What is this?!! For as long as I can remember, I have been puzzled about this structure every time I had gone to Memorial Park in Nyack. “Is it a boat that was wrecked? It looks like a boat! Why is it there? Why would anyone make a boat out of concrete? It would surely sink!” This is what would go through my head every time I walked by. I finally decided to try to dig up a little history on it, which proved to be surprisingly difficult.
I first did a quick Google search for concrete ships in Nyack, only to come up with a number of other people asking the same questions I was. I then scouring the Valley Cottage local history collection, where I found nothing on this particular subject.
My next step was to turn to the Nyack Village Historian. She gave me a lot more information. According to excerpts of the Nyack Village Board minutes, after the building of the Tappan Zee Bridge, John Kilby, the mayor of Nyack, planned to extend Memorial Park, build a restaurant and a marina. Apparently, barges and concrete were intended to be sunk at the perimeter of the park extension and the rest was to be filled in. The restaurant would have been too expensive, so it never came to fruition.
Unfortunately, while trying to make the extension of the park, someone miscalculated on the measurements and sunk the barges too far out into the water, so that the land couldn’t be appropriately filled in. While this told me why the barge was there, it still didn’t tell me what it was and why anyone would build a concrete boat in the first place!
On a whim, I decided to look at Google Earth to see if I could see anything else sunk under the water. There was another structure there, but what was far more interesting was the fact that it was labeled “Erie Canal Concrete Boat.” I had a new direction! Upon searching for Erie Canal Concrete Boats, I found several sources.
According to the blog of Don Rittner, the Schenectady County Historian, these concrete barges were made during WWI as an experiment in using materials other than steel to move cargo through the Erie Canal. The pictures on his site matched our local concrete barge! He mentioned that these barges ultimately failed, and weren’t very well planned. While concrete was inexpensive, it was extremely heavy and those that constructed these barges didn’t really know how they would hold up under constant use.
I came across the memoir of Richard Garrity, a former Canal Boatman, entitled Canal Boatman: My Life on Upstate Waterways. He wrote a bit about these concrete canal boats. It seems that the Nyack Barge was probably one of only 21 concrete barges that were made during this experimental time. They were 150 ft long, by 21 ft wide and could hold 520 tons of cargo. On their incredible failure he stated:
“The concrete barges were not much of a success commercially or otherwise. They drew 4 feet of water when empty compared to a wooden or steel barge’s 18 to 22 inches. The sides were holed and sunk when they struck a solid object with a moderate force that would not have damaged a steel or wooden barge. And many of them were damaged or sunk along the canal between Albany and Buffalo. To the best of my knowledge, none of them had a useful life of more than three or four years.”
It is so much fun for me to dig up weird, obscure bits of information about my surroundings and this kind of research makes me love what I do. I will no longer look at that barge with confusion, but will look at it knowing its bizarre history and the experiment intending to make concrete float.