In the database of National Historic Landmarks there are all kinds of boats from throughout U.S. history, including enough fireboats that even a cursory search requires the fingers on both hands to count them. Some of the designated fireboats date back as far as the early 1900s.
The Fireboat McKean Preservation Project in New York wants to add one more to the National Historic Landmarks list, if only some of the fireboat’s neighbors on the Hudson River would stop complaining about the sight of her.
Built in 1954, the John D. McKean is named for a marine engineer in the New York City Fire Department who died after a steam explosion aboard another fireboat. The 129-foot McKean was a staple of Manhattan waterways for decades, responding to everything from a 1991 fire at a Staten Island Ferry terminal that injured 20 people to the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing of a US Airways jet in 2009 by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
The McKean is best known for her response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade center, when the crew ferried as many as 250 people from Manhattan to safety across the Hudson River in New Jersey and assisted emergency responders at Ground Zero for several days. McKean crewmembers were heroic on 9/11. Two women who had leapt into the water were so tired from swimming that they couldn’t climb a ladder up the McKean’s 12-foot freeboard amidships, so crewmembers jumped in to help. One man dove beneath a woman and lifted her out of the water atop his shoulders, high enough that other men aboard could reach her from the ladder and pull her to safety.
It’s these types of stories, and more, that the McKean’s owners are trying to enshrine as a permanent part of American history. The fireboat was decommissioned in 2010 and sold at auction for $57,400. (The McKean cost $1.4 million to build.) Restaurateurs Michael Kaphan and Edward Taylor — who had spent time in the bilges helping to restore LV-115, better known as the lightship Frying Pan — and firefighter Miguel Valle, bought the McKean to restore her and use her for educational and social cruises. They’ve invested $250,000 in restoration work, according to published reports, and Taylor says that he and Valle are pretty much doing the renovations with their own hands.
“Sometimes I’ll get a day laborer to help me carry stuff, but that’s it. I’ve been working on her three or four days a week since we bought her, either days or nights,” Taylor told Soundings in mid-March. “This week we’re taking out the water pumps for the engines because they leaked a little water. We need to rebuild those.”
The McKean is docked about 30 miles north of the Big Apple at Kaphan and Taylor’s Hudson Farmer & The Fish, a restaurant on the ground floor of the River House condominiums on 11 River St. in Sleepy Hollow, New York, where the restoration continues. Taylor says they had a lease on the dock, so they put their boat there, and they filed an application to name the McKean a National Historic Landmark. (The application was still pending as Soundings went to press.)
Docking the McKean in that location created the current hullabaloo. Some vocal Sleepy Hollow residents say the boat is blocking the views from their condos, and they’re demanding that the McKean be moved. The complaints started coming in to Sleepy Hollow’s board of trustees last year around Thanksgiving. Without warning or public hearings, residents who have views of the Manhattan skyline from their River Street condos and apartments looked out their windows and saw the 47½-foot-tall, red-and-white McKean instead of the skyscrapers and bridges downriver.
“It was beautiful until this boat,” one resident told The Journal News. “I used to be able to see New York City.”
Those views, of course, come at a hefty price. In March, a one-bedroom, one-bath, 974-square-foot place at 11 River St. was listed for sale at $829,000. Up the street at a different waterfront complex, a two-bedroom townhome was $1.048 million. Thus, the argument about the McKean is now being framed as one of 9/11 patriotism versus NIMBY outcry. “It’s like putting the Statue of Liberty in front of your house,” one resident told the New York Daily News. “It’s a beautiful piece of history. It’s just not in the right place.”
There’s no question that the uproar is about the McKean’s current location, not her historical significance. She is part of a storied line of New York City fireboats that date to 1866, when the owners of the steam-powered John Fuller rented that boat as needed to battle blazes, making the Fuller what is believed to be the city’s first fireboat. The McKean’s era of construction in the 1950s came just after World War II, when fireboats shared secret codes with the Navy in order to operate and patrol Manhattan’s harbors. The communications advancement during the McKean’s construction years was the New York Fire Department installing two-way radios in all of its assets, on land and at sea.
Even today, some 64 years after her launch, the McKean can move under her own power. She has twin 1,000-hp Enterprise direct reversible diesels that push her to a top end of about 14 knots. A steam boiler heats the engines in addition to two others that drive centrifugal pumps — a design that eliminated “warm-up time” and allowed her to respond quickly to emergencies. She also holds enough fuel to operate for nearly five days, should extended emergencies such as 9/11 occur.
