Excursion barges “bedecked with flags, bunting and streamers” are boarded by crowds, often numbering in the thousands, on that portion of the outside north pier at Atlantic Basin which is closest to Hamilton Ferry “The sight is a most pleasing one to those who are not afflicted with misgivings and shiverings as they see the human lighters sink lower and lower in the water as the burden of human freight increases.” This is how The Standard Union described the beginning of the summer picnic season on June 18, 1892.
The barges were packed with people to their utmost capacity, reported the paper because the owners wanted to make as much money as possible and at the time the barges fell outside any government regulations because they had no motive power themselves, neither steam nor sails. It was for this same reason, decried the paper, that the excursion barges, described as ancient and rotten were not inspected. If they were, the paper assures the reader that the whole lot would be condemned.
Two different sized excursion barges might be sandwiched between one tugboat “the management and steering resulting is something wonderful to behold.”
In belittling language, The Standard Union paints for the reader what is says is a typical scene:
“Before they are fairly on in the river, the little German band is whooping it up in great style, and some of the more heavily-built gentlemen have cleared a space near the centre of the lower deck for the express purpose of 'me and me girl havin' a speel, see!'”
One should be wary of trusting any single source but one thing seems pretty clear: at the turn of the 19th century, thousands of regular folks saw being on the water as affordable entertainment and relief from the summer heat – and they came to Red Hook to find it.
As for the feared sinking of an overpacked excursion barge, The Red Hook WaterStories team knows of no instance connected to the Red Hook waters but unfortunately there was The General Slocum, a large steam powered passenger boat that caught fire and sank on June 15, 1904. Most of the passengers who lost their lives that day were from the German-American community on their annual summer outing. Ironically, launched in 1891, the General Slocum was the type of vessel The Standard Union, was advocating for instead of the barges in this 1892 article.
Complete text of article in The Standard Union, June 18, 1892
Again in Use for Careless Excursionists
THEIR CAPACITY IS, AS ALWAYS, UNLIMITED, AND THE LAW STILL ALLOWS
THEM TO PUT THOUSANDS OF LIVES IN DANGER - GOOD STEAMBOATS SOLD FOR DEBT, WHILE OLD
HULKS THAT ARE A DISGRACE TO THE HARBOR DO A THRIVING BUSINESS ON THE ECONOMICAL PLAN
The summer picnic season is just beginning to attain good proportions, and, as a result, those ancient barges, the sight of which is familiar to any one who uses the ferries across the East River daily, are being hauled out from the unknown seclusion where they have remained all winter, and are being pressed into service to accommodate the constantly increasing crowd of picnic-goers.
There was a movement last year to have this species of remodeled mud-scows inspected for the safety of passengers, and it was thought that this would drive them from the waters of the bay and sound completely, as the meanest inspector that could be engaged for the work ought to, and doubtless would, condemn the whole lot as being unfit for carrying human beings to the extent of any more than a dozen or so apiece. The barges have evidently not been inspected, however, by any properly authorized official, for they are afloat again, and are clogging the river traffic in the same old free and easy style as of yore. The only apparent difference between their manipulation this year and that of last summer, as well as previous summers. Is that the tugboats used for towing the ungainly hulks are In most instances attached directly to the excursion barges by cleats, whereas heretofore they have been towed by a line of sometimes hundreds of feet between the stern of the tugboat towing and the alleged bow of the barge, or barges, for sometimes more than one is towed at a time, as is the case with the more presentable and far less dangerous canal boats.
The reason why these picnic barges are never inspected by a Government official is that they are neither fitted with steam motive power nor have they sails. They are simply big lighters for human freight, and though crowded to their utmost capacity during the summer no one ever knows whether he or she will ever return when once embarked upon the short trips undertaken, usually up the Sound. All other classes of craft carrying people are inspected regularly and vigorously, but these, which need such an inspection the most in order that they might be condemned altogether and take a long-needed rest, have never as yet gone through that interesting formality.
Every winter these old hulks are taken to some out-of-the-way basin, and the woodwork is repainted and such minor repairs made as will make them presentable for another season's work. As to their ever being put upon a dry dock and having their bottoms scraped, cleaned and painted, such a thing is at least legendary and traditionary among even the oldest 'longshoremen here in Brooklyn. For all that any one knows, the bottoms of these craft may drop out at any time. Their age is, in meet instances, unknown. The firms that own them have, of course, kept account of the moneys expended in repairs, and by the dates along with the figures of expenditures we are assured that some of these venerable pieces of alleged marine architecture are nearly half a century old.
The reason of their existence in these latter days is, as in all such cases, simply one of economy. For instance, there is practically no limit to the number of people who can be and are crowded on board. Such an assemblage would never be allowed on a steamboat of twice the size of one of these barges, yet any one who had money enough to purchase a ticket with has never been refused a chance to go on a barge excursion. The proprietors know that they are practically outside the question of law and therefore endanger human lives with impunity.
