My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America; A Personal and Historical Journey

My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America; A Personal and Historical Journey

by Jessica DuLong

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My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America; A Personal and Historical Journey by Jessica DuLong

After journalist Jessica DuLong was laid off from her dot-com job, her life took an unexpected turn. A volunteer day aboard an antique fireboat, the John J. Harvey, led to a job in the engine room, where she found a taste of home she hadn’t realized she was missing. Working with the boat’s finely crafted machinery, on the waters of the storied Hudson, made her wonder what America is losing in our shift away from hands-on work. Her questions crystallized after she and her crew served at Ground Zero, where fireboats provided the only water available to fight blazes.

Vivid and immediate, My River Chronicles is a journey with an extraordinary guide—a mechanic’s daughter and Stanford graduate who bridges blue-collar and white-collar worlds, turning a phrase as deftly as she does a wrench. As she searches for the meaning of work in America, DuLong shares her own experiences of learning to navigate a traditionally male world, masterfully interweaving unforgettable present-day characters and events with four centuries of Hudson River history.

A celebration of craftsmanship, My River Chronicles is a deeply personal story of a unique woman’s discovery of her own roots—and America’s—that raises important questions about our nation’s future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416587170
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 09/08/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jessica DuLong, a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed Merchant Marine Officer, is one of the world’s only female fireboat engineers. She’s also a journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek International, Rolling Stone, Psychology Today, CosmoGIRL!, Parenting, Today’s Machining World,  and Maritime Reporter & Engineering News, and other publications. Her passion for the Hudson River took shape at her post in the diesel exhaust-filled engine room of retired New York City Fireboat John J. Harvey, where temperatures climb to 130 degrees. The 1931 vessel, dubbed “Ambassador of the Hudson,” now operates as a living museum, offering free public trips around New York Harbor and an annual whistle-stop tour up the Hudson River, with DuLong at the engine-room controls.
     On September 11, 2001, Fireboat John J. Harvey was called out of retirement to pump water at the World Trade Center site. The John J. Harvey’s civilian crew, including DuLong, pumped water alongside FDNY crews for four days. Later recognized in the Congressional Record for “ensuring constant smooth running of the engines” during her service in the days following the attacks, she was also immortalized as a character in Maira Kalman’s award-winning children’s book, FIREBOAT: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, and featured in Ben Gibberd’s New York Waters. DuLong’s boating and writing worlds first collided with the publication of her essay “Below Decks” in the anthology Steady As She Goes: Women’s Adventures At Sea (Seal Press, 2003)–a piece that was singled out in Publishers Weekly as “stylish” and a “high point” of the collection.

Read an Excerpt


IF THE CANARIES found it in their hearts to sing, no one could hear them. One minute they were flitting about the treetops in Germany’s Harz Mountains. The next they had been netted and stowed in the belly of the steamship Muenchen. Each bird perched in its own tiny wooden cage that hung side by side with six other birds in six other cages, all swinging from a single wooden rod. Then another rod with seven cages, and another, and another. Seven thousand caged birds swayed in the cargo hold as the ship’s bow cut through the squally sea.

Twelve storm-tossed nights after the birds—involuntary immigrants—had departed Bremen, Germany, they arrived in New York harbor, two days behind schedule. On Tuesday, February 11, 1930, as the ship approached Manhattan’s Pier 42, no one knew that the cargo in nearby Hold Six had already begun to smolder. The 499 sacks of potash, forty drums of shellac, 386 rolls of newsprint, 234 bales of peat moss, along with steel and aluminum, all stored side by side, were a recipe for a mighty conflagration.

Two hours after the steamship’s arrival on Manhattan’s West Side, four longshoremen stood in Hold Six, unloading bags of potash— fertilizer bound for New England farms. They heard a crackling noise, and a streak of blue flame shot up from the sacks at their feet. They stamped on the smoldering bags trying to smother the flames, but soon thick black smoke filled the hold. The men, coughing and choking, scrambled for safety as huge tongues of flame began to lick out above the deck. The blaze spread quickly to other cargo holds, and within minutes fire consumed the whole rear of the ship.

An electric pulse from the New York City Fire Department’s dispatch office snapped through telegraph wires to ring a bell in the station house at Pier 53, fourteen city blocks away. A specific sequence of clangs summoned Engine Company 86 to the scene. Firefighters readied hoses and engineers stoked the boilers of fireboat Thomas Willett, and pilot John Harvey hurried to the helm. Surely he could already smell the burning. With more than two decades’ experience on the job, Harvey took the wheel, signaled the engine room, and the Willett steamed south at full throttle.

Meanwhile, the Muenchen’s crew, with the aid of longshoremen, hooked up a hose from the pier and raised it on a boom to reach the upper deck. But the hose line was frozen. Soon the billowing smoke was so dense that the men standing near the hatch were scarcely visible to spectators gathering on the pier, a crowd that by day’s end would number ten thousand. None of the firefighters rushing to the scene, by land or by river, knew then what Hold Six contained.

At 11:30 a.m., fireboat Willett rounded up on the south side of the pier. The whole stern of the Muenchen was aflame. Directed by the battalion chief, Harvey brought the boat as close to the fire as he could. He had no idea he was sidling up to a bomb.

© 2009 Jessica DuLong

Chapter One

SEVENTY-TWO YEARS later, nothing more than a pegboard forest of disintegrated pilings remains of Pier 42, where pilot John Harvey met his fate. Today is Memorial Day 2002, and we, the crew of retired New York City fireboat John J. Harvey, are preparing to pay homage to our boat’s namesake.

