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SEAFARING | The John J. Harvey, A Little Engine that Could

SEAFARING | The John J. Harvey, A Little Engine that Could

All photographs, unless otherwise indicated, were taken by and are the property of New York Makers

Sometimes we discard relics without realizing either their past or their present value. Thankfully, Huntley Gill and Chase Welles saved one such very special treasure, the John J. Harvey fireboat, from the landfill.

Photo from www.fireboat.org

“We bought the John J. Harvey boat at a private auction in 1999,” Gill, a historical architect who spent as much time on the water as possible even before acquiring what has become New York City’s most beloved fireboat in history, explains. “Chase and I, and a number of other preservation-minded New Yorkers, couldn’t stand the idea of the city’s oldest fireboat getting sent to the scrapheap.”

THE JOHN J. HARVEY BACKSTORY 

What Gill calls his “cool boat”, made history in a number of ways: the first fireboat powered by internal combustion engines (five, all told); the first that could pump water and maneuver simultaneously; and the largest, fastest fire-fighting machine at the time, capable of pumping a pond-filling, fire-eliminating 18,000 gallons of water a minute.

Launched in 1931, the Harvey is 130-feet long, with a 28-foot beam and 9-foot draft. She is made of steel, with a riveted hull. Her propulsion is by twin screws, six feet in diameter.

Among the marine fires to which the John J. Harvey has responded: the Cunard Line pier fire of 1932; the burning of Normandie in 1942; the ammunition ship El Estero in 1943; and the collision of oil tankers Alva Cape and Texaco Massachusetts in 1955. 

“The Harvey was designed by a yacht architect in the Depression, which is why she was so fast and maneuverable,” Gill explains. “It changed everything. The design for every fireboat in America, and even, arguably, the world, is based on the John J. Harvey. The boat was retired by the FDNY in 1994, not because it wasn’t functioning, but because there were certain issues with maneuverability that made it less practical for firefighters to use today.”

For decades, the Harvey was the only ship in the FDNY’s fleet capable of pumping water and keeping up full speed at the same time, meaning almost every historical photograph of a big ship leading a larger ship of the jaw-droppingly epic ocean liner sort into port in NYC — the Queen Elizabeth I, say, or the Queen Mary — includes the John J. Harvey

A NEW LIFE FOR THE HARVEY

While Gill, Welles, and their supporters knew the John J. Harvey deserved to be rescued, the post-rescue plan was hazy. 

Gill admits that he and his fellow “preservation enthusiasts pretty much backed into the project.” Once they had it, they knew they had an implicit responsibility to keep it ship-shape. But funding the preservation of a Depression-era fireboat requires creative approaches. 

Huntley Gill

Initially, the pair set up a deal with the now-deceased John Krevey, who owned Pier 66, to restore and dock the boat there “for life.” They planned to cover their costs by taking their friends for rides around on this “cool boat,” as Gill calls it.

Not a sustainable strategy.

Making the operation official and actually making real money by charging members of the public a fee for a ride was never part of any longer-term plan.

“For a series of reasons too arcane and boring to list, the Coast Guard has rules in place so that boats ferrying paying people around meet certain safety standards,” Gill explains. “They exist for a reason, but it would have forced us to gut the interior and thereby destroy much of its historical significance and charm.” So they went a different direction.

“We decided to go for nonprofit status,” he says. With nonprofit approval in place, they have been able to apply for state and federal grants and hone their purpose for the reborn John J. Harvey.

“In the past 20 years, without abandoning our eccentric, free-wheeling approach to preservation, we’ve narrowed our mission,” Gill says. “Our goal now is to provide access to the Harvey, essentially as a floating maritime museum, and share her colorful history and the history more broadly of the piers.”

The “eccentric” portion plays in when it comes to the Harvey’s operation schedule, which is lovably erratic in terms of days and times, though steady in terms of its constant nature. The Harvey can be seen on the water with Gill and his roster of loyal volunteers, like Barbara Moore. While working out on her gym's riverfront treadmill in the summer of 2001, Moore heard Gill on the Harvey's loudspeaker looking for helpful deckhands as he cruised her up the Hudson. Barbara hurried off the exercise equipment to sign up at Pier 66 and has remained a "crew" member ever since. 

