Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Sad Death of the Side-wheeler "Lang Syne"

Click here to see The Lang Syne in better times

I wish I had something better to report.  The side-wheeler “Lang Syne” is being demolished as I write this words, and it didn’t have to happen.  It makes me rather Ill.

I don’t remember how this started.  My friend Robert on Steampunk Empire and I were chatting on the board, and this thing came up.  He sent me a link to an old article about the boat, and I became intrigued.

The Lang Syne was a side wheel steamer, built in the 1880s, that plied the passenger trade between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  She was 70 feet long, 27 feet in beam, counting the wheels, and was rated for 150 passengers.  She was tug-like, utilitarian, and, to my antiquarian mind, utterly beautiful.  We started doing a bit of research.  The boat had been in the Susquehanna River, at Havre de Grace, and had been bought to restore her.  She had been moved to the Baltimore area. There was a veteran’s group involved in her restoration, there was a family involved.  We learned there had been several refits of the boat.   We learned the old boilers had been replaced with diesel engines. . . .

It was Robert who finally found her.  There she was on Google Earth, at a rotting dock a few miles north of Baltimore.  

That’s where I live, a few miles North of Baltimore I mean, on the Middle River on our Shantyboat.  I called Rich, one of our neighbors in the Marina and an avid machinist, pneumatic maven, and all round inventive guy and set up an expedition to find the vessel.  I contacted my friend Kristen, a bio-geographer with lots of contacts in the ecology community, for suggestions and contacts.  I contacted the Paddlewheel association, and bunch of other folks with an interest in such things.  We were stoked.  We would crowd fund, save the vessel, and preserve a bit of our history.

Then we went to find her.

Look, I don’t like pissing people off.  If you know me, you know I always seek the positive and the possible.  I try to see the good in everything because without that, hey, whats the point.

But this. . . . .

The “marina” where she was moored was, without doubt, the scariest freaking place I’ve ever been.  Let me be clear:  I’ve lived in Philly, in Watts, in Chicago;  I’ve lived in small, poor towns in Idaho and Illinois.  . . .I’m an artist.  I’m not staying at the ritz here, if you get my drift.

But this place was scary.  I was going to say it was like the third world, but I’ve BEEN in the third world, and they have way more pride.  The marina consisted of a haphazard mass of rotting boats, all crammed together on the hard.  Some had collapsed into their blocks or trailers.  Others were obviously occupied as cheap housing.  There were a couple of decomposing buildings, one either half torn down or half constructed, hard to tell.  The “marina office” was some kind of packing container with that sign in the window.  I could see through the window that it was packed floor to ceiling with storage.  Nobody home.  Behind that was a decomposing house, missing  a number of it’s windows.  Large, not terribly friendly dogs roamed the yard, eyeing us.   It was more like a scene from some post-apocalyptic computer game, and I half expected half decomposed zombies to come crawling out of the rotting boats after us.  Over this detritus toward the water side, we saw a stack, and I raced across the gravel, around a rusting tin boat house, to a collapsed dock leading out to the boat. . . 

. . .the boat. . . .

The picture that I’ve linked to here was the boat, if you can believe it, in better times, about 10 years ago.  The vessel we saw was in advanced deconstruction.  All the wooden parts had been broken away from the superstructure and were piled on the deck.  A burn barrel was incongruously burning away ON the upper deck just aft of the smokestack, and an older man with a hat and a grey beard was feeding wood into it.

I walked—rather carefully—down the collapsed dock.  It had been repaired here and there with plywood nailed to the boards but was still far from trustworthy.

“Ahoy the Lang Syne.” I yelled out to him, afraid to walk any farther.

He turned from his fire.  “What?” He said, “Don’t walk on the dock, it’s not safe.  What do you want?”

I was kind of flummoxed.  “We came to ask about the boat.”

“What about it?”  He demanded.  He plainly didn’t want me there.

“We wanted to know what was going on with it. . .her status.  Do you own her?”

“It’s mine.”  He said, “I don’t want you on the dock.  It’s not safe.  I won’t be responsible.”

I backed up to the end of the dock.

“I understand.  We were curious about the boat.”  I said  “We were interested.  What is. . . “

“It’s being demolished.”  He said. “Its under water down there, the motors.  It’s being demolished.  I really don’t want you on the dock.”

And he turned his back on me and went back to burning the Lang Syne, piece by piece.  

I turned around to see Rich headed, rather rapidly, for the car as a rather large black dog closed in on him.  We hit the car and left.  Morgainne, who had come with us with her camera, was even afraid to take any photographs for ‘fear they’d shoot us.’

I spent the rest of the day angry and testy.  Part of me wants to make this about something larger, about a country that has no pride, no sense of anything but what’s profitable, and about the disposable people that live in it, but that’s too complicated.  The Lang Syne found herself in a sad place, full of poor and perhaps desperate people, and I’m trying—desperately—to have some kind of compassion for the rude old man who was methodically destroying a piece of American history—MY history—because it was in his way.

Lang Syne didn’t have to be destroyed.  There were plenty of resources, of willing hands and willing bank accounts ready to save this wonderful old part of American and nautical history.  She was just inconvenient, in the way, and expendable.

I feel that way myself, sometimes.  

Let’s not let this happen again.

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