Pilot Bob Lenney, who steered this vessel for more than twenty years while the boat still served the FDNY Marine Division, noses her slender bow toward the stubby remnants of the covered pier—a grid of timbers, their rotting tips sticking out just a foot or so above the water’s surface. Chief engineer Tim Ivory swings a leg over the side, clutching a small bouquet of all-white flowers that he has duct-taped to the end of a broken broom handle. A crowd gathers on the bow as he leans out over the water, holding on with just one leg, to stab the jagged handle-end into the top of one of the crumbling piles.

I know all this only by way of hearsay and pictures. From where I stand belowdecks, my fingers curled around the smooth brass levers that power the propellers in response to Bob’s commands, I can’t watch it unfold. Because I, fireboat Harvey’s engineer, stand in the engine room the whole time we’re under way, this ceremony, like all the rest, is to me just another series of telegraph orders: Slow Ahead on the starboard side; Slow Astern on the port.

Between shifts of the levers, I steal glimpses of the harbor through the portholes—round windows just above the river’s rippled surface. Above decks, pilots use the Manhattan skyline for their points of reference, to know where they are or where they’re headed. Here, belowdecks, I use low-lying landmarks: the white tents where fast ferries load, the numinous blue lights in South Cove, the new concrete poured to straighten Pier 53 (which firefighters call the Tiltin’ Hilton) where, on February 11, 1930, FDNY Marine Division pilot John Harvey signaled his deck crew to drop lines and shot south at the helm of fireboat Thomas Willett on his final run.

Nearly three-quarters of a century after his death, as the fireboat named in his honor leaves the pegboard forest, I hold my own private memorial service, issuing a silent prayer. It’s something of a thank-you and something of a nod of acknowledgment: We remember. I whisper about the work we’ve put into preserving the boat over the past year. I tell him about rewiring shorted-out circuits. About our efforts to dis- and reassemble failing, rusty pump parts. About coating her steel surfaces with protective epoxy paints. All this, I explain, is done, in part, to pay homage to him—the man who lives on through this fireboat.

As the boat pushes through the water, I stand at my post, sweating. Though I can’t hear the slosh of bilgewater over the growl of the engines, I can watch it through gaps in the diamond-plate floor. Like every steel vessel, this boat fights a constant, silent battle with the salt water that buoys her. The river seeps through little openings in her seventy-one-year-old skin. It trickles, etching burnt orange stains into the thick white paint that coats the riveted hull. Sometimes the boat rolls and sways and a splash of green overwhelms my porthole view. That’s when I remember that I’m underwater. Less than a half-inch of steel plate separates me from the river.

Only after we’ve pulled away can I make out, through a porthole, a small speck of white where the flowers stand tall in the May sunshine. As the speck disappears against the muted gray of the concrete bulkhead at the water’s edge, the significance of the ceremony fades into the everyday rhythms of the machinery.

When I moved to New York City from San Francisco in 2000, I had never heard of a fireboat. Now I have found a home in the engine room of a boat born four decades before I was. During long stretches at the controls, when the drone of engines drowns out the mental clutter of my landside life, I wonder about the men stationed here before me. Did they feel left out of the action down here in the cellar? Did they chain-smoke, read, play cards to pass the time while they waited for the pilot’s next command? Career guys, most of them. Firefighters, with an engineering bent. Irish and Italian. Their uncles, fathers, and brothers—firefighters before them—had laid down the paving stones that marked their nepotistic path.

There were no paving stones for me. My father is a car mechanic in Massachusetts. I’m here only by blissful accident, having stumbled aboard in February 2001—a naive young upstart with a university degree. A bubble-salaried dot-commer. A striving, big-city editor. A woman.

When I look at the black-and-white photographs of old-time crews—ranks of short-haired men, some young, shirtless, and grinning; others defiant; a few older ones, impassive, their stern expressions suggesting what a handful the younger ones can be—I want to know them. But I’m not sure the feeling would be mutual. These men probably never imagined that someone like me would be running their boat, their engines. All my compulsive investigations began as an attempt to bridge that gap. The distance between us is what first fueled my fascination with the fireboat’s history—a fascination that escalated to obsession, then swelled to encompass the history of the Hudson River, whose industries helped forge the nation. I’ve since fallen in love with workboats, with engineering, with the Hudson.

As American society continues to become more virtual, less hands-on, I’m a salmon swimming upstream. I have come to view the transformation of our country through a Hudson River lens. More and more, my days are defined by physical work—shifting levers, turning wrenches, welding steel. As I work and research, a picture begins to form of the history of American industry mapped through personal landmarks. As the United States faces economic upheaval that challenges us to rethink who we want to be as a nation, I have discovered that it pays to take stock of who we have been: a country of innovators and doers, of people who make things, of workers who toil, sweat, and labor with their hands.

My own, personal compulsion to understand the country’s progression was born out of the ashes of the steamship Muenchen. Maybe not being able to witness, firsthand, the leaving of the flowers is what drives me to dig up the details.

Classic Fireboats in Action 1900-1950 isn’t available on DVD, so when it arrives in a brown padded envelope, I have to pull the TV down from a shelf in the closet instead of just sliding a disc into my laptop. Perched in front of the twelve-by-eight-inch screen that I’ve wired to an old VCR, I rewind the tape over and over again, playing back the same scenes, dredging for details. I slow it down, letting the video advance frame by frame, watching the billowing smoke head toward heaven in a sequence of awkward jumps. The boat I’m straining to find is fireboat Thomas Willett.

