For a vessel with such a big history, the lightship Ambrose looks surprisingly small. Perhaps it’s because South Street Seaport Museum has the 135-footer tied up across from the 325-foot iron-hulled Wavertree. Or maybe it’s because so many of us have forgotten just how large the Ambrose used to loom in the hearts and minds not only of Americans, but also of immigrants who came to New York Harbor from all around the world.
A $4.5 million grant to begin restoring the Ambrose will help remind us of this lightship’s significance in U.S. history — with the work coming at a time when the national political discourse has many people wanting the stories of America’s immigrants brought back to the fore.
She’s afloat in one of the most historic sections of New York City, where Fulton Street meets the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge looms overhead. If they could talk, the renovated mercantile buildings that yellow cabs zip past would tell tales of all the immigrants who lived and worked along these streets. Walking up to the lightship today feels like walking back in time. Sure, modern boats cruise past, but if you squint, you can almost see steamships.
From a distance, the Ambrose looks as stately as any old girl could, flying dress flags from her 110-year-old yellow masts and a sizable Old Glory from her stern. Even still, a lot of tourists on Pier 16 skedaddle right past her. They rush to be on time for a Circle Line ferry tour to the Statue of Liberty, failing to realize that during the early 1900s the Ambrose was the first beacon of light and hope that immigrants to the United States saw.
She was the “floating lighthouse” that pierced the night sky in Ambrose Channel as an aid to navigation for trans-Atlantic steamers heading into New York Harbor. For some 6 million immigrants, the lightship was their first sight in the New World, held in place by a pair of 5,000-pound mushroom anchors — one catted to her bulwarks, the other secured through her stern hawsepipe. From 1908 until 1932, she sat in Ambrose Channel, a few miles off New Jersey’s Sandy Hook and New York’s Breezy Point — far ahead of where Lady Liberty’s torch became visible.
Capt. Jonathan Boulware, South Street Seaport Museum’s executive director, says the Ambrose, in some ways, was more important than the famous statue for that reason. “The Statue of Liberty was figurative,” he says, standing at the Ambrose’s boarding gate. “That lightship, right there, was the actual light of freedom. When you crossed her as an immigrant, that’s when you got counted as arriving in America.”
Now the Ambrose is finally getting her historical due. The grant — provided by the New York City Mayor’s Office, City Council and borough president — will pay for repairing and restoring the lightship to her original 1907 configuration from the main deck up. She will become the only surviving lightship with an original configuration out of the more than 200 of these vessels the United States built from 1820 through the 1950s.
As schoolchildren and adults tour the Ambrose in years to come, she’ll look the way millions of immigrants saw her during the largest influx of new citizens in the nation’s history. “What we’re focused on,” Boulware says, “is the role that she had in the growth of New York and in the history of immigration.”
The renovation will include work that the museum has wanted to do since the Coast Guard decommissioned the Ambrose and donated her in 1968, making her the first vessel in the museum’s collection. Until now, restoring other vessels, including last year’s $13 million renovation of the Wavertree, has taken precedence, leaving the Ambrose to wait in line and, in some places, outright rot.
Perhaps one of the greatest discourtesies she has endured is that, even after being declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989, she was left clad in the colors that all lightships were repainted during the 1930s. For generations, her hull has been red and marked with the giant white letters A-M-B-R-O-S-E, which is the name of the station where she first served, not her proper designation as LV-87. Her original paint scheme was straw yellow with the words “87 Ambrose Channel 87” painted in black along her sides. That’s how she would’ve appeared to passengers aboard the Lusitania, Boulware says — yes, that Lusitania, best remembered as the British ocean liner that a German submarine sank in World War I but, before that, the first ship that passed LV-87 after she began lightship service in Ambrose Channel in 1908.
Boulware says there could not be a better time for the restoration, which he hopes will encourage Americans to think about the importance of immigration to the development of New York City and the nation as a whole. “I wouldn’t say that what we’re doing is a reaction to what’s going on at the federal level,” Boulware says, “but this is very relevant.”
The work is also timely because of the lightship’s condition, which is visibly troubling during even a cursory tour. Her last significant refit was 85 years ago. After she left her original station at Ambrose Channel in 1932, she was switched from steam propulsion to a Winton diesel engine, and she got Fresnel lamps at her mastheads. She went on to serve at other stations, including Scotland Station off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and she appeared as part of the Coast Guard’s exhibit (known then as the Lightship Scotland) at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York.
