To Do: Migrate

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

Daria Merwin
New York State Historic Preservation Office

New York State has roughly 1850 miles of shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, as well as two major rivers (the Hudson, actually a tidal estuary for a substantial length, and the Mohawk River), the historic Erie and other canals, the 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, including archaeological sites and historic structures and buildings. Many of these resources are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though rarely with an explicit focus on the maritime setting, and the New York State Historic Preservation Office (NY SHPO) has only started to assess the challenges of identifying, evaluating, and perhaps listing new Maritime Cultural Landscapes (MCLs) here.

Native peoples have lived in New York for more than 10,000 years, but ancient coastal archaeological sites are under-represented here in terms of National Register listings. One exception is Fort Corchaug, located on a stream that empties into Peconic Bay in eastern Long Island, listed in 1974 (NR number 74001308). Much of the documentation for the site is focused on the archaeological evidence of a small fort occupied between roughly 1640 and 1660. The nomination does not go into detail regarding the maritime context and instead deals mainly with the military aspects of the site: the fortified palisade walls, and artifacts related to weaponry such as European gun flints, lead shot, and an iron sword, as well as Native-made brass and iron arrowheads, though there is no documentary evidence that the Corchaug people ever fought with the European colonists.

The site may have been a temporary refuge used in times of trouble, but something else 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 traditional shell beads that by this time had become the currency of choice in coastal New York (Solecki 1993). Finds include tools and debris from the manufacturing of wampum. The shells were procured from Peconic Bay- shellfishing here by Native American groups has been going on for thousands of years- but following Contact with Europeans, shellfishing morphed from being an important part of the diet to something resembling a maritime industry. Adding an MCL context to the nomination might expand our public interpretation of the site.

A more recent Register listing dealing with Native American fishing, added in 2012 (NR number 12000578), implicitly addresses the maritime cultural landscape. The Lower Niagara River Spear Fishing Docks Historic District is significant for its association with Iroquoian spear fishing from around 1831 to 1958, when access to the site was cut off by construction. Spear fishing is a deeply rooted tradition among Iroquoian peoples; the Tuscarora 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 (Wallace 2012). Fish not only provided an essential source of food but were also sold to supplement incomes.

Features include a path at the foot of the steep embankment and the remains of stone docks built parallel to the shoreline from readily available shale, now marked by boulder piles. The rock floor of each dock was filled to make a smooth surface, and a small pool of calm water was created on the downstream side of the dock to attract fish. While their locations remained constant, the dock structures were rebuilt each year after being damaged by harsh winter weather. Few remnants of these structures survive today, but their locations are recognizable by the shoreline topography and river currents, and are known through oral history. The district documents the strong connection between the people and the natural environment, as well as the importance of fish and fishing in Iroquoian culture.

New York State has innumerable maritime sites, ranging from a diverse array of important shipwrecks and historic floating vessels which could perhaps fit into an MCL context, to many waterfront communities with National Register listed historic districts. For example, just beyond the bustle of Manhattan were several shorefront communities like the National Register listed Far Rockaway Beach Bungalow Historic District (NR number 13000499). In the early 1900s, several bungalow communities were developed in the Rockaways, generally segregated by ethnicity- in Far Rockaway, most of the owners were Jewish families (Kaplan and Kaplan 2003). Although each was a separate enclave, the bungalows themselves were nearly identical in appearance: three bedrooms, a small kitchen, bathroom and porch, typically on a twenty-five by fifty-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- it 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. 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.

Storms and climate change will present some major challenges to historic preservation in maritime environments, but there are others, especially in terms of the National Register nomination process. First, we often face a challenge of integrity, as many maritime sites have witnessed substantial alterations as needs and functions change over time. Also, in many places, there have been intrusions so that the maritime landscape is no longer a contiguous one. For example, in New York City there are still many elements of the harbor rail freight system visible along the shore, but we have never evaluated the system as a whole. Instead, our determination of disparate elements mostly has been done as part of Section 106 compliance review, one parcel at a time, where individual sites need to have retained a high level of integrity to be considered National Register eligible. If we used an MCL lens to look at the port-rail system as a whole, would we make the same determination?

Another potential challenge we have in New York involves threats posed by waterfront development. There are parts of the state where waterfront property has always been in demand, like New York City, where one of the most iconic maritime sites, South Street Seaport, is currently threatened by redevelopment (Bagley 2015). In other places, the waterfront was at the fringes of landward-based society, a place where sometimes smelly and dirty activities such as fish processing and industrial manufacturing took place. But with development pressure and a fairly new interest in cleaning up our waterways, the price for these marginal waterfront properties has increased, leading some communities to question what is the best use for such land? And sometimes, communities decide that historic preservation is not part of the answer.