The raw footage is grainy. Long scratches gouged into the original film squiggle across the television screen. Abrupt lighting shifts flash every few seconds, casting the images in new shades of black, white, and gray. At the center of the frame, the SS Muenchen lists precariously to port. The North German Lloyd passenger and cargo ocean liner is not only afire, it’s sinking under the weight of all the water the firefighters are using to try to save her. I scoot my chair in closer and squint, my face inches from the screen. Even though I know how this story ends, it doesn’t diminish the knot in my gut as I prepare to watch it unfold.

According to newspaper reports, the Willett (named after New York’s first mayor, who served in the 1660s) was the first of New York City’s fireboat fleet to respond to that morning’s alarm call from her station, fewer than ten piers away. The court records I dug up at the National Archives revealed that the Willett’s pilot, John Harvey, a forty-eight-year-old career firefighter with nearly twenty-four years on the job, was unmarried and lived at 82 Jane Street with his “permanently crippled” brother William F. and his unwed sister Sadie V.; John J.’s salary, it seems, supported them all. But it’s the Classic Fireboatsnarrator who reveals that February 11, 1930, happened to be Harvey’s last day before retirement.

Alongside Pier 42, at the foot of Leroy Street in Manhattan’s West Village, the Muenchen sits tipped disconcertingly close to the building on the pier. Her masts, taller than the two-story pier shed beside her, disappear in cumulus clouds of smoke. Firefighters pummel her with water from all sides. Multiple streams—at least five, maybe more—surge through pier-shed windows. Where the water makes contact with the fire’s heat, bursts of smoke leap out, then head for the sky. Less than a hundred feet off the ocean liner’s starboard side, a fireboat delivers still more water, sending ferocious jets of spray onto the ship’s superstructure. But through the haze of the smoke, I can’t tell which boat it is, and the narration—generalities with no play-byplay—offers little assistance.

In the next shot, I watch a few nameless, faceless, helmeted firefighters shifting equipment on the aft deck of a fireboat positioned off the Muenchen’s stern. This low-quality footage has the film-speed hiccups characteristic of early motion-picture photography, which makes it hard not to assume that people actually moved all Chap-linesque and chicken-like back then, in an age before color existed. The entire shaky video has a security-camera quality to it. Even my frame-by-frame viewing isn’t enough to bear witness. But at least I can make out the nameboard on this boat that’s just moving into view: the James Duane, sister ship to the Willett. I’m getting closer.

But then, as quickly as it begins, the two minutes of tape just ends, midblaze. The video skips ahead to 1932, to the next big fire— a five-alarmer at the Cunard Line’s Pier 54, at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and Fourteenth Street, that was one of the worst pier fires in New York City history. This was the first chance the rookie fireboat, the new flagship of the fleet, had to demonstrate that the $582,500 invested in building the largest, most powerful fireboat in the world was worth every city penny. Making her on-screen debut is the FDNY Marine Division’s first internal combustion–powered vessel, “my” boat: fireboat John J. Harvey. My chest fills up at the sight of her. But with her arrival, I realize that the story I’m so hungry to see has happened off-camera.

Instead, I will hunt down the details of that day in the electronic databases, on microfilm viewer screens, and in archives, with their dusty docket books of tissue-thin pages filled with elegant, slanted script.

Before the Muenchen departed Bremen, I learn, dockworkers had loaded the ship’s cargo spaces with thousands of different items: thirty-five cases of hosiery, five cases of artificial flowers, thirteen cases of hollow glassware (pharmacy vials for Eli Lilly), an entire household’s worth of goods—from linens to bric-a-brac, belonging to a Mrs. Hilda Schaper—and seven thousand canaries.

Back then this assemblage of mismatched break-bulk cargo was the norm. Uniform products like coal or grain that could be sent tumbling loosely down into ships’ holds constituted bulk cargoes. But break-bulk comprised diverse items of all shapes, weights, and sizes packed side by side, one on top of the other, in the gaping maw of a ship’s hold—everything from easels to kid gloves to crockery.

Newspaper articles offer some clues about the fire. Short “reaction” snippets tell about the thousands in New Jersey who “gathered at scores of vantage points along the Palisades [to watch] huge billows of smoke rising from the liner.” Feature stories reconstruct events in full, lurid detail. It is in one of these longer pieces, tucked into a little sentence at the end, that I first read about the canaries. Along with Harvey’s fate, the birds’ story has me transfixed. I can picture the birds in the dark hold, lonely for their lost mountain home.

More details surface at the National Archives, where my big break comes, by chance, in one of the docket books on the rolling cart that the researchers drag out to a special pencils-only (to protect the documents from ink) room. The docket book leads to an extensive paper trail: files full of court claims for lost-property damages or, in Harvey’s case, a loss of life. Sadie Harvey filed a claim for her brother, and stacks of other documents reveal innumerable quotidian details about the lives of Muenchen passengers: masons, housewives, barbers, carpenters, and tailors with names like Otto, Heinrich, Kasper, Barbara, August, and Paul. Along with foreign tourists and returning American vacationers, the steamship carried scores of immigrants planning new lives in the United States. These pages catalog the lives and property that pilot John Harvey had been called upon to save.

Reported by wireless:
February 10. S.S. Muenchen, Bremen to New York (North German Lloyd Line), was 500 miles east of Sandy Hook, due 11th, 9 a.m.