There is another side to the question, and that is why people will allow themselves to be herded like cattle on any boat, and ordered around by employees who are commonly known in the fighting fraternity as "mugs." The only apparent explanation is that they have become more or less used to such treatment on the horse cars and elevated roads.
Any bright, sunny day, and sometimes on rainy days, when urgency demands, one or more of these hacks, bedecked with flags, bunting and streamers, are towed alongside of that portion of the outside north pier at Atlantic Basin which is closest to Hamilton Ferry, and the crowd, often numbering thousands, begins to flock on board. The sight is a most pleasing one to those who are not afflicted with misgivings and shiverings as they see the human lighters sink lower and lower in the water as the burden of human freight increases. Brooklyn's First Citizen has his office just where he can look out upon the happy and careless excursionists, and he is often seen at the window, but a few yards away from either boat or people, surveying the scene calmly and with an approving look at the old scows, as if in them he recognized tried friends of his youthful days. The little German band is present in all its primitive glory, and the alleged music produced is highly befitting to the occasion. The band always goes along with the scow. If there are two of the scows, or barges, the band is kept on board the larger, and those on the smaller boat hare to put up with harmonica variations, etc., for entertainment.
Here, also, when there are two barges, another pleasing feature comes in. The tugboat which is to do the towing business for the excursionists is sandwiched in between the two boats, and the management and steering resulting is something wonderful to behold, both before and after having "set sail.”
The sailing part of the affair is accomplished only after those in charge of the excursion feel sure that every one who has the price and desires to go is on board.
Before they are fairly on in the river, the little German band is whooping it up in great style, and some of the more heavily-built gentlemen have cleared a space near the centre of the lower deck for the express purpose of "me and me girl havin' a speel, see!"
Any one who does not see, or objects to being crowded to the rail, until he is almost as flat as a pancake, is immediately voted on as unpopular, for whatever the biggest man on board, or his set, says, goes. Sometimes there is a little trouble in finding out who is the most aggressive, and hence to be the most popular man on board, and this results in a scrimmage. Then the "mugs," who are supposed to preserve order and look after the safety of all on board pitch in and settle the matter by dispersing all hands to some other part of the boat. For there are other ports of the boat accessible aside from the main deck. There is another deck, and, in case of emergency, the excursionists are allowed to go out on top.
When all has become settled down to its proper order, there are usually three or four speeling parties going on in various parts of each barge, while those unable to dance or who cannot get a show to exercise their abilities in this line, if they have them, stand squeezed into the smallest possible space, and listen to the entrancing music of the little German band, or watch with interest the dignity attained by the excursion as a whole in having the numerous ferryboats make way for them, because they are going up the river instead of across it. The tugboats which constantly ply about the harbor in search of tows always avoid these excursion barges, too, when they are loaded with excursionists, as the captains of these staunchly-built little craft realize fully that, should they collide with the excursion barge, there would be imminent danger of sending her to the bottom with all on board.
The owners of the barges may fool the public to any extent they desire, but they cannot fool tugboat captains as a rule. This is so much the case that the tugboats towing the barges themselves are made liable for accident only when something happens which is purely and simply the outcome of negligence.
That nothing has been done towards having laws passed which shall make these rotten old craft subject to inspection is a matter of much surprise among shipping men.
An awful lesson was taught the public last year in the disaster on board one of these barges which caused the loss of several lives, and it was promised on the one hand that the barges In the future should be, looked after in better shape, and on the other that laws regulating their capacity and inspection for seaworthiness should be passed. Nothing has been done on the law end of the matter, and the barges are the same old barges that have disgraced the harbor for years.
As before stated, the only reason for the existence of these barges is their economy. They can be hired (to use the word chartered would be to disgrace that term) for less money even than a canalboat, and their capacity is unlimited, so that at the price of 25 cents, or on occasion, even more, for a trip to and including the joys of Plug Ugly Grove, up the Sound or on the Hudson, a small fortune can be and is realized from each trip. Numerous commodious, safe and well-fitted side-wheel steamboats have been sold this spring at auction for debt, because there has not been enough passenger traffic of the excursion kind to pay for their maintenance. Nevertheless, the rickety old excursion barge has a patronage as big as ever, and as to one of them ever being sold for debt — no sane vessel owner would ever think of buying one for legitimate purposes under any circumstances. It is pointed out that none of these barges are being built of late years, and that soon they will disappear altogether. The deluded people who argue this way are not aware, perhaps, that the barges are resuscitated each year, with an eye to having them do service for at least one more summer, and that the only way they will ever be gotten rid of is when they shall be condemned by law, or when they have sunk to the bottom somewhere up the Sound, and dragged down with them many hundreds of lives precious to as many homes in this city.
That they should be got rid of is evident to any one who has ever seen one of these ancient barges, and the only question is whether the people will do it while there is yet time before another calamity occurs.