Derelictitron: Kayaking the shipwrecks of the Staten Island Sound

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Along the west shore of Staten Island lays a cove of shipwrecks, derelict craft jutting from the water in amazing states of disrepair and framed by views of the Fresh Kills Landfill/Park and a pair of enormous (and apparently abandoned) LPG tanks. As led (and photographed) by my brother Andrew Grider, we paddled amid the ruins in inflatable kayaks, a powerful contrast between the rusting immobile hulks and our light, flexible, human-powered systems that could be folded into a duffel bag and carted away at the end of the voyage.

Rusting ship & kayakRusting ship & kayak, photo by Andrew Grider

The techtonics of a wooden ferry wreck and red lead paint, photo by Andrew GriderThe techtonics of a wooden ferry wreck and red lead paint, photo by Andrew Grider

A rig of unknown purpose assembled from left-over trusses, photo by Andrew GriderA rig of unknown purpose assembled from left-over trusses, photo by Andrew Grider

Bell by William Buckley recovered in Monroe Township, NJ

William Buckley, Bell Founder

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“… so a new bell was cast from the metal of the old one by James Gregory of Cannon Street, the brass founder, who had been in that location since about 1850, being the successor of William Buckley, the bell founder.”

–   History of New York Ship Yards, John Harrison Morrison, 1909

Buckley Bell: Halifax, Virginia
While there is no direct evidence of it, it seems likely that William Buckley cast the original Mechanic’s Bell in 1834, and this is why Gregory was given the recasting commission in 1880. Thanks to Mr. Douglas Powell, the Historian for the Halifax United Methodist Church, we now have evidence of Buckley’s bell handiwork. Mr. Powell wrote to me:

Our church bell shows the name “W. Buckley, New York” as can be seen in the attached image – they must be the same company. Our church was built ca. 1829; we know the bell predated the Civil War, and may even predate the church building to a previous ca. 1818 building.

As a result of Mr. Powell’s note, I again called on Theresa LaBianca, Green-Wood’s Archivist; together, we learned that William Buckley is also interred at Green-Wood, in an unmarked plot that was owned by James Gregory and his siblings. Buckley was interred on Jan 7, 1850, apparently single and aged 68 years. His last residence was 98 Cannon Street, and his birthplace was Ireland. He died of hydrothorax.

It appears that Gregory was a true apprentice of Buckley, not only taking over his business upon his death in 1850, but apparently also possession of his burial plot – heavy responsibility for a 23-year old Gregory.

Bell by William Buckley at Halifax United Methodist Church
Bell by William Buckley at Halifax United Methodist Church, cast in New York City

Buckley Bell: Monroe Township, New Jersey (Oct 21, 2010)
Another Buckley bell has surfaced, this time in Monroe Township, NJ. As described to me by historian John D. Katerba and picked up in this story by MyCentralJersey, the 70lb brass bell was found in the ruins of a building that had burned to the ground in the 1870s. The site was at the original crossroads of Bordentown Turnpike, and had been occupied by Mr. James Buckelew, the founder of Jamestown, NJ.

As for the bell itself, it’s mounting and purpose is for the moment unknown; all we can say with some certainty is that it was born on the Lower East Side.

Bell by William Buckley recovered in Monroe Township, NJ
Bell by William Buckley recovered in Monroe Township, NJ by John D. Katerba.

The 1885 Dreamland Bell as recovered by Gene Ritter in 2009

James Gregory and the Dreamland Bell

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“The silver watch of the ringer and the silver tones of the bell still linger in the memories of thousands of American shipwrights”

– The Old Shipbuilders of New York, Harpers Magazine, July 1882

James Gregory, the fabricator of the recently recovered Dreamland Bell, ran a brass foundry at the corner of Cannon and Stanton Street in Manhattan, and is known to us principally because, in 1880, he cast the Mechanic’s Bell.

Marked simply “Mechanic’s Bell – Gregory – New York 1880”, it had a storied history. As fully described to me by Pat Prescott, the resource librarian at The Webb Institute, the bell was a triumph of The New York Journeymen’s Shipwright’s and Caulker’s Benevolent Society, rung by the workers of Manhattan’s 19th century shipyards to mark the 10-hour day they had won from owners accustomed to working them much longer. The bell was initially installed in 1831, recast and enlarged in 1834, and when it cracked in 1880, Gregory melted and recast it.

Mechanic's Bell in 1845
View of original placement of Mechanic’s Bell looking SE toward the East River, NYC, 1845

As the shipyards declined and left the city, it lost its purpose and was donated to the Webb’s Academy and Home for Shipbuilders in 1897. It remained in their custody until WWII, when to aide the war effort it was melted for scrap.