John J. Harvey volunteer Barbara Moore (left) and Huntley Gill (right)

Gill and the Harvey’s volunteers dutifully and joyfully educate schoolchildren and curious adults “about” once a week. Check the calendar for dates. Once a year, Gill says, the Harvey heads up to the Hudson Valley, and then embarks on a second trip to the Long Island Sound. 

Those free tours often “sell-out” within an hour thanks to the John J. Harvey’s status as an accidental hero.  

THE HARVEY’S 9/11 SERVICE

The John J. Harvey’s call to greatness happened on one of the worst days in the nation’s history: September 11, 2001. 

The night before, Gill and the boat were at a Marc Jacobs show on the water, spraying water into the air from its fire hoses as part of a light show that kept going later and later.

“They kept extending it by half an hour, and we kept saying, ‘if you have another $500, we’ll stay,’” Gill recalls. He ended up collapsing in bed after docking the boat in the wee hours of the morning. He awoke to knocking on his door.

“Chase had someone from my office run over and wake me up after the attacks,” Gill remembers. “We all wanted to do something, anything, to help. At that point, emergency services did not have a plan in place, but we gathered together a small crew, including two engineers, one of whom just showed up, the other whom we got over by boat from New Jersey.”

On 9/11, the John J. Harvey was designated Marine Company Two by the FDNY.

They headed to the World Trade Center and were given the green light to transport people trapped way downtown north to Chambers Street. On their first trip uptown, the FDNY pulled the plug on their nascent shuttle service, and asked them to put out fires instead.

“The city had only two other official fireboats of our size, one from 1938, the other from 1954,” Gills recalls. “Fire hydrants weren’t working because the falling towers took out the water line. The only way to put out the fires was by having fireboats pump water. Each boat could supply 20 trucks, so our help essentially raised the fire-fighting capacity by 50%.”

Gill and his crew stayed downtown for four days, the first two of which were spent pumping water. Once the water lines were restored, they remained as backup.

“I think it’s safe to say every New Yorker wanted to do something to help that day,” Gill says. “I’m so grateful that we — and [the] Harvey — were able to provide something material to help.”


Press play to watch a CBS Sunday Morning (2009) segment on the John J. Harvey

The Harvey has inspired a number of books and conceptual art projects. 

One book, Fireboat: The Heroic Adventure of the John J. Harvey, by acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Maira Kalman, tells the true story of Harvey on 9/11, in an honest but sensitive way, so that next generations can both understand the horror of the events and be inspired by the Harvey’s epic journey toward hope and salvation.  


Click image to purchase "Fireboat: The Heroic Adventure of the John J. Harvey" by Maira Kalman

The art project, dubbed Flow Separation, used the Harvey herself as its canvas. New York-based Tauba Auerbach transformed the fireboat into a contemporary “dazzle ship.” The dazzling of ships began in World War I; artist Norman Wilkinson initiated the practice, which entailed painting a series of geometric patterns on ships to optically distort their shape and confuse enemy submarines. Auerbach’s artwork, funded by the Public Art Fund and the British Arts Organization 14-18 NOW, was created to commemorate the centenary of WWI. 


Press play to watch the John J. Harvey arriving in Kingston in September of 2018

Auerbach, hailed for her experimentation, created her version of a “dazzle” on the Harvey with designs that evoke cubism and abstraction, but also animal spots and stripes...and pop art disco fun. Earlier this month, New York Makers had the opportunity to take the last ride on the artistically-transformed Harvey, as she was returning to the shipyard for her original and historic color treatment before venturing out on the river again.

You can visit the John J. Harvey yourself at her dock at Pier 66, located at 26th Street and the Hudson River. She’s right next the Frying Pan restaurant. The website www.fireboat.org shares updates on her latest goings-ons, including free tours and rides. There’s usually one a week, but you have to be fast. Tickets fly out the door. 

“Looking back at the John J. Harvey’s journey in 20 years, it’s amazing,” Gill admits. “She went from being an abandoned ship headed for the scrapheap to a symbol of hope and resurrection. There’s just something magical about that ship, and I think anyone who rides on her comes to understand that.”