From St. George, ride the Staten Island Railroad to the end of the line and you’re only a short walk from the southernmost point in New York State, at the mouth of the Arthur Kill. The name of the waterway stirs the imagination, but its Dutch origins are benign. Achter kill means back river or channel, in reference to its location at the “back” of Staten Island. Intriguingly, the route was carved out by an ancestral iteration of the Hudson River. Glacial activity altered the course to its current position, but the vestigial strait remained, isolating a sneaker-shaped land mass. Staten Island was born.
A stone’s throw from the so-called “south pole” of New York State, there’s an impressive bit of Revolutionary War history known as The Conference House. The name refers to a peace conference held there on September 11, 1776 between British commander Lord Howe and representatives of the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams among them. Over the course of the three hour meeting, Howe urged the men to put aside their little rebellion. (They declined to do so.)
True to its contrarian nature even in revolutionary times, the borough was a loyalist stronghold, warmly greeting British troops upon their arrival. Hundreds of islanders enlisted in the British army as the conflict escalated. George Washington himself called the Staten Islanders “our most inveterate enemies.” John Adams was less generous, labeling them “an ignorant, cowardly pack of scoundrels, whose numbers are small, and their spirit less.”
Tracing the Arthur Kill past the quaint historic houses of Tottenville, we enter into wilder territory and arrive at the base of Outerbridge Crossing, which spans the Arthur Kill between Charleston, SI and Perth Amboy, NJ. New Yorkers could be forgiven for assuming the name refers to its status as the most remote bridge in New York City, but it’s actually named for Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge, the first chairman of the Port Authority of New York and a resident of the borough. “Outerbridge Bridge” wouldn’t do, so they deemed it a “Crossing.”
Wandering these regions can be treacherous if you don’t plan ahead. As the tide ebbs and flows, open shoreline gives way to mud and water, leaving you with no way out but the head-high reeds of the marsh. In nesting season, geese are liable to attack (speaking from experience here). But for those willing to brave the wilderness, there are rewards. The fabric of the city dissolves on the outermost edges of Staten Island, and the ground is a layer cake of archaeological finds.
One area of interest at the foot of Ellis Street marks the site of The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, which made colorful architectural ornaments for many notable city buildings, including the Flatiron and the Woolworth. It closed down in the 1940s and was demolished soon after, but much of the old factory is still there in the form of rubble. Enterprising beachcombers can still find Atlantic Terra Cotta tiles if they hunt long enough. (The old adage “leave no stone unturned” applies here, as many of the most intricate pieces are one-sided.) I managed to find a beautiful acorn-themed tile with an ATLANTIC stamp, but plain bricks were more readily available.
Many of them are inscribed with the names of long-gone manufacturers, resembling fragments of time-worn tombstones. Thanks to these markings and a devoted online community of brick collectors, it’s a simple matter to pinpoint their origins. The “RICHMOND” and “ATLANTIC” bricks were made in Staten Island, but others trace their ancestry to Brooklyn or New Jersey. Some are from much farther afield—“RELIANCE” Bricks hail from Texas; “MO REX” from a town called Mexico, Missouri. How all of them ended up here is a bit of a masonry mystery.
Just inland, marshes give way to roving woodlands that hold secrets of their own. If you look into any patch of untended forest, and many of the front yards, you’ll find a wealth of rusty relics of the one man’s treasure variety. While there isn’t much history to glean from them, they are fascinating to look at. A natural area known as Sharrot’s Shoreline was once filled with mountains of scrap metal and scores of abandoned cars. Only a few remain today after cleanup efforts by the city. What’s left is a serene nature reserve that would thrill most bird-watchers, though they might have a hard time finding a way in.
Nearby, a deserted graveyard of auto parts marked one of my most surprising finds to date. Chief among the relics was a group of corroded buses, apparently from the 1960’s. While the scene has an ancient air, the plot was the site of a multi-generational family business until quite recently, according to a neighbor who gave me a stern warning for trespassing on private property. (For that reason, I wouldn’t advise seeking them out for yourself.)
This has been the second installment of a series of posts on the edges of Staten Island. Next up, we’ll continue our trip down Arthur Kill Road, delving deeper into the history of Charleston and the “haunted” Kreischer Mansion. See more photos from the project here.
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.
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.
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.
You can see (a model of) a McMyler Coal Dumper in action in the following video:
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.
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.