Landfall was still a night away when the Muenchen steamed past New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, through the Narrows, and into the open mouth of New York’s Upper Bay at nine thirty p.m. on Monday, February 10. According to law and tradition, Captain Feodor Bruenings dropped anchor at New York’s Quarantine, the public health station where, for decades, inbound steamers had been stopping for inspection by immigration and public health officials. In the predawn darkness, a mail tender tied up alongside, and 1,757 mail sacks shot down canvas chutes onto the tender’s deck for delivery to the General Post Office the following morning. In their cabins, vacationers savored their last night aboard, enjoying the calm seas inside the protected harbor, while immigrants tossed and turned with anticipation, knowing that no familiar bed awaited them ashore. All the while, Gotham’s lights twinkled in the distance.

When dawn broke on Tuesday morning, the weak winter sunlight did little to warm the frozen air. As engineers down below fired up the ship’s two triple-expansion steam engines, a rhythmic throb and hiss vibrated up through the decks, telling passengers their wait was over. A pack of assist tugs, with their snub-nosed bows and tall, cylindrical stacks puffing white steam and black coal smoke, shepherded the Muenchen into New York harbor. Upon entering the mouth of the Hudson, passengers could see the moss-green Statue of Liberty standing guard on the left as they passed Governors Island on the right. Straight ahead, at the very tip of Manhattan Island, a squat, round fort at the water’s edge, Castle Clinton, came into view. Built for the War of 1812, Castle Clinton served as America’s first official immigration center from 1855 to 1890, before passing that torch to Ellis Island. Here, at the tip of Manhattan Island, the feet of ten million immigrants first touched American soil.

Sitting in the glow of a microfilm reader, I scan the ship’s manifest, silently pronouncing passengers’ names, wondering which of them braved the wind on the deck to watch the seemingly endless expanse of ocean give way to the bustle of New York harbor as they followed a path taken by millions before them. How long did they plan to stay in the United States? inquired immigration officials. “Always,” came the reply.

A few months earlier, on October 29, 1929—Black Tuesday— the stock-market plunge had rattled the city and the nation. Then, as now, the U.S. economy was in a state of flux. But New York City still buzzed with activity. Each morning, men in hats and ties filled the avenues on their way to work. In the Wall Street district alone, half a million commuters continued to staff banks; railroad corporations; insurance and telegraph companies; steamship builders; and coal, iron, steel, and copper dealers. Ticker tape machines rattled off trades, and meanwhile, all along the waterfront, and up and down the Hudson River, the world’s cargo changed hands.

1904 view of West Street and the Hudson River looking north. (Collection of The New-York Historical Society, neg. 56570)

Shipping had fueled the city’s economy, making Manhattan the dominant American seaport since before the Civil War and one of the world’s major international ports by 1900. On that Tuesday morning in February 1930, West Street teemed with trucks ready to transport the barrels, crates, and pallets full of cargo that was soon to arrive, for the shipping news that filled page after page of a dozen New York dailies had announced the names of no fewer than seventeen liners due into port. Pictures from the 1930s offer glimpses of what the morning of February 11, 1930, may have looked like. Covered piers fanned out like fingers around the edge of Manhattan—a “horizontal city” that extended over the water, spreading like reflections of the skyscrapers above that stretched skyward. Steamers, ferries, and tugboats pulling strings of barges behind them created rush-hour traffic on a laneless thoroughfare. Although no one in the harbor that day could have heard the change coming above the harbor’s busy hum, the wave of waterfront industry on Manhattan’s shores was already beginning to crest. Within decades, it would vanish.

Steaming north up the west side of Manhattan, the Muenchen entered a major hub of maritime trade, the center of commercial shipping. En route to Pier 42, the ship passed crowded freight piers operated by a multitude of railroads. Typical of most transatlantic-steamship terminals of the time, the North German Lloyd Line’s pier shed was built on a platform supported by a field of wooden piles driven one hundred feet into Hudson River mud. On this dais stood an ornate two-story building supported by exposed steel framing with catwalks, which extended above the shed’s peaked roofline, serving as hoisting towers for loading and unloading. Clad in a skin of tin or copper sheeting, the building had large wooden cargo-bay doors along the lower level, while the upper level housed a long, open hall for passengers, with skylights that ran the length of the ceiling.

As the Muenchen approached, the longshoremen were waiting. Having read about offloading jobs in the papers the day before the ship pulled in, hordes of dockworkers had assembled on the streets near the piers, dipping now and then into local saloons to take shelter from the cold. The lucky ones whom the bosses had picked for work braced themselves for what would be a grueling day, well aware that hundreds of men stood ready to take their place should they falter.

Whenever a ship pulled in, the longshoremen worked for days on end with little more than a meal break. They labored in sweltering ship holds in summer, navigated rain-slicked gangways in spring, and on winter days like February 11, 1930, skidded across icy docks, all while hefting up to three-hundred-plus-pound loads. A worker was expected to move one ton each hour. It’s no surprise they suffered three times as many injuries as construction workers and eight times those suffered in manufacturing. Brutal as it was, the work paid better than anything else readily available to a blue-collar worker without a high school education.

When the Muenchen came into view, the first crew of longshoremen, specially picked for preparations, kicked into gear. They opened pier doors and readied gangways, lines, and fenders. After the fleet of helper tugs nudged the Muenchen into the slip, the unloading race began—for people and cargo alike. At 9:10 a.m. the first passengers went ashore. First-class passengers disembarked first, of course—the notables among them posing for pictures that would run in the evening papers. In 1930, ship dockings still made news.

For the next hour offloading gangs rigged the deck, readied the slings, nets, and trucks, and started uncovering the ship’s cargo hatches. Hollers and whistles erupted as men heaved sacks onto platforms, snagged carton edges with sinister-looking wood-handled steel hooks, and rolled wood barrels up steep planks. Movement of most goods demanded sheer brute force. Though offloading had begun, there was still no sign of the fire.