One such case of a maritime resource in a historically marginal environment recently came to our office for review, and after some debate the NY SHPO determined that the property is eligible for listing on the National Register. This is the story of a fishing community known as “The Shacks” 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, but maps provide evidence that the existing buildings evolved from fish market buildings on the site at the river’s edge dating from at least as early as the late nineteenth century.

The modern community of Hudson is split regarding what should happen to the shacks: demolish or save them (Gilson 2016). The shacks were basically tolerated until recently, even though it was discovered some years ago that the grounds belong to the city. In the summer of 2012, the shack’s owners were evicted, and the site secured. Demolition has been pending now for four years. Proponents of demolition and rebuilding the site as a park are skeptical of the historic nature of the shacks, frequently citing the ramshackle architecture as evidence that the buildings are an eyesore in need of removal.

On the face of it, the demolition proponents do have a point – the buildings that exist today show evidence of having been patched and repaired – some with salvaged local materials, others with vinyl siding and various new building materials. The shacks facing the water are on piers and feature exterior wooden decks, walkways, and docks; there is also a boat ramp. The buildings are of frame construction, generally one-story in height with side or front gable roofs, wood or vinyl windows, and contain one or two multi-purpose rooms.

If we were to rely solely on the built environment, assessing only the property’s architectural significance and integrity, we would fall short in telling the full story here. But if we bring in the maritime context, we can say that the property is 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 the shore. These people, commonly called “Furgarians” today, 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 are largely undocumented activities in terms of history and the material record of archaeology and architecture. Buildings such as fishing shacks and storage for small watercraft, and structures like duck blinds and net drying racks were often located on isolated river banks, accessible only by boat. Sites that survived into the twenty-first century tend to be in what might be perceived as marginal environments. The shacks are adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant, with railroad tracks on a causeway to the west. A similar fishing shanty existed adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant and industrial ruins in Poughkeepsie until increasing riverfront real estate values led to the redevelopment of the site with upscale restaurants and a marina.

The 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 is rapidly disappearing, as habitat loss, pollution, over-harvesting, and other causes have nearly ended commercial and recreational fishing here. For example, today all non-migratory fish and crabs in the estuarine portion of the Hudson River (New York Harbor to Troy) are off-limits for women of childbearing age and children under fifteen due to pollution (New York State Department of Health 2016).

Shad is among the most important fish species of the Hudson River, valued for both its meat and roe. Adult shad live in salt water, but return to the freshwater streams from which they hatched in order to spawn. Shad return each year to the Hudson River, typically starting in early April for roughly two months, to spawn in the sandbars north of Kingston.  In the past, shad could be taken by the hundreds during this spring run, so that by the mid-nineteenth century the shad’s arrival had become a major annual event (Lossing 1868:144-145).

By the early twentieth century, however, shad fishing on the Hudson River was in decline. Dredging for ship channels on the approach to Albany impacted spawning grounds, and in other areas, riverfront development projects such as the Palisades Interstate Park (opened 1909) resulted in the removal of 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 shanties along the river’s banks. The commercial shad fishery regained importance during World War II, peaked in the late 1940s, and experienced major declines after the 1950s (Hattala 1997). Shad fishing in New York waters has been banned since 2010 due to stock depletion.

It is likely that shad fishing was the major economic activity at the earliest incarnation of the Furgary Boat Club, though other seasonal and year-round fishing (sturgeon, bass, eel, crab) and hunting (muskrat, deer) were also carried out. The chronology for “The Shacks,” starting in the late nineteenth century and peaking during the mid-twentieth century, coincides with the boom and bust cycles in shad fishing on the Hudson River. By looking beyond architecture to consider the natural history of the maritime landscape, we were able to build a case for the significance of the shacks.


Bagley, Charles V. (2015). South Street Seaport on List of Imperiled Historic Sites. The New York Times, June 25, A22.

Gilson, Roger Hannigan. (2016). Furgary Boat Club Site to be Opened to the Public, Former Residents of Fishing Shacks Take Issue with Future Plans. Columbia Register-Star, May 23, 1.

Hattala, Kathryn A. (1997.) Managing Hudson River American Shad: A Biologist’s Perspectives on the Shad’s Ups and Downs. Shad Journal 2, 3.

Kaplan, Lawrence and Carol P. Kaplan. (2003). Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York. Columbia University Press, New York.

Lossing, Benjamin. (1868). The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea. Virtue and Yorston, New York.

New York State Department of Health (2016) Hudson River: Health Advice on Eating Fish You Catch. Pamphlet available at

Solecki, Ralph S. (1993). Indian Forts of the Mid-17th Century in the Southern New England-New York Coastal Area. Northeast Historical Archaeology 22: 64-78.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. (2012). Tuscarora: A History. SUNY Press, Albany, New York.

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