On a brisk October morning the Hudson River near Waterford is shrouded in fog, whisps of white mist dancing on the still water. With only intermittent glimpse of orange and auburn along the shoreline, the quietude suggests an earlier time, before internet and iPod, before SUVs and hybrids. It could be the dawn of the 20th century, a time when steam propulsion was beginning to augment, and would soon replace, mule-power along New York’s canals. As the ghostly veil begins to lift, condos and cell towers emerge from their hiding places. Bayliners and Sea Rays pop into sight at floating docks along the shore. The 21st century comes into view and shatters the illusion, but for one glaring gap against an otherwise largely modern backdrop.
A maritime ghost town of sorts – with white clapboard shops, steel towers, leaning docks, and abandoned rail spurs – holds onto the mist a little longer. Like some industrial apparition, this place is from another time. Its presence here, along valuable waterfront in a heavily populated area, is impossible. Where a waterfront restaurant and high-end housing should be, some other thing has survived. A tale from the past, a song from yesterday, a place with a soul.
The tale begins in 1899. An enterprising boat builder by the name of John E. Matton opened a boat building and repair facility along the enlarged, mule-drawn Champlain Canal about three miles north of the Waterford side-cut. At the time, the ill-fated “$9 million improvement” of New York’s canals was on life support but still limping along against the backdrop of corruption and scandal in Albany. John E. Matton had no reason to expect that he would not be able to work out of his present location for years and years to come.
Just four years later, however, after Theodore Roosevelt had appointed a new commission to chart a future for New York’s canals, the Barge Canal Act was passed by the State Legislature and approved by New York voters. What would this mean for John E. Matton? That his facility would be utterly useless in a matter of years when the new Barge Canal was completed.
Matton set about searching for a new location for his business, and soon found what he was looking for a few hundred yards south of the Hudson-Mohawk confluence at Waterford. In 1916, the new facility opened in Cohoes, NY. It still stands today, remarkably intact.
Matton built a floating drydock at the site and from 1916 to 1966, he had the only floating drydock between Kingston and Buffalo. This no doubt contributed to the success, and longevity, of Matton Shipyard. Concurrent with ship repair, Matton continued building what are generally considered to be some of the finest wooden vessels ever built for the canal. In 1922, John’s son Ralph graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY and joined the company which became John E. Matton and Son.
In 1939, Ralph took exclusive control of the business, and began building steel tugboats and barges. That year, the first of what would become four John E. Matton(s) was launched. The last John E. Matton was launched as a “canaller” (built for New York’s inland waterways with a retractable wheelhouse) in 1964, and remains in service in New York Harbor today as the Thorton Brothers. She is the last intact, operational “canaller” built and operated by the Matton family.
The launching of the last John E. Matton was not 1964’s most significant event for the shipyard. That year, Ralph’s widow Margaret sold the business to Bart Turecamo of Oyster Bay, NY. With that, the rich family boatbuilding history of the Matton family came to an end, but the history of Matton Shipyard did not.
Turecamo continued Matton’s tradition of excellence, building tugboats, police boats, and barges until closing in 1983. Today, the eerie stillness of the Matton Shipyard belies the frenetic and industrious history of the site, while telling a story which is quintessentially New York. Now under the care and careful stewardship of the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), the shipyard is slated to begin a new life as an educational and interpretive center, as well as a home for historic vessels. Already, the New York State Museum’s Day Peckinpaugh has taken up residence, and work to stabilize and restore historic buildings at the site has begun.
In the spring of 2008, OPRHP hosted a forum with maritime history experts, museum curators, and government officials from around the northeast to contemplate Matton Shipyard’s potential and begin planning its future. As work continues, we look forward to the tremendous tourism, educational, and cultural asset the shipyard will be to the area for years to come.