The Ark of Albany

Munsell’s Annals of Albany could keep an amateur historian busy until the end of time, running down all the interesting tidbits. For example, without Munsell, we would never have known that Albany once had an ark.

Apparently around 1830 or so, the companies that owned tow boats (probably steam boats by this time – Fulton and Livingston’s Clermont first plied the Hudson’s waters in 1807) that carried goods from the mouth of the Erie Canal to the ports of New York City decided that rather than storing freight with all the nearby warehouses that they didn’t own, they’d store it in something they did own, and they built a jumbo ark right in the Albany basin. This cleverly avoided wharfage fees, because Albany only collected fees in the basin from vessels that navigated the Hudson river. As you might well imagine, the people who owned warehouses on the wharves, where such goods would ordinarily have been stored, didn’t think highly of this new floating storage unit in their midst.

New York City merchants named Hart and Hoyt, to facilitate their business “caused to be constructed and built at an expense of more than $3,000, a float or ark about 120 feet in length and about 42 feet in width, with a covering or roof and convenient openings at the sides for receiving and discharging bales, casks, and merchandize [sic] of every description.” We learn from the “Cases in the Court of Errors” (December 1832) that the ark was moored in a part of the basin where sloops and other boats “never came or had occasion to come in the ordinary course of their business; so that the float, in its then and intended location, did not nor would constitute any obstruction to the free passage or any business transactions of the sloops or other craft or vessels engaged in the commerce of the Hudson river or the canals.” Further, by use of the ark, tow boats could more easily unload and canal boats could receive their cargoes three days sooner than otherwise.

Given that these were New Yorkers, and the owners of the wharves were among Albany’s leading citizens, it’s probably no surprise that the common council passed legislation, on July 25, 1831, that, while not specifically naming the ark, certainly didn’t apply to anything else:

“…the dock master of the city of Albany was required to fix a notice on any vessel, boat or float in the basin, not used in the navigation of the Hudson river or the canals, and the owner of which should not be a resident of said city, requiring its removal in ten days, and in case of its not being so removed, directing the dock master to remove and sell the same, or the materials of which it had been built, at public auction, and to pay the money arising from such sale, after deducting the expense of removal and sale to the chamberlain of the city for the use of the mayor, aldermen and commonalty thereof….”

On August 8, another law was passed, pretty much the same, which required that the ark be removed by August 22. In court, Hart and Hoyt said the ark could not be removed without being destroyed (“except during the period of a very high freshet in the river”), and that it was the intent of the council to destroy it to the irreparable injury of the merchants and “to the great and useless detriment of their business.”

Hart and Hoyt sued unsuccessfully for an injunction. Why the destruction didn’t take place doesn’t seem to have been explained. According to Munsell, in 1833 the council took the issue up again:

The common council determined by a vote of 10 to 8, to allow the Ark to remain in the basin. An effort had been made for some time to remove it as a violation of law and on the 1st July the board resolved that it should be removed, 8 to 7.

The Ark was an immense floating store-house constructed in the basin, between State street and Hamilton street bridges, capable of holding a large number of canal boat cargoes at one time. It was built by the Tow Boat companies to save storage on shore. When there were no river vessels on hand to receive freight from the canal it was deposited in the Ark until the tow boats arrived from below to take it in. The merchants and storers who hired warehouses on the wharves at high rents, complained loudly of this unfair interference with their legitimate business, and insisted on its removal. The defense was that it could not be taken out of the basin, there being at that time no outlet sufficiently large for the purpose. The Ark was finally broken up and taken away piece-meal.

But the Evening Journal reported that on July 25, 1833, a resolution granting permission for the ark passed by a vote of 14 to 5. Munsell’s “finally” must have meant “eventually,” because a treatise on the Albany Basin published in 1836 (author unknown, but published by T.G. Wait) refers to the ark as a continuing thorn in the side of the city, which the author charges as “greatly deficient in the plan and energy of execution” with regard to the Basin, whose various evils we have written of before. Perhaps more importantly, it was a thorn in the side of the owners of piers and docks.

“…shall the pier owners and some ten or twenty dock owners, shall a few of the fat and well-favored of this world, by political influence, be suffered to monopolize all the benefits of navigation for one mile in length, and that too, by an abuse of chartered rights? There appears to be but one thing which interferes with their exclusive claims in the basin, and that is, what is called by some “Noah’s Ark,” which has taken shelter in this consecrated spot, and has excited great indignation among the interested; and the principal objections brought against this harmless creature, is, that she carries too much freight, although she has never made a trip to any foreign port, has never been out of sight of land, yet she annoys her neighbors, not only because of the quantity of freight she carries, but because she stores and freights so much under price, and has incurred the ill will of her near neighbors to that degree, that the corporation have been induced to serve a writ of ejectment on her, ordering her to depart forthwith on pain of death and destruction; and this policy may be considered a fair specimen of the principle of equal rights, and of the true republicanism which prevails in Albany – the few by their political juggling, oppressing and trampling on the rights of the many.”

We have not yet learned exactly when the ark was finally removed from the basin.

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