It sounds like the perfect pitch for an idyllic summer afternoon, for New Yorkers and visitors alike. During a humid Saturday, escape Manhattan not via a stuffy train or traffic-clogged highway, but on a breezy day trip aboard a vintage steamship. While en route to scenic points along the Hudson River, travelers onboard can gaze at gorgeous scenery while sailing upriver, perhaps after staking out a spot on the on-deck beer garden. In the evening, after enjoying towns such as Beacon or West Point, guests can float home while entertaining themselves on the open-air ballroom, appointed in turn-of-the-century decor.
It sounds like a great idea, except that it isn’t new. Regular passenger boats, specifically the Hudson Dayliner, used to sail up and down the river as recently as the early ‘70s. And, if the preservationists and boat fanatics behind the S.S. Columbia Project have their way, it’s an idea whose (second) time has come. According to Liz McEnaney, the executive director of the organization, which seeks to restore a vintage steamship for just such a route, recent developments in New York only reinforce the populist push to rediscover the waterfront. What better way to experience the city and state’s surfeit of scenery than on board a boat?
"Look at the recent success of Brooklyn Bridge Park," she says. "There’s a movement of people wanting to get out on the water."
If all goes to plan, the group will be able to satisfy some of that demand, perhaps as early as next summer. After years of effort, including millions in fundraising and extensive restoration, the group recently transported a vintage passenger steamship from Detroit to Buffalo, New York, a partially repaired, turn-of-the-century vessel they hope can sail up the Hudson River by the middle of 2017. The organization has raised $4 of the $5 million needed to get the boat to New York City, after which they expect to spend up to five years and additional millions (perhaps up to $18 million in total) restoring the ship to its former glory at a boatyard in Kingston, New York.
The non-profit S.S. Columbia Project, incorporated in 2002, came about due to the efforts of Richard Anderson, a New York art dealer who was obsessed with the dayliners that used to run along the Hudson and wanted to find a way to recreate the experience.
"When we present our plan to older crowds of New Yorkers who are in their 70s and 80s, they remember the commercials," says McEnaney.
Anderson found what he believes was the answer in Detroit, the S.S. Columbia, a 207-foot-long vessel which had been decommissioned in 1991, and sat docked and decaying behind a steel plant. While the current state of the main deck—which not too long ago was covered in peeled paint the texture of phyllo dough—doesn’t suggest it, this boat was once a grand dame, a famous passenger ferry that brought visitors to Boblo Island and a now-closed amusement park. Originally designed by Frank Kirby and Lewis O. Keil, a celebrated marine architect and interior designer, the vessel was one of many luxury wooden steamships designed by the duo, boasting five decks, Corinthian pilasters, mahogany panels and leaded glass, as well as a nearly 10,000-square-foot, open-air ballroom.
In the later half of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, steamships like these crisscrossed waterways across the northeast, the north’s answer to Mississippi River paddlewheelers. The "white flyer" passenger steamers that ran up the Hudson were known nationwide. The Columbia, the oldest of these boats still running, offers a connection to this lost era of transportation.
When Anderson and other supporters bought the ship more than a decade ago, however, it was a fixer-upper of epic proportions. Detroit preservationists, especially William Worden, had tried and failed to restore the boat year earlier, though they did get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While Anderson passed away three years ago, other supporters took up the cause, finally raising enough to move the Columbia from Michigan.
When the ship was finally moved in steps to New York state, first to the Ironhead shipyard in Toledo, Ohio, where it sat for the better part of a year, and then across Lake Erie to Buffalo last September, it needed plenty of attention. At one point, the wooden vessel was wrapped in plastic, and shrink-wrapping is perhaps the worst way to treat a timber ship. Two tons of zebra mussels were removed from the double hull, which left parts of the ship below the waterline looking more "swiss cheese" than McEnaney and others would have liked. That led to an extensive replacement of more than two-thirds of the hull, along with 950 steel rivets (the steel skeleton remains in remarkably good condition). After the ship was parked in Buffalo for the winter, the group, afraid of the damage that might come from a frigid winter, built trusses to support the ship in case of snow accumulation. Manhattan-based McEnaney, whose phone was set to show Buffalo weather, was happy this year saw little snowfall.
This year, as it remains docked in Buffalo, the boat will host a site-specific theater piece—a "great way to get people on the boat"—and hopefully attract enough attention to finish the final funding push for the move.
The S.S. Columbia has a circuitous journey ahead of it. Too big to take the Erie Canal, it will journey across the Niagara River, through the Welland Canal and onto Lake Ontario, past the Thousand Islands, through Quebec, around the coast of Maine, and come through New York harbor. It’s an exciting trip for a boat that spent most of its life on the Detroit River, as well as those, like the Coast Guard, who followed its slow progression east.
"Even the Coast Guard rarely sees a 114-year-old steam ship," says McEnaney. "That’s something really special."
Talking to McEnaney about the multi-year project, it’s clear the organization is prepared for a long restoration, but also impatient to let others experience the S.S. Columbia. That’s why they’re planning a phased restoration, with planned runs on the Hudson before the entire structure is restored. The idea is to replicate an archeological-like experience, so people can see progress as they ride.
For a ship that was basically a glorified ferry and party boat for most of its life, the S.S. Columbia Project has high hopes for the role of the restored steamship: an educational center teaching STEM subjects, a cultural and arts venue presenting floating exhibitions, as well as a driver for tourism and a means to connect the city to the Hudson Valley.
The final step in the boat’s journey hopefully comes next year, when it gets docked at the boatyards in Kingston, New York, 90 miles up the Hudson, for the beginning of the multi-year restoration project. With a $1.2 million grant from the state, the process of bringing the ship back to its former glory will be much like restoring a classic hotel or older building. The organization even found original 1902 blueprints for the ship, another part of the past helping get this boat on the water once more.
"We’ve been left with this gift of a roadmap," says McEnaney.