same old stopper: money. He describes a proposal that the museum receive the fireboat and a half-million-dollar endowment to keep it afloat. The city declined. "After that, the city seemed to get tired of the situation, just wanted it off their hands. They started worrying about liabilities and things." Mr. Gill reports that the next-highest bidder at the auction was Witte, at $10,600. "Someone told us another scrapper was planning to bid $27,000, so that dictated our bid - $27,010. It was untrue, of course. We could have had the boat for ten dollars over Witte's bid. We paid the full twenty-seven-ten. Plus the salestax." A commercial vessel would face all kinds of regulations before re-entering service, but the Harvey was, for the moment, simply an offbeat yacht to play with. "From Day One, we were all of one mind," says Mr. Gill, "and that was to get the boat running. Period. Unlike some people who are more orderly. Tim Ivory came to work for us as chief engineer, and that's when we started getting a grasp on the scale of what we had to do." When John Krevey first described the boat to the investors, Mr. Gill recalls, "he said oh it's diesel, and we hadn't contemplated the fact that it was five diesels, and diesel electrics at that." Five main diesels, two auxiliary diesels, and Westinghouse drive motors. And pumps, and specialized equipment of all kinds, and a massive electrical system that had been modern seventy years before. Quite a wonderland for an engineer. "Tim said let's get it going, and see what comes up." Before too long, the boat was running at speeds Mr. Ivory places at about 15.5 knots. In her prime, the Harvey has been described as the world's fastest large fireboat. A drydocking at Caddell's for general fixups was performed the following year. By that time, according to Mr. Gill, a dash of sobriety was setting in. "We realized the Harvey was a very important boat, and that she caught peoples' imaginations. A lot of people wanted to volunteer to work on her. Meantime, the owners were beginning to think about the long-term future of the boat, and wondering if we could deal with it successfully on our own. It dawned on us that if there were a lot of volunteers there was a public interest, so we morphed into a not-for-profit." The John J. Harvey has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and, like the Statue of Liberty itself, is a National Landmark. The State of New York's department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced a $320,000 matching grant for the fireboat's ongoing restoration, and the Harvey is soliciting cash contributions, materials, services, all being tax-deductible. The catch is that the money must be spent and the work done before the State ponys-up the matching funds. Two brand new propellers were recently donated by the Kennedy Shops in Mobile, Alabama, while a large cache of engine parts arrived from Atlas Power Resources of Portsmouth, Virginia. Enough altogether has been raised - about $80,000, including the matching grant to-date - to support the Fireboat's visit to Derektor for drydocking. Continued funding is required, of course, and a public fund-raising party (with a $25 contribution) has been scheduled for Saturday, June 18 on Pier 63. Further details are available at the Harvey's website, www.fireboat.org.

"I got a call from Kent Barwick," Mr. Gill recalls, "who asked, how is it that you pulled this whole thing off so smoothly, how did you plan such a thing? I said no, no, that's not how we do it around here. You see, you get a whole lot of people together who are really fools, and we all hold hands together at the end of the dock and jump at once." Harvey in Medialand Throughout a long career, the Harvey was admired as outstanding equipment by mariners and firefighters. Beyond those populations, the boat was a handsome though anonymous decoration in the background, spraying the skies in festive celebration of greater things. The Harvey welcomed the first Queen Mary on her maiden call at New York, as well as the Normandie, whose fatal fire she later fought. Back in the days when New York newspapers covered ship arrivals, many a famous liner was shown in salute, though the fireboat's own name made the captions only sometimes. If the Harvey became a household word, it was through one of the few deliberate, malicious events the boat has had to combat. Manhattan's twin towers had pancaked into their blazes, and the street mains were broken. Every fireboat pump that could be mustered was called, to supply water from the river. When the FDNY learned the Harvey was operational, it requested the retired vessel's assistance. The assistance was granted, and ground-on for days.

Where most local communities outside the New York City (and even within) have volunteer fire engine companies, volunteer fire boat companies are a rarity. Becoming such had not been on the Harvey's agenda before 9/11, nor has it been added since. It was a fluke that brought the vessel back to action, whereupon it did what everyone did, which was whatever they could. New York's most tragic day was also one of its finest, as its mariners collectively rallied an effective response to the unimaginable. But within the Harvey's role in particular there were resonances, things people could read as metaphors and parables as they wished, ranging from the abandonment by the city of perfectly good equipment, to a maritime reprisal of the little engine that could. The fireboat's proprietors are privately reserved about their minutes of fame. They're glad to have helped, but wish they hadn't had to. Still, their website (www.fireboat.org) leads-off with a fund-raising plea attributed to The New York Times: "A fireboat that pumped water to firefighters for 80 hours at the World Trade Center during and after Sept. 11, and became the focus of a children's book, is now itself in need of help." Fundraising requires marketing, and marketing requires simplicity. Plenty of vessels in seeking support come up with a soundbyte to define their immortality. The old cutter Tamaroa, stationed for decades within sight of the Harvey, could point to a thousand noble deeds performed in careers as a Navy ATF and Coast Guard WMEC, but it's her heroics in "The Perfect Storm" - the book and the movie - that get the headlines. When the tug Hay-De returns, she could possibly be robed in her own movie stardom, as a set and a prop in the early 90s feature, "Billy Bathgate." So far as is known, no other ex-railroad tug has had Bruce Willis and Dustin Hoffman both aboard, with Nicole Kidman lounging in a stateroom that would do the QM2 proud. Movie stardom may not have much to do with maritime preservation, but it works. (It works for park planners, too. New York City Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro, who is also a director of the Hudson River Park, "is fondly remembered by millions as the little girl opening the Castro Convertible on television," according to the Hudson River Park website. "The commercial ran over 40,000 times, earning her the distinction of being 'the most televised child in America.'") The Harvey's soundbyte has one added dimension: her latest heroics took place in retirement. If somebody hadn't decided to save the boat and restore her in the first place, that contribution would not have been made.

