Red Hook Flats has Hermit on Mystery Ship, 1931

The junkboat skipper lowered his voice, though no one could be seen on the Smith’s deck.
“There’s some one aboard,” he said.  “He never goes ashore.  How he lives there all alone is beyond me.”

Month after month a three-mastered schooner was seen anchored off-shore in the Red Hook Flats.  On board was just one man who never went ashore.  How he got by was a mystery to the few folk who knew of his existence.  He was not hiding; he had made his presence known by ringing the ship’s bell the many foggy nights,  but he was cut off from the world without even a radio. 

The mystery man was Irving Garland.  The ship was the lumber hauling, Edward R. Smith.  Her captain and principal owner had died and Garland, originally hired on as the cook, had agreed to stay on as caretaker while the ship was sold.  He had thought this would be a few days but “shipping’s slow, you know.” 

His story, as told by Brooklyn Eagle waterfront beat reporter O.R. Pilot,  gives glimpses into  the maritime life in the waters off of Red Hook including shabby “coastwise barges” and  “rusty  freighters,”  as well as the boats of junk dealers who traded in scrap, ship chandlers who sold provisions, and rum-runners who smuggled in illegal alcohol.  

Full transcript from the Brooklyn Eagle, May 29, 1931 

Red Hook Flats has Hermit on Mystery Ship
Jack-of-All-Trades is Aboard Old Schooner Waits for It to Be Sold
By O. R. Pilat 

She has been called the “mystery ship” of Red Hook flats. 

A capacious-hulled three-masted wooden schooner of the old type, she had anchored there week after week while shabby coastwise barges and rusty freighters have come for a few days visit and departed. 

The name on her stern reads Edward R. Smith.   It could be clearly seen from the junkboat of John Bucick of 8757 26th Ave., with whom the trip into the bay had been made from the Erie Basin breakwater. 

The junkboat skipper lowered his voice, though no one could be seen on the Smith’s deck. 

“There’s some one aboard,” he said.  “He never goes ashore.  How he lives there all alone is beyond me.” 

“Ship ahoy!” 

Eager for the News 

A patriarchal head appeared. 

“Got a paper? You have!  Bring it along; bring it along.  I haven’t seen a paper in a month.” 

A Jacob’s ladder was tossed over the side to make the ascent possible. 

Irving Garland, 57-7ear-old “Down-East” sailor, cook, carpenter and jack-of-all-trades, introduced himself.  He apologized for the inches-long growth of his hair, explaining that barbers rarely come out into the bay and he could not leave his ship. 

Why not? 

“Well you see, Capt. Alvin McClain died.  We were carrying lumber to Charleston.  I was cook.  We’d have a squally  night..  At 4 in the morning I made some coffee for the captain.  Then I heard the donkey engine start.  He was getting up the sails himself.  A little later out I went out and he was dead.  Heart failure. 

Shipped Body Home 

“He was 52. The Government examined him for foul play when we hit port.  You can’t bring dead bodies in promiscuously, you know.  Then we shipped the body  to his home in St. John’s, N.F.” 

What had this to do with leaving the ship? 

“Well, you see, McLain owned 38-64th of her: that is, six shares more than half interest.  His children decided to sell.  That was last Thanksgiving.  I agreed to stay aboard a few days until she was sold.  Here I am.  Shipping’s slow, you know.” 

Once a month or so, he said, a ship chandler’s boat brought provisions, including chewing tobacco.  He salted his own meat, used evaporated milk, had no need of ice.  

A man alone so long, bottles up talk.  Given a chance, it bubbles up forth explosively. So Irving Garland talked, eagerly and well. 

“No, I never went to school much,” he said it reply to a compliment on his clear English.  “You may have heard of my third cousin, Hamlin Garland, the writer.  I’ve read a lot.  Since I’ve been here I’ve read all the books in the ship’s library at least six times each. 

Longs for a Radio 

“Wish I had a radio sometimes. But I keep busy doing work about the ship.  If I didn’t I’d go crazy.  One advantage of the job, no one can tell me to work when I don’t want to.” 

“Fog’s a nuisance, though.  I have to keep ring our bell.  You know that since April 27 I’ve seen just one sunset.  Every other night it’s gone down in  a bank of clouds.  That’s exceptional; never seen it before in all my 41 years at sea.” 

On and on he talked. He told why farmers age more rapidly than sailors.  He described fights and fires at sea.  He related how he was on the schooner John C. Hildebrand, march 12, 1928, 40 miles southeast of Shinnecock Light when  the pump choked and the crew took to the boats and were rescued by a benevolent rum-runner. 

It came time to go.  Garland had one favor to ask, which was promptly granted. 

“I’m all alone in the world,” he said.  “Here’s a letter to my only friend, who lives in Ellsworth, Me., where I was born.  Will you mail it for me? I’ve been waiting weeks to get it ashore.” 



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