To Do: Migrate

This presentation is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Barbara Wyatt: Our next speaker is Daria Merwin. Her topic is the many and varied maritime cultural landscapes of New York state. Daria has more than 20 years of experience in cultural resource management, conducting research in both archeology and architectural history. She received her MA degree in Nautical Archeology from Texas A&M, with a thesis on vernacular boat building on Long Island. She received her PhD in Anthropology from Stony Brook University. Her dissertation field work entailed scuba diving to recover submerged evidence of pre-historic Native American sites in the Hudson River and New York Harbor. Daria joined the survey unit of the New York State Historic Preservation Office in 2014, and serves as the office’s point person for underwater archeology and maritime heritage matters. Thank you Daria

Daria Merwin: Good morning. Ok, so we just heard some really big, broad scale challenges. I’m going to bring us closer to shore and talk about some of the maybe more small scale challenges that we are facing right now. So New York state has some 1,850 miles of shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. We’ve got two major rivers, the Hudson, and the Mohawk. We’ve got the historic Erie and other canals, Finger Lakes and countless smaller streams and lakes. All of which should add up to many opportunities to apply the Maritime Cultural Landscape concept to a wide variety of submerged and terrestrial cultural resources, so archeological sites and of course historic structures and buildings. Many of the resources that fall into this category in New York State are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And I’d like to introduce you to a few of these before turning to some of the challenges of identifying, evaluating, and perhaps listing new MCLs here.

Native peoples have lived in New York for more than ten thousand years, but some ancient coastal archeological sites are underrepresented in terms of National Register listings. One prehistorical, or excuse me, one Native American site that we do have, one exception to this is Fort Corchaug, it’s located on a stream that empties into Peconic Bay, on eastern Long Island, and it was listed way back in 1974. So it’s one of our older listings in the state. Much of the documentation for this site is focused on the archeological evidence of a small fort occupied between roughly 1640 and 1660. Now the nomination doesn’t go into detail regarding the maritime context. It instead deals mainly with the defensive aspects of the site, mainly the fortified palisade walls, artifacts related to weaponry such as European gun flints, lead shot, and iron sword. It’s also native made brass and iron arrowheads. All this defensive military aspect, but we actually have no documentary or oral history tradition to suggest that the Corchaug people ever fought with the European colonists.

Now, what we have here, the site may have been a temporary refuge used in times of troubles, but something else definitely was going on at Fort Corchaug, and it takes on more prominence if we consider the maritime landscape. The site was also a protected place for making wampum, the tradition shell beads that by this time had become the currency of choice in coastal New York. So at the site among other artifact signs are numerous tools related to production, such as drills and grinding stones, and of course we’ve got the shell debris from bead manufacturer. The shells are locally procured from Peconic Bay, it’s a short walk away. And shellfishing here, by Native American groups has been going on for thousands of years, it’s still going on today, but following contact with Europeans, it looks like shellfishing morphed from being an important part of the diet, to something resembling a maritime industry. Adding an MCL context to this nomination might allow us to reinterpret the site.

A more recent register listing dealing with Native American fishing was added in 2012, and it does implicitly address the Maritime Cultural Landscape. This is the Lower Niagara River Spearfishing Docks Historic District, and it’s significant for its association with Iroquoian spearfishing from around 1831 to 1958, when access to the site was cut off by construction. Now spearfishing is a deeply rooted tradition among Iroquoian peoples. In this particular case it was the Tuscarora people who brought this tradition with them when they migrated to New York from North Carolina, in the early 18th century, and adapted it to the unique environment of the Niagara River. Fish not only provided important subsistence resource, very important in the diet, but they were also sold to supplement incomes.

Now at this site, it’s very much a landscape that interface of water, land, and of course sky is part of our landscape as well. The features that are called out in the nomination include a path at the foot of the steep embankment and remains of stone docks built parallel to the shoreline from readily available shale. Now these docks are marked by boulder piles. The rock floor of each dock was filled to make a smooth surface, and a small pool of calm water, excuse me, was created on the downstream side to attract fish. A lot of our knowledge of these docks and how they operated are thanks to the oral tradition, the oral history, and the elders who are still living in the area, who informed our archeologists of how they were built and how they functioned.

These structures were rebuilt each year in the same places after being damaged during the winter. And of course, as I just mentioned, you can see in the photograph, there are a few readily visible remnants of the docks surviving today, but their locations if you know where to look, if your eyes are opened, they’re recognizable by the shoreline topography and river currents, and are again known through oral history. The district here documents the strong connection between the people and their natural environment, as well the importance of fish and fishing in Iroquoian culture.

