This story comes with a few strings attached.
The Waterfront Museum is celebrating the 100th birthday of the river barge it calls home with a puppet show telling the history of New York’s working waterfront. “Out of the Box and Over a Barrel,” which opens on July 12, will revive the sights and sounds of the barges that once filled the harbor, ferrying cargo from ships to rail yards in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The show is based in part on oral history — particularly that of a woman whose father worked for decades as a barge captain in the harbor, explained one of the show’s creators.
“We took photos, oral history, and artistic license, and put together the story of this barge captain,” said David Sharps, president of the floating Red Hook museum.
Alice Scanlan’s father was captain of the Lehigh Valley Barge 59. She and her family lived in the cabin of the barge from 1927 to 1936, through the height of the Great Depression. Using Scanlan’s memories of life on the water, Sharps and his collaborators crafted a multimedia play to tell her story and those of others who lived or worked on the harbor in the era of the barge and tugboat.
Scanlan’s narrative comes through in puppet form. The show follows an older woman who, after finding an old photo album, goes on a journey through her own memories. Upon this discovery, a young girl puppet takes over the story, guiding the audience through her recollections of harbor life.
And there is plenty of source material to draw from — as many as 5,000 barges cruised New York harbor in the heyday of barge shipping in the 1930s and 1940s, said Sharps. Each barge could carry as much as 300 tons of cargo, filling up to 20 railcars that could then bring goods to far-flung markets out west.
“The motto of New York Harbor was, ‘Every railroad can visit every ship,’ ” Sharps said. “If shoes were coming from Italy, they would be off-loaded from barge to train and then head to Chicago or California.”
The use of barges on the New York waterfront began to decline in the 1960s with the advent of container shipping. The decline in barges meant a decline in jobs, but Scanlan’s father stayed on the water until 1967.
The Waterfront Museum itself is part of that history. The entire museum is housed on Barge 79 of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, a still- functioning barge much like the one Scanlan grew up on.
“Out of the Box and Over a Barrel” at the Waterfront Museum [290 Conover St. between Reed Street and New York Harbor in Red Hook, (718) 624–4719, www.waterfrontmuseum.org]. July 12–13 and 19–20 at 3 pm. $13 adults, $10 kids.