The Dreamland Bell, marked “James Gregory – New York – 1885” appears to have been a virtual twin to the Mechanic’s Bell. Five years younger, of approximately the same size, and in a similar four-sided framed mount, it stood at the end of the Coney Island’s New Iron Pier to announce the arrivals of steamships. It was in active duty until the 1911 Dreamland Fire. But where fire would consume its older sibling, for the Dreamland Bell it was a savior, burning the pier out from under it, allowing it to fall into the safety of the sea.

The 1885 Dreamland Bell as recovered by Gene Ritter in 2009
The 1885 Dreamland Bell as recovered by Gene Ritter in 2009

With its recovery, the fates of both bells were now known; but it was unclear what happened to Gregory himself.

We found tantalizing clues using Google Books: he was mentioned in an 1853 catalog; in 1861, he cast a part for the USS Monitor and was cataloged in Trow’s New York; in 1871, he was given an honorable mention for a gong and contributed $25 to the Chicago Relief & Aide Society for victims of the great fire; on Feb 5, 1889 his foundry was visited by the fire department.

But with nothing conclusive about his fate, I followed a hunch: I reached out to The Green-Wood Cemetery.

Green-Wood is a 478 acre National Historic Landmark in the heart of Brooklyn, a beautiful, active cemetery that was created in 1838 and is still serving as a cultural repository and final resting place for much of New York’s history.

Theresa LaBianca, Green-Wood’s Archivist, worked with me for many days to see if any of their James Gregorys was the right one. Addresses were compared, dates reviewed, grave sites checked, but still nothing conclusive.

Then Theresa’s fax arrived: “Eureka!” she proclaimed, and included a copy of a letter on James Gregory’s letterhead (“Brass Bronze and Composition Castings”), addressed to Green-Wood, dated Sept 25 1888, with instructions for his family plot.

James Gregory Letterhead James Gregory Letterhead

I soon stood in front of his tomb, a marble slab inscribed with text as simple and direct as his bells. He rests in Brooklyn, next to his wife, among the shipbuilders and Coney Islanders within Green-Woods gates, and about 5 miles from the Dreamland Bell. His firm appears to have carried on for several years past his death, run in part by his brother William, but this is a story for another day.

1890 James Gregory's Tomb at The Green-Wood Cemetery
James Gregory’s Tomb at The Green-Wood Cemetery

So here is Gregory removing the Dreamland Bell from its loam mold; and here, 124 years later, is diver Gene Ritter, wrestling the bell from the ocean sand in a similar act of revelation. With the help of the Coney Island History Project, it now travels Brooklyn, protected from oxidation (and perhaps fire) by a continuous sheet of water, representing layers of history extraordinarily rich and deep.

But history and time dissolve in the right-now joy of pulling the clapper and ringing the Dreamland Bell, hearing the peals that Gregory and almost three decades of Coney visitors would have, and being in the immediate presence of it’s silver tones.

My sincere thanks to Gene Ritter, of Cultural Resource Divers, and Tricia Vita, of the Coney Island History Project, for inviting me to join their adventure.


SE corner of Cannon and Stanton Street, NYC, 1938
Vicinity of James Gregory’ Shop, corner of Cannon and Stanton Street looking toward the East River, as it appeared in 1938.Everything visible in this image (and much more) was torn down to build Baruch Houses – just one of dozens of superblock projects executed by the NYCHA. The scale of condemnation, displacement and demolition employed in support of NYC’s mid-20th century housing projects is staggering. (Photo courtesy NYCHA Archives)

NW corner of Cannon and Stanton Street as it appeared in 1953
NW corner of Cannon and Stanton Street as it appeared in 1953 (Photo courtesy NYCHA Archives)

1879 Gregory Site Composite - David Grider
Composite of Google Earth imagery and 1879 Bromley Map (courtesy indicating site of James Gregory’s shop and the original location of the Mechanics’ Bell. Note proximity to other machine shops and industrial uses, notably the Aetna Iron Works, suppliers of the engines for the USS Dunderberg as built by William H. Webb’s shipyards (a few blocks north at East 6th Street) in 1865. Thomas Edison bought Aetna in 1881 to form the Edison Machine Works and for eight years produced the world’s most advanced electrical power machinery before decamping to Schenectady in 1888. By 1893 Gregory’s shop had become a coat & clothing manufacturer; by 1915 through at least 1941 a movie theater; and, by 1959, condemned and razed by the NYCHA to build the Baruch Houses.)