North Bergen Barge Colony


For 50 years Bill Casey ran a boat repair service at the foot of 79th St. in North Bergen across the Hudson River from Harlem. He started the business in 1920 and chose this spot because he didnít need a dry dock. He would float a boat onto the mud at high tide and work on it at low tide.

Long before his time, he told me, Erie Canal freight barges were towed here for the winter with the families that worked and lived on them. Kids attended local schools and dad found work in the factories nearby. Some of those Erie Canal barges never left, he said, pointing to what he claimed were their remains, corroded planks in the mud nearest the shore.

During the 1960s, some barges were used as dwellings, Bill said. Some residents were old time independent barge owners. The rest were what Bill called hippies. The two groups did not get along. When the last of the old time barge owners died, the hippies had the barges to themselves.

The North Bergen politicians did not like the barge people, especially the hippies. They used town services but paid no taxes. The mayor owned an apartment tower up the hill from the barges, and he wanted them gone. In fact, barge residents had begun to leave on their own as maintenance became burdensome, Bill said. Then in 1971 a serious fire swept across the community, destroying all the habitable barges. Two of them belonged to Bill. He lost everything stored on them, including a lifetime of tools and two violins he had crafted himself. Bill built fine wood instruments on the side. For the First time in 100 years, Bill said, there was no one living on the water at the foot of 79th St,

In 1974, three years after that devastating fire, there were only about 20 barges left. But Bill still came every day from his house up the hill in Guttenberg to sit by the water and wait for someone to talk to. His wife of 50 years had died the previous year.

I donít know if Bill was there on a bitterly cold Friday in January of 1975, but someone was, and they set a fire, maybe to keep warm. That fire took hold and spread quickly in a strong westerly wind. By evening the last remaining barges were involved. I saw the fire from Manhattan that Friday night. By the next morning, everything was gone, burned to the waterline.

I never saw Bill again.

Barge Colony Between the Fires

World War II and a few years after were good times for commercial barges, many of which were privately owned. Barges were towed up the Hudson to Canada with coal and returned with newsprint and lumber. Bill said most of the material used to build New York City had arrived by barge, the Vermont marble for the Brooklyn Bridge, for example.

The railroads were major customers for the barge owners. The rail companies used barges to transport freight from railheads in New Jersey to Manhattan and the other boroughs. The railroads also owned some barges too. Those tended to feature rails so freight cars could roll on on one side of the Hudson and off on the other. Typically each barge could carry a dozen freight cars.

At some point, the railroads began building big steel barges for greater efficiency. They stopped hiring independents. Even as this was happening, the freight business was slowly transitioning to trucks. The old life along the river began to die. The railroads started auctioning off their barges. Buyers in the market at the time werenít interested in the river freight business.

There had always been residents on the barges, old time river people who once earned a living with the barges they lived on. The people buying the bargain barges, at least the classic wooden ones, were different. Bill said most were artists or writers -- his hippies. All loved the lore of the river and the views of Manhattan on the other side. They bought barges to live and work in.

The artist resident phase only lasted a decade or so. When it died, the long-time barge community at the foot of 79th St. died with it.

 

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