In the late 18th and 19th centuries, wooden sloops were as numerous on the Hudson River as birds in a flock, their white sails unfurled as they tacked downwind carrying lumber, coal, wheat, brick, bluestone, cement, and ice to New York City, and returned with English manufactured goods like kitchenware, textiles, and clothing.
“Imagine the world without trucks and trains,” says Russell Lange, executive director of the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston. “How did things get delivered?” Smoother than any road, the river was America’s first superhighway; it became an even more important economic engine once it was connected to the Great Lakes via the Erie Canal in 1825.
The museum wants to tell this story by transforming Kingston’s historic Rondout District into a working waterfront once more, drawing people, commerce, and community back to the river. With the help of an anonymous donor, the museum bought Rosita’s Restaurant next door and transformed it into the Riverport Wooden Boat School. Its twofold mission: to preserve and restore wooden vessels of all ages, and to offer a variety of classes to the public, especially teens.
Last month, the school launched a pilot BOCES program that has high school students felling a tree, milling the lumber, and building their own wooden tool box; actual boat-building will follow this summer and fall. “We want to get kids away from their cell phones and computers and out on the water,” says Jack Weeks, the school’s project manager. “We’re building kids’ self-confidence. If you can build a boat, you can build anything.”
Adult education classes begin on March 9. The first class will teach woodworking; students should walk away having carved a traditional eagle sign, complete with fierce eagle head, feathered wings, and a fluttering banner that reads “Don’t give up the ship.” Other spring classes include navigation, boating fundamentals, vessel safety, and — down the road — building your own kayak or canoe. Long-range plans for build-your-own-kayak opportunities range in length from three days for a simple design of plywood and fiberglass to a full month of five-days-a-week classes for a design involving more complex woodworking techniques. In July, a family boat building program for adults and kids will be offered.
The school’s director is master shipwright Jim Kricker, who owned a woodworking company that built and restored wooden boats, mills, and barns. Last year, Kricker and his crew of highly trained shipwrights — his brother, Peter Kricker; Chris Cole; Wayne Ford; and Michael Chrobot — signed on as employees of the museum. Their first job is to restore the famed Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop that was built in 1969 by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger and friends as an environmental educational tool. They’re also restoring the smaller Woody Guthrie, which Seeger had built in 1978 to offer free river sails to the public. The Clearwater and Woody Guthrie are currently owned by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and the Beacon Sloop Club, respectively, which are raising money for their restorations.
Historically, a sloop was in service for just 15 years before being junked for a new model. The Clearwater has already been rebuilt twice (in Maine and Saugerties); this is the first time its repair has taken place in Kingston. Boat restorations involve locating rot in the wooden frames (or “ribs”) and planks (or “skin”); making a pattern of the damaged pieces; fashioning a new piece by hand; and fitting it into place.
Museum visitors can watch the repairs by stepping onto a barge, where the boat sits protected by a white plastic cover that leaves room for the shipwrights. You are literally face to face with the part of the boat that is usually underwater — an interesting perspective if you’ve only seen a boat from the deck. The two vessels will sail back to Beacon for the summer but will winter over in Kingston’s deep water port, a geographic feature that made the city the most important port between New York and Albany in the 19th century.
Visitors to the museum can also view new exhibits, such as “White Oak, Shipwrights and Varnish: Wooden Boat Building on the Hudson”; “Rowing in the Hudson River Valley”; and “Jewels of the Hudson: The Miniature Models of Charlie Niles.” With its expanded facilities, the site has morphed into a bustling center of river activity: The Kingston High School crew team, Rondout Rowing Club, Kingston Sailing Club, and Hudson River Ice Yacht Club all now consider it home; the Ossining-based environmental group Riverkeeper also has an office there.
The hope is that, through all this activity, the public will discover the riverfront and get involved. Students who attend the woodworking school might become volunteers on restoration projects, deepening their connection to the river and the museum. “Our mission is to preserve the stories and the history,” says Lange. “But what we’re really doing is building community.”