Growing up along the shores of Tottenville, Greg Rossel and his friends tried to outsmart the night watchmen as they prowled around the wooden remnants of schooners, tugboats, ferries, barges, canal boats, excursion vessels, oyster trawlers, cargo ships, sunken docks -- and even luxury yachts.
To these “water rats,” it was a “playground” or the “world’s largest informal maritime museum,” but the boats were ghosts of what was once a thriving shipbuilding industry in Tottenville.
“When you think about it, there’s no reason why this wouldn’t have been the land of shipyards,” said Rossel, a maritime enthusiast and wooden shipbuilder who grew up on Hopping Avenue in the same house both his grandmother and mother were born in.
“The placement of it is perfect for so, so many reasons. Tottenville had direct access to the world. It was the nexus of commerce. You have all the waters and the harbors of New York, you have the Atlantic, you have the Hudson, you had access to the Chesapeake via the Raritan River. You can go everywhere and you can come from everywhere.”
The topography also made Tottenville an ideal spot for shipyards.
“It was a gently sloping land that was easy to build on,” Rossel said. “You didn’t have to level things out because it was naturally there. They had a marine railway out there, they were able to build and launch, they could bring in repair work. It was a great place -- close enough to get the commerce to the city, but not so close that people would be lured away to the bright lights of the city.”
Astute businessmen built the shipyards to meet the demands of the flourishing oyster industry -- they were so prevalent in the waters that an 1886 book declared “the oyster is king” in Tottenville.
“To arrive in Tottenville is to become sensible of the importance of the oyster,” reads a page in Picturesque Staten Island an Illustrated Sketch Book of Staten Island. “Anchored out in the Kill; made fast to the little wharves; under sail in the offing, white-hulled oyster sloops meet the eye on every side. Below the bluffs, the beach is lined with oyster floats, upon which the bivalves in the fall are taken to the fresher waters of New Jersey rivers to be fattened for the market; oyster shells are everywhere. The largest and most comfortable houses in and about the village, we are told, belong to oystermen, active and retired, whose modest fortunes have been raked from the great oyster-beds covering the bottom of the Lower Bay from Staten Island to Keyport…Here the oyster is king.”
During the 19th century, Tottenville was home to several shipyards, initially building boats for Staten Island’s oysterman: Totten’s Shipyard, Rutan Shipyard, Butler and Sleight Shipyard, Journeay Shipyard and Ellis Shipyard.
But, it was A.C. Brown & Sons Shipyard that was the most well-known. The shipyard was more than a company out to make a profit -- they were part of the fabric of Tottenville.
“They stayed around town, it was a family operation,” Rossel said. “The benefits of the business stayed in the community. They contributed to the community, they built buildings, they were members of the Masonic Lodge, they went to the churches.”
And, they hired the residents of Tottenville, skilled tradesman who would “ride their bikes with their lunch pails” to the docks each day.
“By the standards of the day, they had regular working hours -- they worked 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week and half days on Saturday,” Rossel said. “They were paid well. It was a desirable place to be.”
They were employed in specialty trades as carpenters, blacksmiths, patternmakers, painters, caulkers, riggers and vessel designers, as well as common laborers.
Even as the oyster industry dried up in the early 1900s due to water pollution and over-fishing, business boomed at A.C. Brown & Sons: They built salvage tugs, passenger vessels, tugboats, steamships and luxury yachts “for the Bill Gates type of characters of the day. This was the Gilded Age and there was a lot of money kicking around.”
“The vessels they made, everything they did was top-notch construction with top-quality materials,” Rossel said. “No corners were cut. Even the commercial tugboats were outfitted like yachts. If you were a successful company, you didn’t want these flimsy things out there. You wanted lots of varnish and beaded interiors, a golden eagle on top of the pilot house -- and lots of pennants flying so people knew you made a lot of money. People considered it an honor to be able to have a vessel that was Brown built.”
And there were no contract negotiations or haggling over price, either.
“A point of pride was that most deals were done on a handshake,” Rossel said. “When AC or his sons shook hands on a project, you could take that to the bank. That sort of family pride brought them a lot of business.”
The town of Tottenville also grew around the shipyards with Main Street the center, just as it is today.
“There were all kinds of smaller enterprises and small businesses," Rossel said. "There were people who made hats, there were painters, people who made clothes, there were small shopkeepers. It was a fully-functional, full-service town. Main Street was everything you could imagine: Hardware stores, electronic supply stores, grocery stores, 5 and Dimes, confectionary stores, car dealerships, delicatessens and green grocers.”
The Brown shipyard, along with the others dotting the Tottenville shoreline, met their demise during the Great Depression. Even the boats were left to decay in the harbor.
“When the economy went down, there wasn’t anything to be built,” Rossel said. “They ended up building a number of vessels on speculation.”
Once the economy rebounded after World War II, there was little interest in the wooden boats that had been built in Tottenville.
“People were building in steel and iron,” Rossel said. “You didn’t need as many trades to do that.”
Rossel, 70, a graduate of PS 1 and Tottenville High School -- back when it was located on Yetman Avenue -- has lived in Maine since 1972. He was on Staten Island recently to give a presentation on the old shipyards for the Tottenville Historical Society.
While here, he visited the docks that were once his childhood playground.
“I was stunned to see there is virtually nothing there except a lot of very expensive houses,” he said, adding that the sunken boats had since been removed.
He did find that his house on Hopping Avenue is still standing, though it looks drastically different from the place he grew up in -- a home that was filled with nautical artifacts given to his mother by the Browns, who were close family friends. There were model ships, pulleys, oars, paintings, postcards and photographs in every corner -- “it was like living in a maritime museum.”
“My grandparents, especially my mother, found it really important to tutor me on the maritime history of Tottenville,” he said. “She would take me down to the old shipyards and show me -- this was where the office was, this was where the loft was, this was where the machine shops were, this was where the blacksmith shop was. She loved to tell me these wonderful stories about how she would go down there and the carpenters would give her wood shavings to make the hair for her dolls. It broke her heart when the last steam whistle blew its horn.”
(Photo courtesy of Greg Rossel, all from the A.C. Brown & Sons Shipyard: The I.H Merritt tugboat is launched on a rainy day in 1919)