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abandoned places

arthur kill

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Port Reading’s McMyler Coal Dumper

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The abandoned McMyler Coal Dumper in Port Reading, NJ

There’s a stretch of the Arthur Kill between Rossville, Staten Island and Port Reading, New Jersey that’s something of an abandoned wonderland.  From the New Jersey side, the horizon is dominated by the twin natural gas tanks of Chemical Lane, and the famous Staten Island Boat Graveyard is plainly visible just across the water.  But towering over the scene is a structure that rivals both with its staggering beauty and power—the McMyler Coal Dumper.

Actually, it would be more accurate to call it a McMyler Coal Dumper. It was one of many nearly identical structures built on the shores of the New York Harbor in the early-to-mid 20th century, including two on Pier 18 in Jersey City. But the Port Reading site is notable for being the last one standing in the New York area. It was constructed in 1917, making it 99 years old at the time of this post.

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A 1957 ad for Pier 18 in Jersey City, which boasted two “Big Mac” McMyler Dumpers.

In a vast regional network of coal mines, breakers, railroads, and manufacturing hubs, these machines provided a vital link that helped fuel New York’s industrial age, transferring massive amounts of coal brought by rail from Pennsylvania and the Alleghenies into ships entering the harbor.  A McMyler Dumper could unload a 72-ton car of coal every two and a half minutes, operating on a continuous loop for maximum efficiency.

Upon entering the pier, railroad “hoppers” carrying a full load of coal would be pushed up a ramp with a mechanism called a barney. Once in position at the base of the tower, the entire car and its contents would be lifted up on an unloading platform and tilted at 120 degrees, spilling the coal into an enormous “pan,” which funneled the material through an unloader chute and into the holds of outgoing barges. Once empty, the car would be lowered and pushed onto a kickback trestle by the next car in the line-up.  These rails looked very much like a roller coaster, and they worked in a similar fashion, using the power of gravity to propel empty cars off of the pier and into the rail yards beyond. The contraption required twelve men to operate, and the work was risky. The brute force of the machine claimed many lives and limbs over the years.

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A braver soul would have climbed the tower, but I was satisfied with the view from the pier.

The design stood the test of time, and the pier operated for over 60 years with nearly uninterrupted use (a fire caused considerable damage in 1951, but the unloader was quickly rebuilt.) With demand for coal declining, the machine dumped its last load in the early 80s, and has been steadily deteriorating ever since. Though there has been interest in designating the structure an historic site, its location on private property in an active industrial area has made it an unlikely candidate, and the cost of restoring or moving the structure would be prohibitive, to put it mildly.  Unless new industrial development threatens the site, it will likely remain a picturesque ruin for another century before eventually collapsing into the Kill and vanishing into the muck.

That is lucky for the throng of Canada Geese who’ve made a surreal home out of the hulking relic.  Though they’re nice to look at, I’ve never had a pleasant encounter with these creatures, and have been charged at by enough of them on the remote shores of the outer boroughs to know they mean business.  This time around they were content to squawk and hiss their disapproval from a distance, but I would advise everyone to stay far away during nesting season, which is right around the corner.

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The self-appointed guardians of the coal dumper.

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A pair of steam engines inside the machine room powered a cable drum…

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…which controlled the “barney,” a mechanism used to push cars onto the unloading platform.

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These cable drums raised and lowered the unloading platform.  Much of the machinery has been removed by scrappers over the years.

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The place has a fair amount of graffiti, some quite old. Kaleen’s protestation on the upper right was particularly endearing.

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A derelict ferry boat sinks into the Kill on an adjacent pier.

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The pan and chute, pictured here, were left in an upright position until Hurricane Irene sent them crashing onto the pier below in 2011.  An operator would have sat in the little chamber on the right. A pair of abandoned gas tanks in Rossville, Staten Island can be seen on the horizon.

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Low Tide at the McMyler Coal Dumper.

You can see (a model of) a McMyler Coal Dumper in action in the following video:



A Watery Grave for Historic Ships on Staten Island

Staten Island Boat Graveyard

Wooden Shipwreck at Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard.

Do you know how to get to Staten Island’s most remarkable graveyard?  First pass through a centuries-old roadside cemetery, (consisting of a handful of horribly eroded grave markers).  Follow a barely there garbage-strewn path down to the marshy Arthur Kill (kill is the Dutch word for creek, which explains why creepy names like “Fresh Kills” abound in the Dutch-settled Hudson River Valley.)  Once your feet are sinking a few inches into the mud with every step, you’ll start seeing the boats.  Some over a century old, steam vessels, warships, ferries, fireboats, the final vestiges of New York’s shipping era, doomed to die here in a catastrophically polluted Staten Island waterway.  Welcome to the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard.

Arthur Kill Marsh by Night

Secluded path from the cemetery down to the Arthur Kill.

Operational since the 1930s, Witte’s Marine Equipment company in Rossville served to dredge, salvage, and resell materials from the wrecked and disused vessels of the New York and New Jersey waterways.  Eccentric owner John J. Witte refused to dismantle the majority of the ships that came to rest in the yard, amassing a prodigious collection of over 400 historic watercraft.  As the ships slowly decomposed and the area gained a reputation as a mecca for artists and photographers, Witte gained his own reputation as a ferocious defender of his property, known for scaring off unsolicited visitors personally until he passed away in 1980.  The yard is now controlled by the Donjon Marine Company, which seems to be taking a more proactive approach to actually salvaging materials from the wrecks and keeping the curious out, erecting 12-foot metal walls around the perimeter of the yard with signs prohibiting any and all photography.

The walls presented an obstacle, but after several muddy minutes I made it to the Arthur Kill Shore.  Though the shipyard had lost most of its former glory, the remaining 20-40 wrecks were still an eldritch sight to behold—half submerged in years of muck, leaning at odd angles, corroded in streaks of rust, putrefying elbow to elbow with massive skeleton hulls.  These wade out their final days in the boneyard before being stripped and recycled into automobiles and refrigerators.  So see them while you can, if you dare, what was once the city’s premiere collection of nautical artifacts is sinking fast.

Rotting Hulls in Arthur Kill

Rotting hulls jut from their shallow graves at the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard.

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Rusty Boats pile up on the shore.

Rusty Machinery in the Staten Island Boat Graveyard

Oxidized machinery adorns this decaying watercraft.

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A salvaged wheelhouse moulders in the marsh.


 

 


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