South Street Seaport Museum

Lightship Ambrose


I little expected to receive a command of my own. Certainly not so early in my career. I'd only been aboard the ship for a week or two, and then for only a few hours at a time. But there it was, the middle of Saturday afternoon, August 24th, 1968, and Dave Lutz had just quit tor the day. As the sole remaining representative of the owners left on board, I was in command of the vessel.

Filled with an overwhelming sense of my power and importance but yet naturally modest and retiring, I continued to greet the visitors coming aboard with a pleasant and unassuming smile and politely to answer such questions as What cargo did she carry? What time does Sloppy Louis' open? and What are those dead things in the water? to the best of my ability. Between questions, I hunted for a pair of steel ball bearings to idle with, or a palm tree to decorate the bridge, and I wondered if anyone was scheduled to relieve me before the Explorer Scouts arrived at midnight.

Perhaps I should explain that the vessel was the lightship Scotland. She was built in 1907 and first went into service as the Ambrose. She then went to Sandy Hook as the Scotland, had several adventures, and was taken out of service just a few years before she went to the Seaport. She was laid up at St. George on Staten Island a while, then decommissioned and removed. Then she returned to New York, to pier 16 at the foot of Fulton Street on the Manhattan side of the East River, as the property of the South Street Seaport Museum.

She had arrived under tow, weathered and stripped of much of her gear. The Seaport started the major task of putting her into shape, mostly with volunteer labor. While under repair she was open free to the public on weekends. While she was open, somebody had to be on board to watch the contributions box, answer questions about her, and count the number of visitors who fell overboard. There'd been a half dozen or so voluneers on board that Saturday morning when we opened her, but during the course of the day, one and another had drifted away. By midafternoon, I was the last representative of the South Street Seaport Museum left to function in this vital capacity

I guess it was inevitable that eventually I'd get involved with a museum of some kind. And it was not as odd as it may seem that it was a maritime museum. Sailships and the sea are among the many hobbyhorses I've ridden over the years. I had a bad attack of enthusiasm for that sort of thing in the early '50's, when I subscribed to Ships And The Sea magazine, built sailship models, and wallowed in such books as Moby Dick and Two Years Before The Mast.

I learned about Fulton Street when I got my first motorcycle. I'd bought it from Dick Greenhaus, who'd gotten a bigger and hotter bike. He was cruising around with me as I got the hang of operating it, and he led me down to the Fulton Fish Market area one Saturday afternoon when it was closed and the streets nigh empty. Motoring among the aged and decrepit buildings of the neighborhood, we happened upon the Eagle Bag & Burlap Company. This was a small store specializing in exotic knickknacks and curios at prices far lower than were charged for similar items uptown. I later took to doing much of my gift-shopping there. But Eagle Bag & Burlap wasn't the only attraction of the area.

The smell of the rotting fish in the gutters didn't bother me all that much. I took great pleasure in wandering the waterfront around the Market, admiring the neglected early 19th century buildings, the decaying docks, the filthy East River and the burly street cats that worked for a living in the neighborhood. Then I found something new had cropped up in the same block with Eagle Bag & Burlap.

It was the South Street Seaport Museum. I went into the little storefront operation (it was free) and browsed through a small collection of ship models, pictures and the like. I went back when they held a Sail-In at pier 16, and watched a couple of schooners try to beat their way in against the wind and tide. And I joined up for an Associate Membership in the Seaport organizatin. This got me their newsletter (a bimonthly fanzine called the South Street Reporter). I began to find out what the Seaport was all about.

To oversimplify, it involved a movement to save a section of the old waterfront from the building-developers. The Fish Market was going to move to a new home in the Bronx. The developers were drooling over all that waterfront property, with an eye to stark new high-rises.

Most of the buildings surrounding the fish market were from the early 19th century, when the area had been a major center of international merchant trade. A group of sailship and history buffs had organized to save them. The dream was restoration into something of a living museum with tall ships hanging their bowsprits over South Street.

It caught my fancy. I had a nice leather-bound 1822 book of Maritime Law that I'd picked up off the bargain table at some second-hand bookshop a few years earlier. I thought that it might be of interest to the museum. So finally one day I hied myself down to Fulton Street and offered it to them. They accepted it with delight, as it pre-dated Two Years before the Mast and the reform of maritime law that had followed. I also offered volunteer labor. This was long before the home computer, so when I admitted I could type, I was given a stack of envelopes to address. And I was invited to join the work parties on the newly-arrived lightship.

I took back the completed typing the following Saturday, and went on over to the ship. I was put to sanding but shortly promoted myself to puttying cracks in the deck houses. For the next work party, I coerced Aaron Rennert into coming along, and then I got Don & Jo Meisner to help mind the store the weekend of the gala Antiques Festival and Pete Seeger Concert on the pier. It was in return for this splendid show of enthusiasm on my part, but mostly through attrition, that I achieved a command of my own.

(A version of this appeared in the private publication, Self-Preservation, in November 1968.)

© 2021 Gary Ross Hoffman

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