Red Hook

Historic Red Hook waterfront vessels quiet, for now

But performing arts can still be found nearby

October 16, 2020 Raanan Geberer

Two historic retired vessels in the waters off Red Hook that serve the public are still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, although one is still presenting programs in a temporary park nearby.

The two are the Waterfront Museum, located at the foot of Conover Street, a former Lehigh Valley wooden railroad barge; and the Mary A. Whalen, a historic former oil tanker docked off Pier 11 in the Atlantic Basin.

The Waterfront Museum was once Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79, one of many wooden barges that ferried goods across the Hudson River. When David Sharps, a former circus juggler, found the barge, it was covered in mud near the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge in the 1980s.

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Sharps undertook a huge cleanup effort, then moved the barge to Red Hook in 1994. Since it became a museum, the barge has contained exhibits of nautical equipment and often has hosted circus performances, performances by theater groups, folk music and more. It’s also a frequent destination for school classes and youth groups.

The Mary A. Whalen was spiffed up by painters from Local 806 in 2016. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle

“We had a meeting of our board, and we decided to stay closed [due to the coronavirus]. I’m using the time to work on the boat,” said Sharps.

He added that it would be difficult to accommodate school groups, which often are somewhat large, on the barge. “With everything that’s going on with the schools, I’m not sure if they even have time to think about school trips.”

Still, he said, “I do so miss seeing schoolchildren on the barge.” He added that the Waterfront Museum’s website does have a virtual tour of its exhibits.

The Mary A. Whalen (originally the S.T. Kiddoo) was built at a Red Hook shipyard, launched in 1938 and over the years delivered gasoline and other fuel products throughout New England and elsewhere, including the New York metro area.

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It retired in 1994 and since 2006 has been the base of operations for PortSide NewYork, described on its website as an organization that “rethinks NYC’s relationship to the harbor” by “creating an innovative maritime center — a new model for NYC — showing how to combine the working waterfront and public access (busting local zoning conventions) while fostering community development.”

Singers from the Santa Fe Opera, masked because of the COVID-19 pandemic, performed on the deck of the Mary A. Whalen. Photo courtesy of Carolina Salguero

Although the Mary Whalen itself as well as Pier 11, where it’s docked, are closed due to the coronavirus, PortSide NewYork has created a “pop-up minipark” next to the boat on the Atlantic Basin, according to Carolina Salguero, the group’s founder and executive director. The park has hosted performances by the bluegrass band Kings Country, multimedia music events curated by Chris Pitsokos, music by DJ Z Motion, and Sacred Harp traditional religious singing events.

In addition, on Oct. 10, “Is This America?” a workshop of a new one-act opera “This Little Light of Mine” commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and portraying the life of 1960s voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, was filmed on the deck of the Mary A. Whalen. The performance was screened online on Oct. 23.

PortSide NewYork also livestreams the sunset every night on the Mary A. Whalen Facebook page.


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