Planks and Pitfalls: Journeying to the Abandoned Staten Island Ship Graveyard [PHOTOS]

Posted on: August 27th, 2014 at 9:38 am by and
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Arthur Kill Road.

“Kill” is actually Dutch for “creek,” yet the way the traffic careens around the road’s tight curves at breakneck speeds suggests a modern relevancy. It’s the first of many obstacles in uncovering Staten Island’s historical treasure – the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard. Located on the western coast of the island, the “attraction” is a maritime marvel; a fascinating study in the decaying obsolete. The big challenge is getting there – it’s not exactly an easy trek for urban exploration bliss.

(Warning: If you are claustrophobic, hate bugs, or don’t like feeling like you’re in an episode of Lost, save yourself the trip.)

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Driving along Arthur Kill, the shipyard goes unnoticed at first pass. Solid twelve-foot fencing, along with overgrown marshland, secludes both the metal scrap yard and views of the historical ruination. Locals are all too familiar with those who seek this obscure address in hopes of beholding the semi-natural wonder; residential yards are over-saturated with “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” warnings, and businesses are quick to point everyone away from their property. And with good reason. There have been stories of sightseers falling through the brittle boats, becoming trapped in waist deep mud. There’s also unruly wildlife lore; raccoons the size of baby cows, and the incessant rise of the planet of the deer ticks. This begs the question: To drown in the bog of eternal stench, or death by heifercoons?

Choose wisely…

There is a single, yet limited, access point, if traveling on foot, and it isn’t for the weak of heart. Treading lightly through the ancient Rossville cemetery, bearing witness to lives from the 1800s, it’s easy to imagine how this area used to look; a field of green, trees dotting the landscape, the marsh ahead, this resting place, and some quaint houses against the bay. All before the population grew.

The bicentennial cemetery eventually gives way to a narrow path of hilly earth, then flattened marsh grass. Thorny vines criss-cross the “trail,” making precarious footwork for those who dare to embark. Massive jungle-like reeds, well over six feet high, rustle lightly in the afternoon breeze. The dank tang of low tide is thick; sweat pools on brows and humming mosquitoes fly rampant. And then, a breathtaking clearing.

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There are a few decaying vessels visible from this point, floating quietly, eerily still, despite the rippling water. High stepping through the marsh, it’s hard to concentrate on the gaping holes in the ground (and the small crabs who lay claim to them), with eyes transfixed on this phenomenon. The Bloxom, a rusty red tugboat built in 1944 for the US Army, lures muddy boots to the very edge of the water line. Looking to the left, another relic in the distance majestically bears its mast to the sky, silhouetted in the early afternoon sun.

In a word: haunting.

Instinct places one foot in front of another towards the mast’s direction, only to be thwarted by an impassable gully. But oxidized row boats, tagged by brazen street artists, sit atop rotting wooden wreckage, and hold the promise another route for those worthy of discovering it.

Plodding through deep mud and dizzying tall reeds is a surefire way to heighten the senses, in a Blair Witch kind of way. Debates on whether that plant has “shiny leaves of three” give way to panicky “Did you hear that? I thought I heard something!” Onward, with frequent queries of “Are you okay?” as each sink-hole and moss-laden board is traversed. The boats are now a photogenic amalgamation of splintered wood, slimy algae, and rusty parts (e.g. engines, nails, etc). Death by impalement on a rusty spike seems inevitable; when was that last tetanus shot?

Beached remnants from Hurricane Sandy have made themselves at home on rusted box springs and rotting planks. A tanker lolls in the murky water, and in the distance, a ship that participated in D-Day slumps alongside two submarines from World War II. An eye-catching capsized wooden wheelhouse is just the tip of the impassable iceberg.

The history of this place is vast, spanning decades. Where did they all come from, and how did they end up in Staten Island? Who manned the helms? Were these vehicles of war? Rescue? Commerce? If only their hulls could spin the tales.

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Among the ships in Staten Island’s boneyard include the fireboat Abram S. Hewitt, which aided in rescuing survivors of the General Slocum steamboat disaster in 1904; the US Navy submarine hunter PC-1264, one of only two U.S. Navy ships; and the tug YOG-64, which still remains. And this only scratches the surface of the rich history behind each scuttling ship.

Between New York and New Jersey now lay at least 100 deteriorating ships, though at one time they numbered 400. Their presence is courtesy of the old (John J.) Witte Marine Equipment Company — now Donjon Marine Company — active since the 1930s. It is a marine salvage yard. The former owner was notorious for chasing away eager eyes, but with his son at the helm, there’s a little more wiggle room on the matter. Arnold Witte, in speaking to WNYC back in 2010, explained, “Many if not all of the vessels you commonly see transiting the water ways of New York and New Jersey come to final resting place there — or have over the years… It’s closed off for public safety reasons. Some of the current wrecks are so deteriorated that it would be rather insensible to suggest it could become a tourist attraction.”

From the Donjon website:

We receive many inquiries from amateur and professional photographers and filmmakers requesting access to the graveyard from our property.  Unfortunately, we are unable to grant such requests.  Donjon Recycling is an operational scrap facility utilizing heavy equipment, and safety regulations prohibit us from allowing photography of any kind. Filmmakers interested in obtaining special permission may Contact the Donjon Recycling offices.
Thank you for your understanding.

In 1990, The New York Times also wrote a brief piece on Staten Island’s marvel that’s additionally worth consulting.

It doesn’t appear that Donjon Recycling uses all that much from what remains afloat anymore, and the graveyard’s popularity is primarily maintained by those with a lens and a penchant for history. The boats have become an unintentional maritime museum left as prey for the elements.

But the thousand words you’ve just consumed really do little justice. Have a look at some of the photos and, dare we say, plan a trip. At your own peril!

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