Now this is a little bit of a tour of the sorts of resources we have in New York, so I would definitely be remiss if I didn’t include a few more slides of the many, and varied maritime sites we have statewide. We do have a nice range of shipwreck sites, and historic floating vessels, which could perhaps fit into different MCL context. And we’ve got a number of historic waterfront communities with National Register of listed historic districts. This is Greenport on the eastern end of Long Island, and when it comes to Euro-American places, we certainly have a number of place names that tell us a little bit about the place. Greenport is not green because of the trees that were on the land, it’s green because of the change in what the water looked like if you were a mariner approaching the port.

Then of course, we’ve got the Port of New York, and wouldn’t it be really exciting to develop an MCL historic context for the city as a whole. Just beyond the bustle of Manhattan were several storefront communities. One we recently listed is the Far Rockaway Beach Bungalow Historic District. In the early 1900s, several bungalow communities were developed in the Rockaways, and they were generally segregated by ethnicity. So in this case in far Rockaway, most of the owners were Jewish families. While each was a separate enclave, the bungalows themselves were nearly identical in appearance. They all had three bedrooms, a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a porch, and they were typically located on a 25 by 50 foot lot.

Just steps from these summer homes lay the boardwalk and the beach, where residents could swim in the Atlantic Ocean. This nomination hints at the relationship between people and the sea, that relationship could certainly be expanded. The maritime setting is the reason such summer resorts were built, and bungalow communities once spanned nearly the entire length of the Rockaway Peninsula, which is essentially a barrier beach. Over the years, demolition and remodeling took their toll, and most recently the area was hit by Superstorm Sandy. Amazingly, the Far Rockaway Historic District survived relatively unscathed. I cannot say the same for Breezy Point. Fire and flood is a really bad combination for residential areas. Storms and climate change will present some major challenges to historic preservation in maritime environments.

I did love that image that Brandi just showed us of the inundated city, but putting that aside, now I’d like to briefly look at some of the challenges we have in New York in light of what the National Register nomination process for MCLs might look like. First, we often face integrity issues, as many maritime sites have witnessed substantial alterations as needs and functions change over time. Also, in many places, there’ve been intrusions so that the maritime landscape is now discontiguous. For example, in New York City, there’s still many elements of what was a very important harbor rail freight system. On the maps to the left in those colored areas, I know it’s really hard to see, but those are all facilities. This map’s from about 1930, of where rail met sea, and in order to move cargo around the Port of New York, rails were actually, the cars were floated on docks…on barges and moved around dock to dock. It was a really intricate system, traces of which still exist.

We’ve never evaluated the system as a whole, and that presents a problem. Our determinations instead, are of these disparate elements, and they’ve mostly been done in light of Section 106 compliance review. One parcel at a time, where individual sites, in order to move on in the process, they need to have retained a relatively high level integrity so we will consider them National Register eligible. For example, in this slide on the top, we got the West 69th Street transfer facility, this is midtown Manhattan on the Hudson River, retains a high level of integrity. We have the machinery, we’ve got the rail, we’ve got the dock, we’ve got everything there. It’s on the National Register. In the slide below, this is the Brooklyn side of things, it’s now Gantry Plaza State Park. You can see some of the remnants are there, but the machinery’s gone, the connection to the rail is gone. Both these properties have come to our office within the past year, the top National Register listed goes on in the Section 106 process. The bottom we’ve decided does not retain enough integrity on its own as an individual property, so we have let it go.

This presents a challenge. If we were to use an MCL lens to look at this port rail system as a whole, would we have made that same determination? It’s a good question. Another challenge is broad, and I’m sure many of you are facing it as well, and that involves threats posed by waterfront development. Now in New York, there are parts of the state where waterfront property has always been in demand, places like Manhattan, where one of New York City’s most iconic maritime sites, South Street Seaport, is currently threatened by redevelopment.

In other places, the waterfront was at the fringes of landward based society. Places we might want to forget, smelly and dirty things happen there, fish processing, industrial manufacturing. But with development pressure, and a fairly new interest in cleaning up our waterways, the price for these otherwise marginal waterfront properties has increased, leaving some communities to question, “What’s the best use of this land?” And sometimes communities decide that historic preservation is not part of the answer.

