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The ghosts of boating past

A fleet of wooden vessels from the early 1800s lies “beached to rot away, New York City,” as the identifier says on this image from the Detroit Photographic Co. It’s such a wonderful array of craft — pleasure boats, workboats, harbor ferries, steamers. Today they would be treasured museum pieces; here they are no more than the flotsam and jetsam left by the storm of progress, stranded in the passing of time.

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Look at the graceful little catboat with those wonderful diamond-shaped ports, the stout and stubby mast, the long sprit and plumb bow dropping straight down to the cutwater. Who was it that sat in the cockpit, leaning against the coaming, looking up at the sail, a lively tiller in hand?

And the launch with the whimsical striped-canvas surrey top. Her name, Ki-Ki, is painted proudly on the bow; surely she was loved at one time. The mind’s eye can see women with parasols and men in blazers and white trousers at the Sunday yacht races.

And there’s the steamer Drew, slowly fading into the haze of the past. Named after Daniel Drew, the owner of the Bristol Line of steamers, it’s built in a style popular in the late 1800s. More than 300 feet in length, she carried passengers between New York and Albany on vacations, business trips and family outings in opulence beyond what most people experienced on land.

Trains, automobiles, the gasoline inboard engine and eventually outboards conspired to scuttle these vessels from their golden age. But their rich legacy, as well as those of the men and women they carried, remains.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.


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