At the Harbor

Fri, 05/19/2017 - 8:45am
The rain has stopped, and with hanging sheets on the line I think of my mother saying this was the time to spread white linens on new grass to brighten them. Then I realize I feel the strength of the spring sun on my face from an hour spent beside the water yesterday afternoon. 

The work on the Old Harbor is wrapping up, I was reminded, when I turned the Surf corner and saw dark sheets piled on the granite east wall across the basin. It was the padding that has topped the jetty, enabling the movement of heavy equipment over an uneven surface. They are a sort of composite, I think, crafted from materials such as old tires. 

They look like great slabs of whale skin, thick and dark, waiting to have their softer undersides scraped away and heated, turned into oil, back when New England ships owned the globe and their harvest lit the lamps of commerce on both sides of the North Atlantic.

The Coast Guard, I had heard, was here to re-install a light at the tip of the green jetty, so called for the emerald beacon once gracing its terminus.

The steady beam has been gone since Sandy, replaced by a blinker bobbing in the water. Old-time navigational aids have been replaced by electronics and lighthouses are listed as surplus property in the real estate section of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's publication; my hopes for the return of the tower waned.

When I went down to the Old Harbor Basin, the framework structure was in place, set on the cement pad at the end of the jetty; from the bait dock it took a while to realize the random attachments to the tower were workers climbing on it. 

More immediate, more visible, and, I have to admit, of more interest for it being a one-time event, was the removal of the great boiler that has been in the sand on the inside of the wall, north of the bait dock, for decades. 

It was salvaged, years ago, from the Lightburne, a Texaco tanker that met an unfortunate end, run aground off the Southeast Lighthouse in early February 1939.

The water out there is surprisingly shallow, and I recall pieces of the vessel  — or perhaps another meeting an untimely end in that same locale — being visible from the bluff.

My memory may or may not be correct, but the boiler seemed simply to appear in the Old Harbor, a hulking, rusty cylinder that, over time, sank into the sand surrounding it. Photographs from 1965, when the Interstate wharf was being built, and the parking lot created, show what could be the same boiler on the west shore, where there are now ramps and pavement. Perhaps it had been there for some time and had to be removed when construction began, perhaps it had only just been brought into the harbor. It is of no matter, either scenario supports local legend relayed to me only yesterday. 

It had been left by a salvager, which was a piece of the story I had always heard. I wrote it off to one of those cases of I'll-move-it-next-week, which turned to next month to next year, then to it's been there too long to budge. Someone enough older than I to have a clearer memory suggests it was abandoned when a long-gone Harbormaster wanted a cut in the scrap metal proceeds. 

Everyone involved is long dead and buried but, suffice it to say, the tale is not all that fantastical when one knows of the players.

I might have been as old as junior high when the boiler appeared by the east wall but the impression I had, which was never shaken, was of an empty tank which gradually filled with sand. That first, mistaken, overall impression was righted only yesterday.

There was no one around in the early afternoon, save the single operator maneuvering one of the the great CAT machines around the boiler, and I dared walk down the east dock, round the temporary fencing, past a sign of caution, and, finally, feeling especially bold, to the bait dock, from which I could easily watch the operation.

I saw firsthand how those big pads, strips of that heavy “whale skin” material chained together, were moved about, lifted and dropped, by huge metal talons, upon sand which had been pushed into place, creating better footing for the treaded machine.

The boiler had been coaxed out of its place deep in the beach, and was, at last, accessible. Parts of its sides had been ripped away in the dismantling that was the only way to remove something I later learned estimated by its size, materials, and cargo of sand, to weight 200,000 pounds. As the massive claw reached down and pulled, then pounded, and repeated until the metal gave way to tearing, the reverberations made their way up the pilings and to the dock planking under my feet. 

The innards of it had to be dismantled as well, pieces broken off and put aside in an ever-growing pile of scrap. At some point another operator arrived to run the second yellow machine, assisting the pushing and pulling, steadying and slamming, making progress slowly but steadily.

Even with chunks of the boiler gone and much of the sand shaken from its interior, it was beyond the strength of the long armed machine to lift it into the air. Still, it was not until a gentleman from Classic, the company working the breakwater, provided me the weight estimate, that I realized the sheer folly of my past, long-ago corrected, thinking a mere claw dredge might have accomplished this task. 

Oddly, I feel no sadness at the loss of the relic, a part of the harbor shore for so long people asked “what boiler?” Now, I wonder how many will even notice it is gone.