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History of Staten Island's Boat Graveyard Explored in Documentary

By Nicholas Rizzi | March 21, 2014 6:40am
Graves of Arthur Kill. Official Trailer
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YouTube/Gary Kane

ST. GEORGE — A documentary about Staten Island's boat graveyard, a dramatic stretch of coastline filled with the rusting hulls of decommissioned naval craft, will have its borough premiere next month.

"Graves of Arthur Kill," a 32-minute documentary about Staten Island's unique nautical dumping ground in Rossville, will have a screening on April 2 at the Seaman's Society for Children & Families, with help from the soon-to-open National Lighthouse Museum.

The documentary, released last summer, tells the history of the spot — which was promoted by the city as a destination for British tourists last year — and talks to artists around the city who've taken inspiration from the ghostly spot.

 The Staten Island boat graveyard houses dozens of decommissioned boats, and can be a popular tourist spot for adventurous photographers.
Staten Island 'Boat Graveyard'
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"I spotted some images on the Internet of these rotting, rusting ships," said Gary Kane, the documentary's director.

"What caught my eye was the way they look, I thought it's just fascinating how they look like ghost ships or crumbling wrecks. The history of them was the bonus. I thought this could translate into really compelling footage for a documentary."

Kane, a former Associated Press editor, tracked down the man behind the images: Will Van Dorp, a creative writing professor in New Jersey with a passion for maritime history that led him to photograph the boats in 2010. Van Dorp, who lives in Kew Gardens, Queens, publishes the blog Tugster, which is dedicated to New York's waterways — an area he's dubbed the city's "sixth boro."

Together, the pair set out in a row boat to film the ships. They also interviewed the former owners of the rotting crafts, nearby residents and others familiar with the graveyard to track the history of the site.

The graveyard was founded by John Witte and was originally named the Witte Scrapyard. It is currently owned by Donjon Recycling, according to WNYC. Reps for Donjon declined to comment.

The graveyard serves as an official dumping ground for disused and decommissioned ferries, tugboats and barges that sit in the water until they are dismantled or salvaged.

Kane said the graveyard — which has been described as an "accidental museum" — has been host to countless historic boats and still has a few in the water.

Currently, it has a huge tanker that washed ashore in Stapleton after Hurricane Sandy, a ship that took part in D-Day and a submarine destroyer from World War II that was the first ship manned by an all-black crew, Kane said.

The graveyard at one time hosted the fire boat that responded to the deadly General Slocum boat fire in 1904, which Kane said was one of the worst disasters in the city's history.

In the '60s and '70s, Kane said the site was packed with rotting ships, but he added that it doesn't take in as many craft now as it used to.

"It's really a shadow of what it once was. There were hundreds of vessels in there," Kane said. "You literally could walk from one ship to another it was so crowded."

The site is a popular spot for photographers and maritime historians, who take kayaks or boats to get a closer look at the ships from the Arthur Kill. Others follow a make shift path of street signs and wood planks into muddy marshland and to the edge of the water where the boats are visible.

The most intrepid boat gawkers trespass through neighbor Tony Conssean's backyard, Conssean said.

Conssean previously told DNAinfo New York that tourists regularly knock at his door asking questions about the spot.

"I've had people from California, from Michigan, a guy from Wisconsin comes back repeatedly," he said. "This isn't necessarily No. 1 on the itinerary, but it's on the itinerary."

Kane said he's screened the film to acclaim in a maritime museum in Manhattan, and plans to show it in Yonkers soon. He's also submitted it to several film festivals and has released it for $12 online.

He said he thinks the Staten Island screening will be the largest the film has had yet, and said it has been well received by people interested in the maritime history of the city.

"It appeals to a certain mindset," Kane said. "People who love the waterfront and are into ships and maritime history. It has kind of a niche audience."

The Staten Island screening of "Graves of Arthur Kill" will be on April 2, at the Seaman's Society for Children & Families, 50 Bay St., starting at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10