So I’d like to wrap up with a case study our office has after some debate determined to be eligible for the National Register, and it is in a historically marginal environment that some locals would now like to transform into a park. It seems to be an ongoing theme, “What do you do with the waterfront? Make it a park.” This is the story of a fishing community known as ‘The Shacks’. It’s on the outskirts of the city of Hudson, at North Bay, on the shore of the Hudson River. The community is currently comprised of 17 fishing cabins or shacks. In recent decades, the site, also called the ‘Furgary Boat Club’, was largely recreational in nature, a place to go hang out. But maps provide evidence that the existing buildings evolved from a fish market here at the water’s edge, and that fish market dates to at least as early as late 19th century, and probably older than that.

The modern community of Hudson is split regarding what should happen to The Shacks. Do you demolish them, or do you save them? Until the current mayor came to office, The Shacks were basically tolerated, even though it was discovered some years back that the ground on which they sit does belong to the city. In 2012 the owners were evicted, and the site secured so demolition’s been pending now for three years, and the fate of The Shacks is actually an election year issue that might be decided in a few weeks. Proponents of demolition are skeptical about the historic nature of The Shacks. They frequently cite the ramshackle architecture as evidence that buildings are an eyesore in need of removal.

On the face of it, the demolition proponents might have a point. The buildings that exist today have been patched and repaired, some with salvaged local materials, others with vinyl siding and new windows from your local Home Depot. The Shacks facing the water are on piers, they feature exterior wooden decks, walkways, and docks. There’s also a boat ramp at the site. The buildings are a framed construction. They’re generally one story tall and with gabled roofs, water vinyl windows and have one or two multipurpose rooms.

So if we’re to rely solely on the built in environment, assessing the property’s architectural difference and integrity, we would probably fall short in telling the full story here. But if we bring in the maritime context, we can say that the property is actually a rare, surviving collection of vernacular buildings, which represent a time when sturgeon and shad were abundant in the Hudson River, and when people made their livelihoods fishing the river and selling their catch on shore. These people, commonly called ‘Furgarians’, either as a badge of honor, or somewhat survisibly they formed a community where the buildings were handed down generation to generation.

Fishing and hunting along the Hudson River for small scale commercial operations and personal subsistence or recreation, these are largely undocumented activities in terms of the history and the material record of archeology and architecture. Buildings such as these fishing shacks and storage for small watercraft, structures like duck blinds, and net drying racks, they were often located on isolated river banks accessible only by boat. Sites that survived into the 21st century, tend to be in what I refer to, places that are perceived as marginal environments. So, here in this case, The Shacks are actually adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant, you see that at the top of the slide. They are bound on the west by railroad tracks that run across a causeway.

There was a very similar fishing shanty that existed adjacent to again, a wastewater treatment plant, and industrial rooms in the nearby city of Poughkeepsie, until increasing riverfront real estate values led to the redevelopment of the site. It’s now upscale restaurants and a marina, no trace of that history survives on the landscape. These buildings, structures, boats, and other fishing equipment are part of the Maritime Cultural Landscape of the Hudson River, they are also the tangible remains of a traditional way of life that’s rapidly disappearing, as habitat loss, pollution, over harvesting, and other causes have nearly ended commercial and recreational fishing here. Don’t eat the fish.

Shad is among the most important fish species here, valued for both its meat and roe. Adult shad live in saltwater, but return each year to the Hudson to spawn in upriver sandbars. In the past they could be taken literally by the thousands, they come up during the spring run, and the shad’s arrival was a major event. Communities up and down the river had these fantastic shad festivals every spring, and that is part of the landscape that is going away as well, because, by the early 20th century, shad fishing on the Hudson River was in decline. Dredging for ship channels impacted spawning grounds, and in other areas, riverfront development projects resulted in removing these fishing shanties. This decline in fishing was reversed during the Great Depression, when economic necessity led to the rebirth of shad fishing for subsistence, which in turn led to rebuilding of the shacks along the river’s banks. Now the shad fishery regained importance during World War II, peaked in the late 40’s, and experienced major decline in the 1950s. Shad fishing in New York waters has been banned since 2010 due to stock depletion. So that chart on the lower right graphs the natural environment in terms of the shad fishery over time, and of course people’s needs are driving a lot of what this catch data is all about.

The period of significance for The Shacks, late 19th century through around 1960, aligns with these peaks in shad fishing, the site’s initial occupation, its decline, and then resurgence in the mid-20th century with rebuilding and expansion. So by looking beyond the architecture to consider the natural history of the maritime landscape, we were able to build a case for the significance of The Shacks, that even the mayor, somewhat grudgingly, came to appreciate. Thank you.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119