Flying Dutchman's Fleet? New York lost the Tamaroa to Baltimore, after years of languishing at the Manhattan shore. Individuals and groups petitioned her owner, the Hudson River Park, for the privilege of boarding, fixing, closing-up the doors. They were rebuffed. They included individuals active in the North River Historic Ship Society. They included individuals active in the Harvey. They do not have such a bright view of the record of the Hudson River Park. "The park plan calls for piers for historic vessels," Huntley Gill reports. "Where are they?" John Krevey's movable feast, bought with his own money, is the only dedicated resource - and the park legislation specifically calls for its removal (Basketball City is fighting the eviction). "There's a grass and trees mentality," says Mr. Krevey of people who dislike the sight of rusty old boats, or even shiny new boats. Says Huntley Gill, "there are people who won't be happy until the New York waterfront is all sandy beaches." A boat-restoration colony would not seem to fit that esthetic. Nobody really knows what would happen if some inspired real-estate developer erected a gated community for motorheads, with machine shops and toolsheds as common as bodegas. But something not too distant from that may be shaping-up in Kingston, New York, where there are perhaps fewer yuppies and more of a population with both historical and personal connections to the water. A new undertaking has been quietly underway, involving the acquisition of the old Cornell tugboat company building on Rondout Creek, the purchase of local scrapyards for conversion, and the old town dock to continue serving as a public amenity for a renewed Kingston waterfront. The new development would incorporate the resources and much of the vision of Steve Trueman's North River Tugboat Museum, with which the Harvey and the presence of North River Historical Ship Society members would be incorporated. Whether this will lead to Mr. Trueman's "Mystic Seaport of Iron" reported here last year remains to be seen, but the early indicators are promising. A big maritime festival is scheduled at Kingston for August 19 and 20th, at which antique tugs such as the Pegasus, Chancellor, Urger, and others are expected to join the festivities, and the bodacious development plans revealed in detail.

Meanwhile, back downstate, New York City still nurses the black eye it received when Bayonne, that small New Jersey community barely visible from Manhattan's residential towers, got the cruise ship terminal. And now Kingston, even further from the center of Manhattan's universe, gets the history center and all its traffic? As much as the Hudson River Park has been criticized by restoration-minded motorheads, it is not, in John Krevey's view, entirely a villain. "They have more problems than people realize," he tells us, "in getting this park built. They've been behind marinas consistently - it's part of their legislation. But they have to comply with the Army Corps and the DEC too." Many have described the Park trust as indifferent to ship restoration, and even hostile. "They told me they didn't want the restorers to create 'another Tamaroa incident,'" said one restorer incredulously. "I told them, 'the Tamaroa was your boat. That was your incident. Our boats are being taken care of. All of them.'"

But John Krevey believes the spirit was willing in the Park management. On March 17, a plan was laid-out that Huntley Gill calls "breathtaking" - DEC proposed moving Pier 63 three blocks northward, to the old transfer station at Pier 66A. "It's a railroad float bridge," said Mr. Krevey. "What could be more appropriate for a railroad barge - and an 1887 railroad tug?" Mr. Krevey tells us the old structure was saved from demolition and rehabbed largely through a campaign of Tom Flagg, whose books on past New York Harbor rail operations are considered definitive of the subject. In union with a pier made from a railroad float, the sculpture of the bridge adopts its own diorama, to be populated with period pieces spanning the 19th and 20th century. Kingston gets its workboat historical center, and New York gets its workboat historical center. That creates quite a corridor for maritime buffs, history buffs, culture buffs of all stripes. More approvals must be issued, including an assessment by the National Marine Fisheries, whose concerns, according to Mr. Krevey, include the breeding of striped bass, who might want to look at shading issues and other effects the floating installation would have on migratory patterns. "I'm told [Congressman] Jerry Nadler has agreed to send a letter in support of the concept" which, Mr. Krevey anticipates, will start taking form around Thanksgiving. Congressman Nadler has more than an historical interest in rail transport around the harbor. He considers vehicular congestion - too many trucks on the bridges and streets - among the highest priorities, and is author of a grand scheme to surmount it. He's calling for a cross-harbor tunnel for rail, from Greenville to a location in Queens. If it were begun tomorrow, it would require $7 billion, and would take 25 years to enter full service. The pollution and congestion would be much worse then, of course, but they're already considered intolerable. Is there an interim solution, a source of relief for the short term? The New York State DOT reminds us that one tug and barge can move the volumetric capacity of sixty-four eighteen-wheelers. New York Cross Harbor Rail continues hauling cocoa and coffee on rail floats between Greenville and Red Hook, and the City built - though has never used - two carfloat bridges at 65th Street in Brooklyn. Let's say all of these facts are dots. What does it take for planners to connect them? Ferries made a big comeback in New York - what other harbor resources deserve revisiting? If Pier 63 goes to the old transfer station at 66A, and the Harvey goes with it, a lot of old things will be new again. The John J. Harvey never really retired so much as it made a career change. It went from fighting fires to igniting ideas.

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