The dock was soon covered with a jumble of paper cartons and wooden casks and crates. Five cases of umbrella cloth, thirty-seven tubs of cheese, forty-three cases of harmonicas, and twenty cases of bronze wire—these items and hundreds more, stowed in a single cargo hold, had been loaded into place by hand. Efficient shipping depended on filling every inch of usable space, so dockworkers in Bremen had crammed cargo into compartments with little regard for what items might not keep good company. That’s the way things were done. And such imprudence kept New York City’s fireboats in business.

When pilot John Harvey rounded up on the south side of Pier 42 at 11:30 a.m., he maneuvered fireboat Thomas Willett into position off the starboard quarter of the Muenchen, adjacent to Hold Six. As firefighters on board readied the deck guns to spray water, Harvey held the boat on station just a few feet from the burning liner. Just then, a tremendous blast erupted.

Showers of glass flew off the Muenchen as the ship’s portholes shattered. A large steel plate shot into the sky and landed inches from a firefighter, who froze in his tracks. The 263 crew members still aboard the ship scurried like insects, sliding down ropes and jumping to the decks of nearby barges and small craft.

Captain Bruenings rushed to his cabin to snatch up the ship’s papers and the logbook. Discovering he was trapped inside, he chopped through a wood partition with an ax, then slid down a mooring line to the pier to escape.

Three more explosions followed in quick succession, blowing the bottom out of the aft end of the ship. The river rushed into the lower hold as her ragged flanks settled into the mud. Despite the flooding, the ship continued to burn from the inside out, the fire feeding on cargo and the woodwork in the cabins.

Meanwhile, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which happened to be holding a two-day conference at the Hotel Pennsylvania, suspended the day’s sessions to stand on the roof and watch the inferno.

A year after the Muenchen fire, a rivet gang, at the foot of Twenty-third Street in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Bay, set to work fitting steel. Crews were building, under New York City contract, the largest, most powerful fireboat the world had ever seen. At 130 feet long and twenty-eight feet wide, she would pump eighteen thousand gallons of water per minute—as much as twenty fire trucks. The rest of the FDNY Marine Division’s boats ran on steam; this was to be the first powered by internal combustion. With five engines that generated direct-current electricity to run the propeller motors, she would run 18 miles per hour, and only slightly slower while pumping.

On June 23, Fire Commissioner John Dorman drove the first rivet into the first hull frame. By October, a mere four months later, the boat, dressed in ribbons and bunting, slid down the shipway, with what must have been sparkling cider still dripping off her bow— champagne would have been illegal, with Prohibition still in effect. Mayor Jimmy Walker attended, as did the commissioner and his daughter, clutching several dozen roses in her gloved hands. When the boat was put into service that December, it was said to be the “last word” in marine firefighting apparatus. The model of modern fireboat engineering, the John J. Harvey, designated Engine 57, would set the standard for all fireboats to come.

Fireboat John J. Harvey showing off on December 17, 1931, near the George Washington Bridge. (Photo by United Press International, from the collection of Tim Ivory)

Meanwhile, at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, another crew of ironworkers threw up steel, still warm from Pennsylvania mills, at the staggering pace of four-and-a-half stories per week. Though lingering on the cusp of the Great Depression, America was still expanding. Four-man rivet gangs perched on wooden planks balanced hundreds of feet above the street. The “heater” would fling a red-hot, mushroom-shaped nugget up to the “sticker-in,” who would catch the rivet in a metal can, pluck it out with tongs, and jam it into an empty hole. Next the “bucker-up” would fit a dolly bar over the mushroom cap–like button-head to brace the still-hot rivet. Then, with a deafening clatter, the “gunman,” or riveter, drove the protruding stem with an air hammer called a rivet gun. The gangs moved at a record clip, because there was money at stake. Not just the cash-filled envelopes the bosses handed them on payday, but also the coins and bills they’d tossed into the hat as a wager that their trade’s gang would beat out all the other trades’ gangs in the sky-high race to build the Empire State Building, a symbol of American engineering prowess that could be seen from miles away.

I caught my first glimpse of the Hudson River from an office in the Empire State Building. The river, like the building, has long since transformed from an industrial site into a tourist attraction. Today, standing in the belly of the fireboat that was born in the wake of steamship Muenchen’s demise, I look through the engineroom portholes at the meager few finger piers that still remain. I register the gaps, like empty spaces between the teeth of a broken comb.

North River piers, Manhattan, circa 1930. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)

Buoyed by history, I consider how the past informs the present. The Hudson is known as the river that flows two ways, its waters a brackish mix of seawater from tides pushing upstream and fresh mountain runoff pushing down. I know what it’s like to feel pulled in two directions at once. I oscillate between worlds: white- and blue-collar, virtual and physical, human and machine, preservation and obsolescence, land and water. My days on the Hudson transport me through the past to the present, granting me uncommon access to the lasting lessons of history that somehow, as they likely have through time immeasurable, feel more important today than ever before.

