August 21, 2005
By WENDELL JAMIESON
IT'S a cloudy afternoon at Caddell Dry Dock and Repair Company on Staten Island, and all six docks are full. A tug is being repainted, a towering black steel barge is being repaired, a couple of coastal tankers are being overhauled, and an orange Staten Island ferry is high and very dry, its bottom exposed. Workers in hard hats swarm above and beneath the ships. The pinpoint silver-blue light of a torch cuts through the moist air.
Steven P. Kalil, the president, takes it all in.
"I can't handle too much more work here right now," he says. The day is supposed to end at 4 p.m., he adds, "but there aren't many days when we stop the yard at 4."
Mr. Kalil stands at the center of what is really the city's last working waterfront: the jagged, crowded, oily northern shoreline of Staten Island, a stretch extending from just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, past the ferry terminal, along the Kill Van Kull to the Howland Hook Marine Terminal.
All along this nine-mile strip, behind corrugated metal fences and brick walls, beneath the graceful arc of the Bayonne Bridge, you can hear the sounds of ships being scraped and repainted with spray guns, and banged back into shape, and the shouts of the men who do this. Forklifts beep as they back up; crane motors whir. Twice a day, you can hear a whistle blow at Caddell's - once for lunch, once for quitting time.
Over those fences or sometimes through them, you can see the tops of the tugboats that live here, returning to their docks after 28 days working nonstop to move ships and barges around the harbor or up and down the East Coast.
The country's last two major tug companies - McAllister and Moran - have ports near each other, but they are only two of numerous marine businesses on Staten Island: here are also shipyards and ship chandlers, a container port, companies that handle fuel barges and floating derricks, and the Sandy Hook pilots, who own two pilot boats - one always on station out at sea, the other docked just north of the Verrazano.
Big ships still come and go from a few other places in the city. But nowhere else on the water do you have the sensation of a business community that grew organically out of the very reason for its existence, the harbor, as along these nine miles.
This working community lives amid the wreckage of the heyday of the port. For every going concern there is a deserted old warehouse, or a rotting pier, or a set of rusty disused train tracks, or a sunken tugboat with its wheelhouse windows smashed. But if this stretch of shore is not thriving, it certainly is surviving.
In the last 15 years, New York's waterfront has been transformed. Old, unused piers have given way to parks and bike paths and walkways. Every day, it seems, a new plan is unveiled, whether in Williamsburg, or Red Hook, or the East Side of Manhattan. Each features the harbor as a backdrop, a placid lake on which docked sailboats bob. And each plan, glorious and ambitious as it is, smooths away some of the jaggedness, the accidental design, that used to characterize a dirty and noisy and dangerous working port.
To tour the northern end of Staten Island is to experience the waterfront of New York as it once was. And nothing better demonstrates that than all those walls: here, the water is not something to get close to and look at, a view to drive up property values. The water is where work is done away from spectators' eyes. Who cares if it's shimmering at sunset when your back is aching and you're in the middle of repairing a four-ton propeller?
But on a hot summer afternoon, even if you can't see the water, you can sense it. You can detect its movement and force, and hear the squawks of the seagulls above it. And even if you can't sense it, you can certainly smell it.
28 Days On, 14 Off
At least 100 tugboats are based along the northern shore of Staten Island, owned and run mostly by Moran and McAllister, but also by some other big names from New York maritime history, like Bouchard and Reinauer, all with addresses on Richmond Terrace. Smaller concerns, like the Kosnac Floating Derrick Corporation, have only one tug.
The entrance to Reinauer's operation is marked by a sign set into an almost life-size model of a tug in the company's trademark colors, tan and red. Reinauer and Bouchard handle petroleum transportation, and their tugs are designed for the job: many have wheelhouses high in the air, so the captains can see over ungainly oil barges.
Moran and McAllister, by contrast, handle all kinds of tug work: pulling and pushing trash, container and oil barges and helping the big ships move around, whether it be to the Howland Hook container port or the passenger ship terminal on the West Side of Manhattan. McAllister's port captain is Patrick F. Kinnier, who has a small office decorated in a way that suggests he likes his job: it's filled with photographs of tugboats, including one he once owned, the Mary B. Sessa, and of Mr. Kinnier in a diving suit, and several unusual items, including Mr. Kinnier's "bomb" - several flares tied together and lashed to a clock with the McAllister logo on it.
Mr. Kinnier is also the company's security officer - it's his job to hide the bomb from time to time and see if his guys can find it. This is part of increased port security that followed 9/11. One wall in the office is an erasable board with the names of the 15 company tugboats that are based here. Five are in blue ink - meaning that their work is restricted to the harbor - and 10 are in black ink, meaning that they routinely sail along the coast from Nova Scotia as far south as Honduras. Next to the tugs' names, boxes are checked to show when their inspections are coming up.
"We used to have day boats," Mr. Kinnier says, tattoos of a fishhook and a swimming but filleted fish peeking out from his right shirt sleeve. "But that's really a thing of the past."
A day boat worked from morning until night, its crew clocking in and out like factory workers. Tugboats now work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's why, besides a few old boats and a few undergoing repair, only two working tugs are docked at McAllister this afternoon: the rest are out there somewhere on the water.
Staten Island, he says, is the "last frontier for the tugboats."
Crews work 28 days on, 14 off, with five or six men per boat. They all do six-hour shifts. How good the food is depends on whether one of the men is good with a stove; full-time cooks were eliminated years ago. When Mr. Kinnier owned his own tug, he did all the cooking, shopping at open air markets in Philadelphia and fishing for mahi-mahi off the stern on the way to Puerto Rico.
