Day Trip: Arthur Kills Ship Graveyard
Words and Photos by Glori Campbell
As cyclists in NYC we have more rides around us than we like to believe. Sure the 60-70 mile rides up 9W to Piermont and Nyack are beautiful and great training rides, but sometimes we just need something a little different. We need to see the real New York. Here now is a chance to see it, before it washes away in the tide.
It was hot for a day in May. I mean boob-sweat/swamp-ass sweat hot. The humidity was lingering around us like an unwanted drunk suitor at a dive bar. My bangs were plastered to my forehead underneath my helmet and from the singe on my nose, I could literally feel the mistake I made of not reapplying my sunscreen. But no time for that now, for we had just ditched our bikes (cabled locked together and hiding in some reeds) and were giddily hopping over a thick chain border in someone’s front yard that kindly warned no trespassers & beware of dog. “Do you really think they have a dog?” I mumbled over to my friend Anna Maria. She didn’t respond and we quickly leapt over and ran along side their ramshackle house and out to their backyard. And this backyard, let me tell you, is a sight to see. At the waters edge lies a skyline like no other in New York City, this one is of dead boats.
Broken masts jut up from murky reed filled waters; the deep redorange hue of rust crosses the horizon in the shapes of forgotten tugboats and other crumbling ships. Down at your feet are the splintery remains of the slow crucifixion of many small wooden boats and other urban marine artifacts. Some people say this place is haunted and if you make the pilgrimage out here, you understand why. There is history forgotten. Days when the New York City waterways lived in all their glory and have now been put to rest. The Tugboat Graveyard goes by many other names: The Arthur Kill Boat Yard, The Staten Island Boat Graveyard, the Witte Marine Equipment Company and now, more officially, The Donjon Marine Company. Here on the shores of Staten Island’s Arthur Kill Road (towards the islands southern tip & just a brave half a mile leap to New Jersey) lies one of the largest marine scrapyards on the East Coast.
It is an impressive sight and quite worth the bike trek out here. Our journey started from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn (about 5 miles one way to the Staten Island Ferry in lower Manhattan). We rode across the Manhattan bridge and down into her depths through the financial district. Zipping through traffic as the cluster of tall stone-grey buildings on Water Street swallowed us up. Suits and ties scurried like ants around us when we finally made it to the tip of Manhattan and boarded the Staten Island Ferry – one of the best free boat rides I’ve ever taken and with priceless views.
As a cyclist you must wait and board on the lower level from a special area reserved for cyclists. Once on Staten Island it is about a 26 mile round trip ride to the Tugboat Graveyard. Just be prepared for two things: hills and riding in moving traffic. Despite what the rest of NYC might have led you on to believe; Staten Island is hilly. So having gears on your bike might make the ride more pleasant for you (though I did it on my single speed with no problems, but if you haven’t been riding often and at longer distances you might want to opt for gears). It is also important to feel comfortable riding in traffic. There are some bike lanes, but like the rest of the city they are intermittent. That said, it is a really fun and exhilarating excursion. One minute you are at the edge of Manhattan in all is financial splendor and the next you are navigating what feels like suburban roads on the hilly sometimes forgotten stepsister of NYC.
We knew that we arrived at The Tugboat Graveyard, when off to our right we saw a small set of about 4 stone stairs leading up off the shoulder on Arthur Kill Road. As we hopping off our bikes and climbed the stairs about 20 old crumbling grave makers surrounded us with tombstones dating back through the 1750s. I learned later that this was what remained of the Blazing Star Cemetery. This area was once called Old Blazing Star (named after a local tavern at the time). While this cemetery is a sight to see, the real sight is out beyond them in the water.
Now I must give you full disclosure: this area is technically off limits and it is not for the faint of heart. You must transverse tall-weeded grasses, which, depending on the time of year can be full of poison ivy (full disclosure: I got some on my arm) and very swampy. We took refuge in the shade of a tree by the gravestones while I unpacked and slid on my 14-hole Doc Martin’s from my backpack. We hid our bikes in the tall grasses and began our journey down to the water. Peering out at us were the jagged angled lines of tugboat silhouettes. The air was thick and damp. To some this might be an industrial wasteland, but to me there was beauty in this urban decay. All is still and quiet and you are given a moment in this hectic city to reflect on how it was all built, how much it has changed, and how much more it will continue to change.
The former owner John J. Witte refused to let boats be dismantled in his property, and it is said that at one time over 200 ships lay here. But since it’s transfer to the Donjon Company, many have been stripped away and a fraction remains. There is very little access here and most of it relies on bravery, good balance, and luck choosing the right piece of broken wood or rusted metal to climb upon. It can be hard to find quiet in New York City, even a day in one of our cities more popular parks can prove to be more like acting out a video game then a relaxing bike ride. That is why I like to find my quiet in other ways. Sure they may take a little longer to get to but the time you have to reflect while there is always worth it in my opinion.
Is It For Me? Intermediate or advanced. I highly recommend being comfortable riding in traffic and riding longer distances (25 miles +). Distance: 26 miles round trip from St. George Ferry Terminal, Staten Island Time: Half to full day, depending on start point, skill, and stops made.
Eat Me: Denino’s Pizzeria and Tavern. Some of the best pizza I’ve had in NYC. A no frills dark and cool bar that has been serving pizza to Staten Islanders since 1951. Semolina on the bottom of the crust gives the perfect crunch, while the inside retains the ideal amount of chew. A deliciously balanced sauce and topped with fresh muzza-rel. Served by the pie (a small is about 8 slices- don’t worry, you’ll be hungry)
Remember to Bring: boots or other sturdy shoes, gloves, sunscreen, and a brave and adventurous heart.