© 2009 Jessica DuLong

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Part I Four Centuries, One River

Chapter 1 Namesake 5

Chapter 2 Girl Meets Boat 19

Chapter 3 A Tale of Two Voyages 35

Chapter 4 Fireboat John J. Harvey Serves Again 57

Part II Above and Below Decks

Chapter 5 Apprenticeship: "Make Yourself Useful" 73

Chapter 6 Red Skies in Morning 90

Chapter 7 On the Hard: The Inevitable Decline of Old Things 108

Chapter 8 A View from the Factory Floor 123

Chapter 9 Towing with Tom 145

Part III Pride and Preservation

Chapter 10 "Are You Licensed?" 163

Chapter 11 Love of Labor 180

Chapter 12 Sinking: Repairs and Reparations 197

Chapter 13 Shaking Hands with Dead Guys: Preservation and the Long Good-bye 212

Chapter 14 Citizen Craftsmen: The Art in Craft 228

Chapter 15 Nails in the Coffin of Industry: The Recreational River 250

Chapter 16 Full Speed Ahead 269

Notes 279

Bibliography 292

Acknowledgments 296

Index 300

What People are Saying About This

Gwendolyn Bounds

"Whether you know the Hudson intimately, or have yet to make her fine acquaintance, Jessica DuLong's soulful narrative will make you crave a journey on the river. The author's vivid portrayals of her fireboat's inner workings are rendered with such precise tenderness, that as reader I sat mesmerized by descriptions of motors and magnetism. My River Chronicles is a heartfelt ode to the increasingly lost art of expert craftsmanship and understanding the beauty of the mechanical world around us."--(Gwendolyn Bounds, author of Little Chapel on the River: A Pub, a Town and the Search for What Matters Most)

Trevor Corson

"If you've ever wondered what we're missing by sitting at computers in cubicles all day, follow Jessica DuLong when she loses her desk job and embarks on this unlikely but fantastic voyage. Deeply original, riveting to read, and soul-bearingly honest, My River Chronicles is a surprisingly infectious romance about a young woman falling in love with a muscle-y old boat. As DuLong learns to navigate her way through a man's world of tools and engines, and across the swirling currents of a temperamental river, her book also becomes a love letter to a nation. In tune with the challenges of our times, DuLong reminds us of the skills and dedication that built America, and inspires us to renew ourselves once again."--(Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi)

Tom Lewis

"Jessica DuLong has captured the essential energy, grace, and beauty of the Hudson. Through her travels she discovers the place of the river and valley in America's past and present, as well as the essence of her own life. DuLong's is a personal journey that resonates with all of us."--(Tom Lewis, author of The Hudson: A History)

Stefan Fatsis

"Jessica DuLong is a lucky woman. She stumbled into an obscure world-the overheated engine room of an old fireboat-and discovered that she belonged there. Readers are lucky, too, because she has managed to translate her love affair with the water into a finely written and fascinating story about a lost American way of life."--(Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic)

Jon Meacham

"In rich and captivating prose, Jessica DuLong kindly invites the rest of us on the journey of her lifetime: from a dot-com job to the fabled waters of the Hudson River, where she became a fireboat engineer. This is an unusual and fascinating book."--(Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship)

Douglas Rushkoff

"In a world where we are growing increasingly disconnected from anything real, what a delight to enter the engine room with Jessica DuLong, a real person doing a real thing in a real place. This is the kind of river trip that memoirs were developed for in the first place."--(Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back)

Matthew B. Crawford

"When Jessica DuLong describes her work in the engine room of the John J. Harvey, you can practically feel the throb of the boat's mighty diesels. This is someone who has paid some dues, and it shows in the details. Her view through a narrow portal at the water line opens into a bigger picture of the Hudson River, the economy of New York, and the dignity of work-the kind of work that is genuinely useful. My River Chronicles is an account of what made this country thrive, and might yet again: men and women who aren't content to stand around with their hands in their pockets. The book reeks of penetrating oil, which may be just what is needed to get our economy, and our culture, moving again."--(Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work)

Frances F. Dunwell

"DuLong shifts back and forth in time and place to recount history in just the right amount of depth before pulling back to the larger, very engaging, and fresh narrative of her own life and river experiences. The camaraderie and fellowship of people who love boats give this book a palpable warmth. DuLong is a good writer, a good researcher, a good observer and a good engineer."--(Frances F. Dunwell, river conservationist and author of The Hudson: America's River)

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for My River Chronicles includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jessica DuLong. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


When journalist Jessica DuLong ditched her dot-com job for the diesels of an antique fireboat, she found a taste of home she hadn’t realized she was missing. Running the engines of retired New York City fireboat John J. Harvey made her wonder what America is losing in its shift away from hands-on work. Her work raised questions that crystallized after the boat got called back into service at Ground Zero, where DuLong and the rest of the boat’s civilian crew pumped water to fight blazes.

Vivid and immediate, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America is a journey with an extraordinary guide—a mechanic’s daughter and Stanford graduate who bridges blue-collar and white-collar worlds, turning a phrase as deftly as she does a wrench. As she searches for the meaning of work in America, DuLong shares her own experiences of learning to navigate a traditionally male world, masterfully interweaving unforgettable present-day characters with four centuries of Hudson River history.

A celebration of craftsmanship, My River Chronicles is a deeply personal story of a unique woman’s discovery of her own roots—and America’s—that raises important questions about our nation’s future.

