Places that Matter

Waterfront Museum

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David Sharps atop the Lehigh Valley Barge #79. Photo by Renee Dessommes
David Sharps atop the Lehigh Valley Barge #79. Photo by Renee Dessommes
Lehigh Valley Barge #79 at sunset. Photo by Molly Garfinkel
Waterfront Museum interior. Artwork and photo by Stephen Mallon
Barge as first found in Edgewater, NJ in 1985. Photo by Virginia Rolston-Parrott
Barge out of the water in Waterford, NY in 2015. Photo courtesy the Waterfront Museum
Photo by Steve McGill
Students enjoying their visit to the barge. Photo courtesy of the Waterfront Museum
David Sharps performing for student visitors to the barge. Photo by Etienne Frossard
Museum at sunset in Red Hook. Photo by Helena Flerlinger
Barge #79. Photo by Mark Queeney
Waterfront Museum with garden view. Photo by Kate Fox
Inside the barge. Photo by Kate Fox
Early dock at Red Hook. Photo by David Sharps
View from Sunset Park 58th St Brooklyn Army Terminal. Photo by Beth Higgins
Historic vessel hosts a lively maritime museum and advocates for waterfront access
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Place Matters Profile

By Kate Fox

Down in Red Hook, just a block from the enormous Fairway Market, there's something unusual floating on the water; a contraption, once so commonplace on this harbor, which almost went the way of extinction in the 1960s. It's a wooden railroad barge, painted brick red... but it's also a time machine.
 
Imagine the New York Harbor in 1929. The waters of the Hudson that flow between the shores of Manhattan and New Jersey--known as the North River--are crammed with dozens of ships receiving and unloading freight. It is the height of the lighterage era and tugboats chug through the river, pulling the covered barges, or lighters, used by railroad companies to send cargo beyond their New Jersey coast terminals. Bells, horns, and whistles blast, their soundings almost drowning out the shouts of the workers on the decks and on the piers who heave lumber, steel girders, and sacks of grain and coffee, from train cars to barges. Among these is Lehigh Valley Railroad Barge # 79, hauling nearly its full capacity of 450 tons of cargo, just a portion of the thousands of tons of cargo that will move through these waters in this year alone.
 
Almost ninety years later, #79 is still working in the New York Harbor, though in a manner its original skippers likely never imagined. Since 1986, the former lighter has been known as the Waterfront Barge Museum. Now docked at Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the barge is a vibrant red beacon amid gray warehouses. To get to the gangway, one must walk by a garden of wild flowers. On board, a crew of five or six workers and up to fifteen volunteers is present almost every day, constantly sanding, sawing, re-sealing and generally keeping the barge ship-shape.
 
Open to the public on Thursdays from 4-8 p.m., and Saturdays from 1-5 p.m., the museum is tiny and its permanent collection, at first glance, seems to be little more than weather-worn and slightly rusty bits and pieces one might come across while wandering through an abandoned pier. Indeed, passersby who visit during the official hours come more to enjoy the peace and beauty of the waterfront and a bit of conversation with the museum's energetic and knowledgable director, David Sharps. Its serene-if-slightly-remote location notwithstanding, the museum receives between eight and ten thousand visitors each year, and roughly sixty school groups fill up the museum's single room on other days of the week for lectures about the history of the New York Harbor and how the barge was restored. When a larger scale exhibit is not in place (recent topics include showboats and graving docks), the work of a local artist will be featured on the barge's walls. During the summer, an evening concert and performance series rounds out the unique identity of #79 in its second incarnation. Truly, this is a museum whose value is determined by the people who step on board, dependent upon their curiosity, and absolutely gratifying to those who seek treasure in unexpected corners.