Considering all she has been through, and the fact that she’s still afloat, LV-87 had some impressive initial construction. Her hull was built of riveted steel plates, a method that welding made obsolete during World War II. She still has her original pilothouse wheel — which looks about 3½ feet in diameter and spans nearly the entire deckhouse width, beneath six round portholes — as well as her original speaking tubes, which let the captain communicate with crew in the engine room.
Her two remaining masts (of the original three) are also still aboard, but Boulware says they haven’t been removed for servicing since she was built more than a century ago. Her deckhouses, including the “radio shack” added after 1921, when she became the first U.S. lightship with a radio beacon, are rotting in some places, though they remain structurally upright.
Parts of her main deck have been replanked for safety reasons, but water still gets through when it rains, which has left the engine room below caked in rust. “She’s not leaking through her hull,” Boulware says, “but she’s leaking through her deck like a basket.”
The $4.5 million allotted for the restoration won’t cover her needs below deck, but it will stop rainwater from coming through and making things worse, thanks to new decking and more.
Some mechanical and shipboard communications systems will also be repaired. LV-87 will once again have a functional steering system with a schooner-rigged sail plan. Her bow and deckhouses will be restored to their original schematics, though it’s uncertain whether the radio shack will remain, with its hand-crank “Gibson Girl” rescue radio, radio-direction finder and RCA intermediate-frequency transmitter, which was used to send distress calls.
The Fresnel lenses atop her masts will be replaced with lamp carousels — hoist-controlled, occulting signal lamps that could be seen for 9 miles — like the ones that crewmen used to raise and lower by lines so they could refill them with kerosene or oil. Those signal lamps were used until 1920, when LV-87 became the first lightship to be electrified with carbon-arc lights, increasing the visible range to 15 miles. The carbon-arc lights stayed until the 1930s, when a 1,000-watt light in a 375mm, cut-glass 15,000-candlepower lens was installed atop each mast.
Arguably the most impressive space aboard LV-87 is one that the restoration will not affect: her anchor compartment. There, the painted-gray machinery, once powered by steam, makes today’s motoryacht windlasses look like dinghy equipment. Entering this space is akin to entering a 150-foot yacht’s engine room, only instead of MAN or Caterpillar diesels, there’s the apparatus to raise and lower anchor cable weighing 200 pounds per fathom. The Hyde Windlass Co. manufactured the setup; today, the Penobscot Marine Museum in Maine calls Hyde the “ancestral company” of Bath Iron Works, which builds vessels for the Navy.
As the museum takes bids and chooses a yard that can handle the lightship’s refit — “It’s working on a 110-year-old steel-riveted ship; it takes a unique set of skills,” Boulware says — a scale model of LV-87, as she originally appeared, stands under glass at the museum on Fulton
Street. It’s part of an exhibit running through the end of January called “Millions: Migrants and Millionaires aboard the Great Liners, 1900-1914.”
The exhibit tells the story of the nearly 13 million immigrants who traveled to America in third class aboard the great steamships of the early 1900s, a time when no more than 100,000 wealthy passengers each year took the far more spacious, first-class return trip to Europe. Before 1914, according to the exhibit, three-quarters of all immigrants arriving in the United States came through the Port of New York. Ocean liners carrying the people grew in size to meet the demand, from 15,000-ton to 50,000-ton vessels.
In the third-class areas, each of the men, women and children, who paid about $1,200 for a ticket (in today’s dollars) to make the crossing, were allowed to bring a trunk with just 10 cubic feet of space for all of their belongings. They survived the journey across the ocean on meals such as Quaker Oats, smoked herring, rice soup, corned beef with cabbage, grilled sausage and, some nights for supper, gruel with a side of cheese and biscuits.
The food was of good enough quality that the immigrants would be healthy when they entered Ambrose Channel, cruised past LV-87 and, ultimately, had medical checks before being allowed to join American society. The shipping companies made sure of it. Otherwise, they would be fined.
Passing LV-87 began what the exhibit calls “the ritual of arrival” that each of these immigrants underwent. The steamship would slow at the entrance to Ambrose Channel, with Manhattan ahead in the distance. Inspectors would come aboard. Customs officials would prepare the passengers for inspection at Ellis Island.
“Nobody knows what the lightship Ambrose is now, but in the early 1900s, everybody knew what it was,” Boulware says. “Everybody wrote letters home about her. She was an icon. She is an icon.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.