Discussion Questions

  1. While working in the engine room, Jessica speculates about the men stationed there before her. “Did they feel left out of the action down here in the cellar? Did they chain-smoke, read, play cards to pass the time while they waited for the pilot’s next command? Career guys, most of them … their uncles, fathers, and brothers … had laid down the paving stones that marked their nepotistic path. There were no paving stones for me” (7). What factors make Jessica unique in the engine room? What drives her decision to invest so much time and energy into fireboat John J. Harvey? What precipitates her full-fledged commitment into working on the boat?
  2. Does Jessica’s heritage and upbringing influence her decision to work aboard fireboat John J. Harvey? How so? Look to pages 80-84 and discuss.
  3. Jessica meets many colorful characters along her journey to become one of the world’s only female fireboat engineers. Who do you think is the most outlandish character and why? Who do you think influences Jessica the most?
  4. The Hudson River is actually not a river, but “a tidal estuary where fresh water from the mountains mixes with salt water from the sea” (46). Consider the role of the Hudson in the story. How does Jessica’s perspective on the river change once she starts steering the tugboat? How does the river help change Jessica’s understanding of the world? How does it help shape the story of fireboat John J. Harvey? Of New York City?
  5. Even as the fireboat’s condition declines, the crew persists with their mission to save her. Why do you think preservation is so important to the crew and to Jessica? Do you agree? What’s the point of preserving old things (see pages 88 and 219)? Have you ever saved something that had outlived its original function? What was it and what did it mean to you? Did it end up serving a new function?
  6. An important theme in the book is the loss of hands-on work in America. Jessica notes that what she had been missing at her dot-com job was the ability to hold her work in her hands (33), and John Ratzenberger calls the shift away from blue-collar jobs the “industrial tsunami” (245). What is your reaction to the idea of an “industrial tsunami”? How does technology transform culture? In what ways has society changed since the dawn of the industrial revolution? What have we lost? What have we gained?
  7. Much of the tension in this story comes in the competition between progress and tradition in river communities. Where else do you see this tension? Can it be resolved or must one always outweigh the other?
  8. Do you think every child should go to college? Why or why not? How are people who work with their hands regarded in today’s society? How might this affect young people’s career choices? Do your local schools and community provide opportunities for young people to tinker?
  9. How do the September 11th attacks shape the story of fireboat John J. Harvey? How do they shape Jessica’s personal story? How did they affect your community? What roles do American identity and patriotism play in this book? Turn to pages 57-69 and discuss.
  10. Jessica traces the movement in manufacturing toward producing goods with an intentionally limited lifespan. What are the implications of this trend?
  11. What challenges does Jessica face as a woman in a nontraditional occupation? How do other characters treat her, and how does that affect her ability to do her job? Discuss the ways in which Jessica overcomes sexism in her role as engineer aboard fireboat Harvey. How does she do it? Look to pages 166-168 and discuss. Have you ever experienced discrimination? How did it affect you?
  12. Think about the camaraderie in the maritime community. Despite facing discrimination, Jessica forges ahead to learn skills, earn credentials, and develop relationships that help her navigate the male-dominated waters. Have you ever considered working in an industry with seemingly insurmountable obstacles? Does Jessica’s experience make you see it differently?
  13. Jessica likens steering a tugboat to writing a poem: “Every fragmentary decision counts in shaping the form and the flow” (126). Is there a connection between art and boats for Jessica? Is she choosing an artistic life or a practical one, or both?
  14. Revisit Jessica’s first fireboat trip (page 26-30). How did this experience help change the course of her life? Jessica writes that working on boats delivers her back home in a way she was never home before (120). Why do you think this is? Why do you think she makes this radical change in her life? Have you ever had a similar experience, or is there a change in your work life that you would like to make if you could?
  15. My River Chronicles conveys a concern that some jobs are “dumbed down” by the advancement of technology. Do you think Americans are losing some measure of common sense as technology progresses? Why or why not?
  16. What work/hobbies/activities do you participate in that involve hands-on work? How do these activities affect your life? How is working at a desk different from doing physical work? What are the differences between mental and physical fatigue?

Enhancing Your Book Club

1. In My River Chronicles, Jessica meets a number of artists who follow in the footsteps of the Hudson River School. Have each member of your group bring in a copy of a painting by Stephen Fox or an illustration by Mark Peckham. Tape the paintings on the wall and host a “gallery exhibit.” What do you notice about the artwork? How does it make you feel? Look to pages 217-219 and 250-254 to inform your perspective on these paintings and illustrations.

2. In sharing her experiences in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Jessica explains how helping in small but meaningful ways offers some solace in the midst of devastating tragedy. “Some of the ways we help can seem so trivial, but doing something—anything—matters” (69). Plan a day of service with your reading group. Volunteer at a local firehouse, school, hospital, nursing home, or soup kitchen, or organize a food-and-clothing drive for neighbors in need. Afterward, discuss how helping—even in a small way—affected your group. Did this experience help you better understand Jessica’s?

3. In the children’s book Fireboat (Picture Puffin Books, 2005) author Maria Kalman depicts the crew of fireboat John J. Harvey. Read the book as a group and discuss how similar or different it is from My River Chronicles. Did Jessica’s character in Fireboat remind you of the Jessica portrayed in My River Chronicles? Did the illustrations help bring to life the boat and its crew?

A Conversation with Jessica DuLong

Q: How do you balance your blue- and white-collar roles, as writer and engineer?

A: Now instead of one job, I have two. I’m constantly juggling writing work and boat work. The balancing act is challenging, but I’ve realized I need to exercise both parts of my brain (and body) to feel whole. I love having the privilege to research and write the stories of captivating people and places, and I crave the immediate, tangible, cause-and-effect feedback I receive from hands-on work on the boats.

Sometimes the juggling creates a sense of balance, too, because working on boats has a way of reprioritizing what actually matters most at any given moment. Weather, for example, can change everything. On occasion I’ve had to set aside an important writing deadline to take care of a boat emergency—a broken furnace in sub-zero temperatures, a high-water alarm. Addressing these urgencies takes priority because of basic physical realities, and a part of me likes the reminder: Confronting the immutable forces of nature grants me new perspectives on what is actually important in the here and now, and I’ve found this to be a valuable lesson in living one’s life.

