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The steady transformation of New York’s waterfront from wasteland to playground means more of us are spending time along the city’s edge. That can lead a person to wonder: What, exactly, is down there? Until recently, we had patchy knowledge of what lies beneath the surface of one of the world’s busiest harbors. What we did know came largely from random anecdotes, and depth soundings done the way Henry Hudson did them—by rope and lead sinker. This first GPS-era picture comes from the team at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who have methodically swept the lower Hudson with state-of-the-art sonar. LDEO’s Dr. Frank Nitsche stitched together their data, along with several other researchers’ work, into this elegant color-keyed map, which we’ve supplemented by talking with sea captains, historians, and the divers pictured above. There’s a whole other city down there. Here and on the following pages is your guide.
4. A Pair of Piggybacked Shipwrecks
The LDEO researchers know of at least 300 wrecks in the lower Hudson below Troy, but they won’t tell you where most of them are. “They’re archaeological sites,” says William Ryan, one of the group’s senior scientists, and the state (which funds his research) has concerns about amateur treasure-hunters who can’t handle the currents. One notable wreck, which Ryan will place only “near Yonkers,” includes not one ship but two: A cabin cruiser sits atop the flattened remains of a much older vessel, probably a nineteenth-century sailing ship.
5. A Freight Train
It was carrying passenger baggage one afternoon in 1865, and failed to stop at the Peekskill drawbridge, which was open. Two men were killed.
6. Dead Bodies
When homicides and suicides end up in the river during winter, they often stay underwater until April, when decomposition speeds up, bloating them with gases. They then bob up, and currents have been known to drive them to nooks near the Seaport and Manhattan Bridge. “The worst one I ever saw was half in the mud, half out,” says John Drzal, a veteran of the NYPD scuba team. “The skin was peeling back.” He scuttles his fingers up his arm. “The critters were eating it.”
7. Surveillance Systems
The U.S. Coast Guard operates anti-swimmer sonar systems, which are moved around as they’re needed in the harbor. The gear pings signals out, and displays hits—indicating unidentified people or boats—on a video screen. The Coast Guard also does pier sweeps: “If someone puts something on a piling”—say, an electronic device—“we find it,” says USCG gunner’s mate Dave Boles. In 2007, near Liberty Island, he recalls, “someone was spotted in a black Zodiac at night, and we had to check it out.” The mystery boater was never identified.
8. State Secrets
A couple of years ago, “at Kings Point Maritime Academy,” says Boles, “someone dropped a coding device, a piece of secret equipment, and we had to recover it.” (Yes, the guy who dropped it was on our side, and yes, they got it back.)
9. Stripped Cars
In the bad old high-crime days, a virtual fleet of auto carcasses ended up in the East River, near the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. One police diver has said that he would tell his partner, “Go to the Chevy, make a left, and if you come to the Dodge you’ve gone too far.” Most were carted away during a cleanup in the eighties, but a number are still down there. Speregen says that the last time he dived nearby, “to be honest, I thought I saw a cement mixer.”
10. Rebar, and a Lot of It
As the coastal beaches and mud flats became docks and roads, the water’s edge has been sharply defined with concrete. Where it cracks, the coast bristles with rusting steel reinforcement bars. Harbor divers have to watch themselves to avoid getting snagged or injured. Random junk tends to collect in and around it: old tires, garbage cans, busted-up bicycles.
Illustration by Mark Nerys
11. A Formica Dinette
“In the East River, at about 16th Street, there’s one of those old dining-room tables, the kind with a Formica top and the grooved metal bands around the edge,” says Speregen. “It’s standing upright, totally free and clear. It makes me want to go down there with teacups and set it up.”
12. Another Shipwreck
Unidentified, at 37 feet.
13. Hudson River Alligators
The quaint wooden pilings you see at the edge of Manhattan, the ones that trace the outlines of long-gone piers, are a hazard in the making. When a storm knocks one of them loose, the resultant floater—a “Hudson River alligator”—becomes a twenty-foot battering ram. Army Corps of Engineers patrols scoop them up, but they can’t spot every one. “You’ve seen a SeaStreak, those fast commuter ferries that serve Wall Street?” says Speregen. “One’s gonna get impaled one of these days.”
23. 1,600 Bars of Silver, Weighing 100 Pounds Apiece
In 1903, a barge in the Arthur Kill—the oily, mucky arm of the harbor between Staten Island and New Jersey—capsized, spilling its cargo of silver ingots. It carried 7,678 bars; about 6,000 were recovered soon after. The rest are still down there. At today’s prices, they’re worth about $26 million. Every now and then, someone tries to find them. So far, no luck.
24. Ice-cream Trucks
Reefs, because they are good places for edible plants and small animals, attract schools of fish. In 1969, in order to build a new artificial reef, the Department of Environmental Conservation dumped a bargeload of scrapped Good Humor trucks off Atlantic Beach, where they were eventually joined by (according to the DEC) “30,000 tires in three-tire units; 404 auto bodies; nine barges; the tug Fran S; a steel lifeboat; steel crane and boom; surplus armored vehicles; concrete slabs, pipes, culvert, decking and rubble; 530,000 cubic yards of rock from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excavation project.” The pile is now known as a good spot for lobstering, and for catching black sea bass, blackfish, porgy, bergall, hake, and cod.
There are millions of hard-shell clams on the harbor bottom, but pollutants and bacteria can make the shellfish dangerous to eat, especially raw. Some are okay for “relay,” a process whereby tainted shellfish are moved to a clean spot for a few weeks so they purge themselves and can be safely consumed. Most high-end suppliers and restaurants shy away from such clams, but because they’re much cheaper, some establishments inconspicuously serve them.