Mr. Kinnier gives a little tour of McAllister's operation, beginning with the control room. The space has expansive windows that look out over the Kill Van Kull, and two dispatchers, Simon Young and Bill Dowling, who are taking orders and writing them on paper ledgers. The room is staffed around the clock. The ledgers given an idea of how spontaneous a business this is: tomorrow's is filled with jobs, the one for three days from now is empty. But the phone is ringing. That sheet will fill up fast.
Out on the dock, the Brian A. McAllister is coming in. According to the captain, Eddie Opdycke, the Brian A. McAllister was built in 1961, making it one of the first tugs with three rudders - a main rudder and two flanking rudders. The design is indigenous to the Mississippi and gives great maneuverability. The smaller Joan McAllister is docked on the next pier; a "little toot," Mr. Kinnier calls it. Behind it, out in the Kill Van Kull, a Moran tug gurgles on its way home.
A sudden downpour spatters the boats. Up in the Brian A. McAllister wheelhouse, standing next to the wooden and brass levers that control the tug and the shiny brass compass that tells where it's going, Captain Opdycke traces the history of his tug, from its launching by Dravo, a tug maker in Pittsburgh, to its life today. His first job was on the Jane McAllister, another Dravo boat, which, he says, "has some very, very lovely lines - a graceful-looking tugboat, a nice, livable vessel."
He likes the three-rudders. "To me, once you get used to it, they are quite handy, and the tug is much more maneuverable doing its ship-assist work or handling barges," he says. But he has yet to master the newest design of tug, the tractor tug, of which McAllister has several, on which the rudders and propeller rotate independent of the hull. From the almost boyish enthusiasm in his voice, you can tell that Captain Opdycke likes his job, too.
Where 40,000 Once Worked
To tour McAllister, you need to wear an orange life vest. To tour Caddell's, probably the biggest of the Staten Island maritime businesses, you need to wear a hard hat. Mr. Kalil does, too, as he walks along the piers and through the various shops that make up New York's last full-service shipyard. When the Staten Island ferry Andrew J. Barberi was damaged in an accident that killed 11 people in October 2003, Caddell's got the contract to repair it. On this afternoon another orange ferry, the Alice Austen, is undergoing maintenance.
Standing beneath the Alice Austen, a 499-ton ship, Mr. Kalil, who started here 30 years ago as a carpenter's helper, points out its cycloidal propulsion system - five downward-pointing plates that feather as they rotate when the ferry is in operation. An engineer has come from Germany, where the system was designed and built, to consult during the overhaul. The plates and much of the hull are peppered with tiny, concrete-hard barnacles. To be standing beneath a Staten Island ferry is weird and claustrophobic and a little scary.
Around Mr. Kalil, workers in hard hats are coming and going. A towering crane swings a length of pipe with inch-by-inch precision, the operator visible high up in his cab, leaning back, manipulating the thing with a tiny joystick. Sparks fly in the metal shop. The dry docks themselves are spectacular creations: essentially giant metal barges, they are sunk into the muck at the bottom and then, after a ship is pulled in above them, filled with air and refloated, lifting the ship on huge wooden blocks and exposing its bottom for the workers.
Some 160 people work at Caddell's full time, traveling to their jobs from all over the region, and about 100 others work as subcontractors.
The other shipyard on Staten Island, May Ship Repair, sits on the other side of the Bayonne Bridge, next to McAllister's. It's smaller than Caddell's - 50 people work on three dry docks - and does a lot of new construction, such as a 180-foot-square ferry landing for Battery Park being built. When the landing is done, the structure will go down a "launching ways" and splash into the harbor, just as ships did 100 years ago.
"We started 28 years ago," said the owner and president, Mohamed Adam, a naval architect who is originally from Egypt. "Ten years ago we started doing new construction."
During World War II, the Bethlehem Steel shipyard occupied the land where May's is now. Ten thousand workers toiled there 24 hours a day building minesweepers.
More than 40,000 people still worked in the city's shipyards in 1960, back when Caddell had an on-site bar and restaurant, the Blue Room, where more than a few business deals were made. All the shipyards used to belong to the same umbrella organization. "That's all gone now," Mr. Kalil says.
Today, city officials seem uncertain how many people work in maritime businesses on Staten Island. According to Jennifer Nelson, a spokeswoman for the city's Economic Development Corporation, about 600 people are employed here, 475 at Howland Hook. But interviews showed that Caddell's, May's and McAllister alone employ about 450 people, so the city's estimate is probably very low.
The Water Clears
As Mr. Kinnier walks along McAllister's docks, he points to the water and remarks how clear it is: you can see all the vegetation growing on the hull of a retired tug. Over at Caddell's, three bright orange jellyfish move in pulses next to the dock. These are sights you never would have seen back when the working waterfront was in full swing, when the harbor was so dirty that captains brought their ships here so their bottoms would be cleaned by the pollution.
The water smelled far worse then, too. The main reason it's cleaner, Mr. Kalil rightly says, is that untreated sewage no longer goes right into the harbor. But the ebbing of waterfront industries has certainly helped clarify the currents even more.
The working waterfront was hardly a romantic place. In addition to the pollution, there were violence and misery, mob control and corrupt unions, death and serious injury, companies that squeezed every penny possible out of their workers. One day maybe it will all be parks and residential towers with water views, and plenty of people won't miss it. But now, at least for a moment, it remains a place where people work with their hands, and those hands touch brass and wood.
* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company