Q: How did your father, who is a mechanic, influence your decision to become an engineer?

A: I was encouraged by both my parents to carve my own path, and I know that’s helped me have the flexibility to jump at opportunities as they arise. I grew up surrounded by tools, diagnostic challenges, and the message that when something is broken you fix it yourself. But I never really acquired the skills to live up to that mandate. I didn’t think mechanical work was something I was good at, and society didn’t offer much encouragement to keep trying. But my time on boats has opened up whole new worlds. I was fortunate to find a skilled and patient teacher in Tim Ivory. I came aboard the fireboat, infinitely curious about how things worked (a trait I’d inherited from my father) yet knowing nothing. Tim created the space for me to ask anything—even the most basic questions—which is crucial for real learning. That kind of encouragement brought the values I learned in childhood together with the practical experience that allowed me to grow as an engineer.

Q: How does a hard day of physical labor compare to working at a desk job?

A: There’s a satisfaction to physical work, to taxing your muscles, pushing your body to its limits that I don’t get from sitting at a desk. Bodies are designed to move, and my body complains if I’m stuck in one place for too long. The staying still is what makes a desk job physically demanding—that, and the strain on the eyes and certain muscle groups that comes from typing at computer for many hours.

But one of the things that many people don’t realize is how mentally challenging many hands-on jobs are as well. The notion that hands-on work doesn’t require brains is a myth. My engineering work has challenged my mind as much as, if not more than, any other job I’ve ever had.

Q: What is it like being a woman in a nontraditional occupation, and one of the only female fireboat engineers in the world?

A: From the beginning my crew on the fireboat has been incredibly supportive. My gender has mostly been a non-issue. To them I’m just crew. In this I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve spoken to a lot of women in nontraditional occupations and that is not always the case. But things sometimes get a little trickier in the rest world. I’ve dealt with curious looks, being hit on, inappropriate comments, even physical contact. A carpenter I interviewed for a story once explained how walking onto a job site feels like being on a catwalk. I’ve definitely experienced that and it takes a lot of energy to shield against that “watched” feeling so I can focus on the job at hand. The worst harassment I’ve ever faced was during the prep course for my Coast Guard license exams. That experience knocked the wind out of me. While it was excruciating to write that chapter, I felt it crucial to tell the story. Despite all this, I’m excited for girls growing up today. I think the country is changing and they’ll have more and more choices about how they want to make their lives and their livings.

Q: How did your porthole view of the Hudson River from the fireboat’s engine room lead you to start asking larger questions about the river’s history and its role as a primary driver of the American economy?

A: My fascination with the Hudson River grew out of the fact that with my strange, telescoped view of the river, I couldn’t see how the individual towns on the fireboat’s whistle stops fit into the Hudson as a whole. Even though I’m technically in the river when I’m standing at the control pedestal, I can’t see much of it. So the Hudson remained a mystery. I started investigating and soon discovered how critical innovations and advancements born on the Hudson charted the course for America’s rise to power. A birthplace of American industry, the Hudson, I learned, was a hub that shaped the country.

Then I realized that some of the key questions the United States is facing today about who we want to be as a nation are playing out right here on this river. By tracing the rise and decline of industry along the Hudson, we can see the changes brought about by shifting priorities now unfolding throughout the country as a whole. Examining this particular region sheds raises important questions about our nation’s future.

Q: How did your experiences working on the fireboat at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks influence you?

A: Those were devastating days, and writing about them in this book brought the nightmare, and the complicated mix of feelings right back. Like so many people who served at Ground Zero, I was plagued, for a time, by feelings of guilt and helplessness about not being able to do enough. Ultimately, however, I was proud that the boat I had come to love was able to serve her city in New York’s hour of greatest need. In the face of tragedy, fireboat John J. Harvey had a way of connecting me with the power of history, with the Hudson River, and with America’s roots.

It was an honor to help the boat perform the service for which she’d been built. Just two years prior she was facing the scrap heap. Now, there she was pumping Hudson River water, the only water available to firefighters for days following the towers’ collapse. She was still able to pump water all those years later because she had been built in an age when fine craftsmanship and building things to last were guiding principles in American manufacturing. I came to realize that those ideals are a piece of our country’s heritage that we need to get back to.

After the fireboat was called back into service, the questions I had about what the United States is losing in our shift away from hands-on work crystallized. I realized that not only do I need both my blue- and white-collar worlds, but the nation does too. When buildings come down you need a firefighter, not a stockbroker. In those moments, knowing how to use a cutting torch was far more valuable than having a university degree. The crisis brought new respect for blue-collar workers. It drew my attention to how physical labor has been devalued in this country, and launched my quest to understand the changing meaning of work in the America.

Q: When you started My River Chronicles, did you set out to write a patriotic book?

A: Not overtly, but through my research I came to appreciate American heritage in new ways. Growing up I recognized the honor in hands-on work, and witnessed how others looked down on people with certain kinds of jobs. The truth is the country needs both blue- and white-collar workers, and needs to strike a better balance between manufacturing and service economies. Our American identity, our economic power, does not exist solely on Wall Street; it lives in the tradition of innovation and in the muscle and sweat that built the nation. The soul of our country developed through making things, through innovation, and through hands-on work, and the United States will lose a part of its soul if we abandon that.

This is not just about nostalgia; it’s a call for the future. I’m not saying we should go back to the old ways, but that American skills should be cumulative. We need to integrate our high-tech, knowledge-based economy with our skills for making things. This is crucial for the United States to be a strong, productive, self-sufficient nation.

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