Volume 73, Number 50 | March 14 - 20, 2004

Historic steamship Lilac finds new home at Pier 40

By Albert Amateau

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

The 800-ton former lighthouse tender has been docked near W. Houston St. since January.

Two historic vessels will be welcoming visitors in a few weeks to their berths on Pier 40, the 15-acre pier off Houston St.

The S.S. Lilac, an 800-ton steamship that used to bring crews and supplies to East Coast lighthouses, which has been berthed on the north side of Pier 40 since the beginning of the year, will have its first visitors on the week of April 20.

The Hudson River sloop Clearwater, a 1969 replica of sailing vessels that moved cargo up and down the Hudson River in the 19th century, will make its first visit to Pier 40 on April 29.

Myra Seka, sailing coordinator for the Clearwater, said the vessel would use Pier 40 as one of its docking spots in Manhattan during the sailing season. The ship, which calls Poughkeepsie its homeport, is 106 ft. long, 25 ft. wide and carries 4,305 sq. ft. of sail on a 108-ft.-tall mast. It also has an auxiliary diesel engine. The nonprofit Clearwater Foundation uses the sloop for river and harbor cruises in connection with its environmental and conservation programs.

Seka said the ship will be open for free dockside visits on May 2 from noon to 5 p.m. The boat will also be available for private party charters.

The 173-ft.-long Lilac, whose steam engine is currently not operational, was towed to its permanent home on Pier 40 New Year’s Eve after a $50,000 fendering system of four steel piles padded with special rubber bumpers was completed at the pier.

The vessel is owned by a nonprofit group of historic-ship enthusiasts.

“We’ve ordered a $3,000 aluminum gangway and we’re spending $5,000 on an attachment for the gangway on the ship,” said Gerry Weinstein, a member of the Tug Pegasus Foundation, the group that discovered the Lilac in a Norfolk, Va., marine scrap yard last year and brought it to New York.

“We still have electrical work to do and we’ll have a marine surveyor check the Lilac for maritime insurance compliance,” Weinstein said. The Pegasus Foundation is covering the entire cost of the ship and its maintenance on Pier 40.

The Lilac was built in 1933 for the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which the Coast Guard took over in 1939. The vessel was decommissioned in 1972 and then served as a training ship for the Seafarers International Union in Piney Pt., Md., until 1988 when the Norfolk scrap yard acquired it.

The gangway is expected to be in place by April 20 to allow foundation members along with teenagers in a Police Athletic League marine program on board to paint and polish the vessel in time for its official public opening on Friday evening May 21. After that, it will be open for free dockside visits.

“Ultimately, our goal is to get the ship operating,” said Weinstein. “We’re reaching out to as many retired marine engineers, Coast Guardsmen and tug operators as we can to run the engine room,” he added. While marine diesel engines need only a few operators, steam engines like the one in the Lilac need engine crews of about 15, Weinstein explained. While most old steamships have been refitted with diesel engines, the Lilac’s engine is the original one built for the ship. “When the Lilac was running supplies and crews to the lighthouses, it had about 45 people on board,” Weinstein said.

There will be plenty of help in getting the Lilac in running order. The foundation’s board of directors includes Pam Hepburn, captain of the tug Pegasus, which the foundation also owns, and Ann Loeding, captain of the tug Port Ewen, which is berthed in Kingston, N.Y. In addition to Weinstein, the foundation also includes Norman Brouwer, historian at the South Street Seaport Museum; Huntley Gill, a partner in the decommissioned fireboat John R. Harvey docked at Pier 63 Maritime in Chelsea, and Joseph Callo, a retired senior Coast Guard officer.

Pier 40 is in the Hudson River Park. The Hudson River Park Trust, the organization that is building and operating the park, has its headquarters on the pier. There are provisions under the Hudson River Park Act for the docking of historic vessels in the park, and the Trust has given approval for both the Lilac and the Clearwater to berth at Pier 40.

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