“It’s a boat in the water,” Taylor says, adding that the McKean is not permanently moored. “The boat is fully functional, right down to the telegraph radiophones from the wheelhouse down to the engine room.”
Sleepy Hollow volunteer fire chief John Korzelius, who assisted at Ground Zero, testified in favor of the McKean before Sleepy Hollow’s board of trustees late last year. “For this fire department, that fireboat has special meaning to us,” Korzelius said, as reported in The Hudson Independent. “I don’t think it’s a rust bucket. I don’t think it’s an eyesore. I don’t see a downside to this. I see it as the beginning of the turnaround of the riverfront. This village needs to grow. We need something to bring people here.”
Sleepy Hollow village administrator Anthony P. Giaccio told Soundings in March that, going into month four of the McKean controversy, the village continues to get complaints, as well as support for the boat from residents and non-residents. “I think 75 percent of the people, at least, maybe more, are in support of the boat,” Giaccio says. “The ones against it are the ones who live right there. We do understand that.
“They have concerns that aren’t just visual,” he continues. “They’re worried about parties and other impacts to the area, parking and things like that. But based on public opinion, I think the village wants to keep it, and the village board did make a statement that they are in support of the boat as long as it’s in the right location.”
That statement, which the board of trustees and mayor issued in mid-February, says the village “would be honored” to have the McKean stay, but her owners “must satisfy regulatory issues raised by the Army Corps of Engineers and the village of Sleepy Hollow.”
Giaccio says one of the main regulatory issues involves the pier adjacent to the McKean. “They have a gangway that goes down from the pier, and they put in a gate to modify the pier and ran some electric out to the boat — those are village Building Department issues,” he says. “We have contacted the property owner of the pier, and they are in the process of getting a permit for those modifications.”
Beyond the permitting issue, Giaccio adds, the McKean is sitting in water beyond village jurisdiction. The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge there, he says, and a permit has been requested under that agency, as well.
Giaccio says part of the controversy stems not just from the McKean’s presence, but also from the way her owners moved it in and surprised the local residents. “I do see some of the comments that people have made — where the boat is located, how they put it in under the dark of night without going through a public process and the permitting process,” he says. “Most people are in support of it for the historic component. Our fire department was very passionate about that boat. A local fireman here is also a fireman in New York City, and he said that boat was one of the only sources of water during 9/11.”
Assuming the permitting issues can be resolved, Giaccio thinks the McKean will call Sleepy Hollow her permanent home but that she’ll either be positioned or located differently to help assuage concerns about the views. “The way the boat is now, it’s pretty much on a horizontal with the shore,” he says. “It’s kind of blocking a public park that’s right there, and I can see people saying, ‘Does it have to be right there?’ So we’re looking at the possibility of putting it perpendicular to the shore, which we think will give it a little less of a visual impact.
“The reason that hasn’t happened is the work on the Tappan Zee Bridge,” he adds. “That pier is being used as a staging area for the bridge work.”
Taylor says he’d be happy to work on that type of compromise after the bridge work is done. “When they’re gone from the other end of the dock that we share, we could tuck into that area just to the south of where we are,” he says. “At a 90-degree angle, we’d be east-to-west and less of a profile. It wouldn’t be as close to people’s condos. I’m a reasonable person. I’m sure these folks are reasonable. It’s a great old boat. It’s got a lot of history. We just want to see her preserved and maintained.”
For the village of Sleepy Hollow, Giaccio says, having a historic fireboat like the McKean permanently on the waterfront would be a boon. “It’s right along our Riverwalk that connects with Tarrytown, and we have a historic lighthouse,” he says. “Having historic sites along the Riverwalk, interesting features like the boat, it all adds to the experience and would encourage more people down to the water. That’s not just about the boat; it’s about the whole area, and for that reason, we think it’s another benefit as long as it’s done right.”
Giaccio says the McKean’s owners have done a bang-up job on the restoration efforts and in terms of helping people understand the important role that the fireboat played in New York City history. Once the logistics of where to put the McKean along the Sleepy Hollow waterfront are worked out, he says, tours and events aboard the boat should appeal to a wide swath of people.
“Forget about the controversy. Everybody who’s seen the boat thinks it’s awesome,” he says. “The boat looks beautiful. The notion that it’s a museum and not just a boat has really intrigued people.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue.