Remains of Sunken Ferryboat “Ellis Island” are Removed from Island Slip

Upper photo: Ferryboat Ellis Island nears Battery Park. That's the U.S. Customs House under construction (right of center) in the background, so it’s likely this photo was taken in 1904, 1905, or 1906. New York Public Library photo via Flickr.

Bottom photo: The Ellis Island’s freshly-salvaged 450 horsepower engine is brought up from the bottom At the right is one of the ship’s two 10-foot diameter single-ended Scotch boilers, which were built to provide steam at 135 pounds pressure. NPS photo by Kevin Daley.

The historic ferryboat Ellis Island was retired in 1954 and sank at its berth in 1968. Now a difficult salvage operation has retrieved the historic ship‘s rusted remains.

The 57th U.S. Congress (March 1901 – March 1903) authorized $110,000 for the construction of a steel hulled ferryboat to be owned by the Immigration Service and used by the Ellis Island Immigration Station. The ship’s main function would be to transport newly-admitted immigrants to Manhattan, and to shuttle Immigration and Marine Services employees to and from the island.

The Harlan and Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, Delaware, was awarded the contract in July 1903, got the work underway the next month, and delivered the 160 foot-long, 660 ton displacement vessel to Ellis Island in May 1904. By the first week of June the new ferryboat, which had been christened Ellis Island, was placed in service.

The Ellis Island performed its duties satisfactorily (though at increased maintenance cost) for half a century, eventually racking up over a million miles before making its final run on November 29, 1954. By that time the immigration center (reduced to housing detainees) had been closed and Ellis Island was almost deserted.

The venerable ship sat idle at its berth in the Ellis Island slip, rusting and largely forgotten except for periodic bilge pumping. Then it sank – probably due to hull deterioration -- during a storm the weekend of August 10-11, 1968. The Park Service, which assumed responsibility for the vessel in 1965, had intended to preserve it.

Exposed to the elements and awash at high tide, the sunken ship’s wooden superstructure did not last very long. By late 1969, an estimated 90 percent of it was already beyond salvage. The steel hull and its contents remained below water, but still suffered the ravages of decay and corrosion.

It was deemed too expensive to raise and rehabilitate the Ellis Island. In fact, it would be much cheaper to build a replica instead. The sunken ship stayed right where it was

Fast forward to 2009. The Park Service wants to reopen the slip for future boat traffic, but the Ellis Island’s hulk poses an obstacle to dredging and a potential hazard to vessels using the slip. It is decided that the ship must be salvaged to get it out of the way.

Subsequent inspections showed that four decades underwater had left the Ellis Island so badly deteriorated that it could no longer be raised in one piece. This left the Park Service and U.S. Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two the task of removing the remains piece by rusty piece.

During the removal operations, which began in late October and lasted approximately two months, underwater archeologists, a maritime historian, and other cultural resource experts monitored the pieces that were raised and set aside some for further documentation. These pieces are currently stored in a safe location within the park, awaiting additional study.

When the process began there was some question as to whether all of the metal parts of the ferry would be so corroded that they would fall apart during the removal process. However, unlike the hull which came up in ragged, rusting chunks, the boiler, two propellers and two rudders came up largely intact.

The sight of these pieces being raised out of the water by the barge-mounted crane drew the attention of anyone fortunate to be within view. Yet the process was not without it moments of tension according to John Hnedak, deputy superintendent for Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, who noted that several cables snapped along the way from the weight of some of the materials.


After crews removed the remains of the ferry, as well as the old dock to which it had once been moored, the entire slip was dredged.

Postscript: Two of the author’s grandparents were passengers on the Ellis Island, one in 1907 and the other in 1912

Comments

Well done!

It is nice to see the NPS saving another part of our maritime heritage... Like they did with the SS Nobska up in Boston!

Rep. Steven Lindsey
Ches-3
Keene, NH

We could use you here at Traveler, Rep. Lindsey. You are obviously a master of sardonic humor. The SS Nobska, America's last operating coastal steamer, deserved a better fate than being carved to pieces for the scrap heap.

I rode the ferry at age 12, in 1944, to visit my father who was interned at Ellis Island... and then rode it when my mother, brother and I... went there to be interned with our father in February 1945...

Bob,

Sure... If you don't mind acidic commentary... Embittered retorts to losses...

I have little faith in government protecting our heritage.... Like the City of Seattle ordering the lumber schooner Wawona broken up this year, or the City of Buffalo the nation's oldest sidewheel steamship Lansdowne, or the Washington State Department of Natural Resources offering the Benjamin Dudley house to a movie company to be burned for cheap thrills....The media celebrated dynamiting of the historic Champlain Bridge over Lake Champlain just yesterday...(sigh)

Best

Rep. Steven Lindsey
Ches-3
Keene, NH

That's a mighty sad litany, alright. I do see your point, but hasten to add that the National Park Service is usually not the bad guy in such stories. Here's hoping that, with urging and support from folks like thee and me, the Park Service will thoroughly explore all possible alternatives to scrapping any of the valuable artifacts in its care. Again if you've got national park-relevant written material you'd like to see posted in Traveler, get in touch with us and we'll talk about it.