When I first started to date my boyfriend, I decided by our fourth date it was appropriate to drag him to the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard in Staten Island. It was a little rainy and I didn’t quite anticipate just how muddy it was actually going to be. Wading through knee deep mud is romantic, right? I don’t think I’ve had so much mud caked on my body since playing high school soccer in the rain. But, neither of us lost a boot (we saw some abandoned shoes scattered throughout the space), he didn’t contract tetanus despite scraping his head on a rusty nail, and he still seems to like me, so I call that a success.
A ship graveyard is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a place where ships were sent to die. Although, this wasn’t always the original intent of the space. In the town of Rossville, NY lies the Witte Marine Equipment Company, which is adjacent to the Arthur Kill Waterway (kill is merely a dutch word for “creek” – not as creepy as it sounds). Since the 1930s, Witte’s would dredge, salvage, and resell materials from the wrecked and disused vessels of the New York and New Jersey waterways – the space originally being called the Witte Marine Shipyard. Slowly overtime, these unused ships began to amass. Some say that it was because the company could not keep up with the incoming stock. I have also heard that the owner, John J. Witte, would just straight out refuse to dismantle a majority of the ships that came his way. Either way, a collection of about 400 water vessels came to be. Witte presided over the collection of decaying ships until the 1980s when he passed away. He was known as an eccentric (shocking) and would keep a very close eye on his property, scaring off any unsolicited visitors himself.
The yard is now controlled by the Donjon Marine Company, which quickly erected a 12-foot metal wall around the perimeter of the yard to keep trespassers out. Most of the boat collection was also dismantled to either salvage parts or to be sunk in the river. The estimate for boats remaining in 2013 was a little over two dozen (many of the more fragile skeletons sunk after Hurricane Sandy in 2012).
The graveyard isn’t really noticeable from the road, and someone not privy to what lay behind that massive wall could easily pass by never knowing that it was there. The marker that we had to look for was the tiny Sleight Family Graveyard (where some headstones date back to as early as the 1700s). Beyond the graveyard was an easily accessible path – albeit filled with overgrown reeds, sea grass and questionable odors. From there, the site opens up to the majestic tomb of war ships and tug boats. If you are trying to access this site by foot, you absolutely need to go during low tide. Even during low tide, we were continually sinking into the mud, praying we didn’t lose a boot (if we had sneakers on, they would’ve been goners without a doubt), and were not able to access some of the ships further out in the water. During high tide you would most likely be stuck to shore viewing only. However, the best way to view this place would be via a boat – it’s the only way you can get a close look at some of the vessels further out.
Most of the ships that we were able to climb onto were rotted wooden structures, and probably not the safest things to walk on. If you decide to climb aboard, tread lightly and keep an eye out for stray rusty nails.