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Thursday, May 2, 2013

My mistress Aratusa





My mistress Aratusa

I used to see the boat docked at the foot of the highway bridge each time I took the bus back from New York City, curious at first by glimpses of it over the side, and then later, I deliberately sat on that side to make certain I could see it, as if having it there was like having an old friend I could see but never touch, but always counted on being there.
The Aratusa was original constructed for the Maine Central Railroad in 1913, part of the Rangely class of ships, I learned much later. She did coastal passenger trade out of Portland, Maine, and took the elite and famous to their summer places off the coast of Maine.
Perhaps because my grandfather had become a boat builder late in life and I was always his little helper tightening screws in those tight places his massive build could not reach I came to love boats and those silly statistics boat owners always toss around.
So when exploring later the details of my invisible friend on the river, I found that the 185-foot long craft had a 1,200 horsepower, single crew engine.
But more importantly, like many of those who I loved even at a distance, the ship seemed prone to disaster. During her initial test trials, she struck and uncharted ledge, and while the craft sustained only minor damage, it seemed a premonition of what she could expect.
Hank, my best friend with whom I frequently traveled to the city in hunt of girls, never understood my love for lost causes, and always complained when I hogged the bus window seat on our way back and certainly didn’t share my love of the old ship or even the vast meadowlands that stretched out around it, a place I would later come to embrace more fully when I became a reporter there.
The boat always brought back tender feelings for my grandfather, who by 1977 was already dead more than ten years, as if I could not look at her and fail to think of him.
As a reporter, I learned more about my mythical friend though by that time, it was too late for me to walk her decks or glimpse inside, things I ached most to do when viewing her from the bus.
I learned later that in 1925, the railroad sold the ship to the Hudson River Day Line, at which time it was renamed Chauncey M. Depew after the U.S. Senator from New York, for its run to Indian Point as the fleet’s luxury yacht.
In 1940, with the war looming over the Atlantic coast, the ship was drafted for service by the U.S. Navy for World War II as a transport for men and supplies between New York City and Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
After the war, the ship was sold to Benjamin B. Willis of Washington, D.C. and used as an excursion and transfer boat in Bermuda, serving as a port ferry and cruise ship.
She returned to the United States in 1970 and was sold to private interests. On her way up the coast to what was supposed to be her retirement in 1971, she was nearly lost on the breakwater in the Chesapeake Bay as a storm came up suddenly. For three years, she lay on her side, half-submerged in mud.
She was rescued as salvage by a man named David Cory. Under U.S. law, anyone can lay claim to an abandoned ship. Cory had a vision of transforming the ship into an elegant restaurant, and he leased land in Secaucus on the banks of the Hackensack River. The ship was renamed the Aratusa supper club, and it operated from 1977 to 1987.
Although we both drove by that time, Hank and I still took the bus in and out of the city and so glimpsed the boat huddled under the highway arches. At night, when doing my deliveries for cosmetic company until I got myself fired in mid 1978, I used to see her aglow, the lights from her windows sparkling on the water at night. During those years, I made frequent trips to the Jersey shore where my family had moved, always making a point to cross the bridge and glimpse the ship before taking the Turnpike south. For some reason, I even remember looking down with satisfaction the day the first shuttle exploded in the skies above Florida 1,500 miles to the south, as if I needed the comfort of this friend on the river to keep me moored.
 In 1987, she was struck by another vessel, and it broke my heart.
Witnesses on the scene at the time claim diners eating in the Aratusa hardly noticed the hit, and had to be escorted off the vessel when it became clear she had begun to sink. The hull had cracked, making the ship uninhabitable, and she would no longer rise and fall with the tide.
For the latter part of the 1980s, people driving over the Hackensack River Bridge could see the odd site along the banks just off Meadowlands Parkway, among whom I was one, always more and more heart broken each time I passed and saw her decline, knowing that I would never get to walk her decks or sit behind the wheel. Over the next few years, the boat began to decline – sinking slowly into the mud, until it became a concern of local officials.
At one point in late 1988, a group from Maine, the Rangely Foundation, expressed interest in purchasing the boat, raising it, and moving to Maine where it was slated to become part of the Rangely Museum. The group, however, needed to get the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare the boat a national monument so they could seek funding for the project.
The owner, David Cory, did not have the funds to raise the ship or repair it, but managed to fence in the property – at the town’s request.
While the ship was not considered a navigational hazard, officials feared it might become one if it began to break up. The 75-year old ship was eventually demolished.
Since then, the land that once served as parking lot has remained vacant, the object of some speculation over the years, but also the victim of a sagging economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and more than once I walked through that lot, stepping over piles of debris and over the clumps of dog shit left by local residents who largely walked their dogs there. I stepped over bits of grass and often settled near the piers where the boat had stood, thinking of her, and thinking of my grandfather, missing both.

(A modified version of what appeared in The Secaucus Reporter in January, 2001)

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