Marilyn E. Weigold on Bill Bleyer. Long Island and the Sea: A Maritime History. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019. 299 pp. ISBN: 1540238407. $21.99.
Bill Bleyer’s book is a riveting journey through centuries of Long Island’s maritime history. Billy Joel’s foreword and Bleyer’s introduction set the stage for an unprecedented exploration of topics, both familiar and new. The end result is a comprehensive volume that integrates various strands of the island’s maritime history into a seamless account.
Not unexpectedly, Bleyer begins with Native Americans and their fisheries, trading and travel. These Long Islanders definitely got around in their dugout canoes. They even operated a delivery service transporting correspondence for the Dutch and English. One enterprising native paddled between Manhattan and Long Island, even in winter, to make deliveries to his European clients. The story of the island’s Native Americans continues in “The Whalers,” a chapter that includes sections on every aspect of this important industry, including one on women who accompanied their captain husbands on whaling voyages. Bleyer’s comprehensive analysis of whaling, together with chapters on fishermen, shellfishing, maritime trade, and shipbuilding provide an excellent overview of activities which played an important role in Long Island’s economy.
During the nineteenth century Long Island’s shipwrights built all sorts of vessels. Bleyer begins his chapter on steamboats and ferries by introducing readers to the Nasau, a steam ferry linking Brooklyn and Manhattan. When the sturdy vessel made its debut on the East River in 1814, an exuberant newspaper reporter declared “this noble boat surpassed the expectations of the public in the rapidity of her movements. The trips across the East River took between five and twenty minutes depending on tide and weather.” The vessel’s inaugural voyage ended in tragedy, however, when the engineer of the company that owned the boat died after becoming entangled in the vessel’s machinery. Within a year of this tragedy, steamboats were plying the waters of Long Island Sound transporting passengers between New York and Connecticut. But this new mode of transportation was sometimes hazardous, as evidenced by the burning and sinking of the Lexington off Eaton’s Neck on a frigid January night in 1840 and the Thanksgiving Day 1846 fire that sealed the fate of the luxurious Atlantic which sank off Fishers Island. Bleyer provides detailed accounts of these tragedies before turning his attention to steamboats of varying sizes that transported people between New York and Long Island and ferries linking Long Island with the mainland
Returning to the subject of tragedies at sea, Bleyer devotes an entire chapter to shipwrecks. His portrayal of how large sailing vessels disappeared beneath the waters lapping the south shore of Long Island is masterful. Bleyer’s description of feminist author Margaret Fuller clinging to the mast of the Elizabeth before it sank off Fire Island in 1850 makes readers feel that they are eyewitnesses. Other poignant tales are recounted in the chapter on slave ships. Bleyer focuses on the Amistad whose captives were ultimately freed and the Wanderer. For slaves transported to Georgia on the Wanderer, a ship built on Long Island, after the U.S. had outlawed the importation of slaves, the transatlantic crossing was dismal. Of the five to six hundred slaves on board, seventy died on the voyage. The organizers of this venture were charged with slave trading and piracy but were acquitted by a Georgia jury. Two centuries earlier, Captain William Kidd did not fare as well. In a chapter on pirates, which is mostly devoted to Kidd, Bleyer provides a nicely detailed account of the life and execution of the colorful pirate.
Another colorful figure, Theodore Roosevelt, merits a chapter of his own which includes a wonderful picture of Roosevelt, oar in hand, standing in a rowboat on the shore of Sagamore Hill. The chapter features a delightful account of the nautical life at Oyster Bay. According to Roosevelt: “The Sound is always lovely. In the summer nights we watch it from the piazza and see the lights of the tall Fall River boats as they steam steadily by.” The days were filled with outdoor activities, presumably less strenuous than those usually associated with T.R. who took time out to watch “the sails of the coastal schoolers glimmering in the sunlight, and the tolling of the bell-buoy comes landward across the waters.” During his presidency, Roosevelt spent summers at Sagamore Hill where, in 1905, he staged a nautical welcome for Russian and Japanese diplomats on the presidential yacht Mayflower before they headed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where Roosevelt played an important role in negotiating a peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War, an achievement for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1906, while standing on the deck of the Mayflower in the Sound off Oyster Bay, Roosevelt reviewed the largest gathering of American warships up to that time and received a twenty-one gun salute from each of the forty-five U.S. Navy vessels.
The chapter on Theodore Roosevelt is the lead in to one on the first World War. Other conflicts, including the American Revolution, appear earlier in the book. Bleyer does not shortchange the reader when it comes to military history. His chapter on the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution is testimony to his thoroughness. The same can be said for his chapters on coastal defenses and developing technology. The latter highlights the fascinating story of inventor John P. Holland whose submarines were built in New Suffolk and is recognized as America’s first submarine base. A different sort of technology is the subject of the “Landing on Water” chapter which provides an interesting account of the first transatlantic passenger flight of Pan American Airways Boeing 314 Dixie Clipper flying boat which took off from Port Washington in 1939. The twenty-two passengers had to be well-off to afford the $375 one-way fare to France because, as Bleyer points out, this was the equivalent of more than $6,000 in today’s money.
Towards the end of his beautifully written book linking so many disparate aspects of Long Island’s relationship with the sea, Bleyer includes chapters on maritime colleges, Sea Tow International Services, a company that provides what Bleyer terms “roadside assistance on the water,” and a final chapter on maritime history preservation. There is also a section on notes containing citations for the author’s sources, as well as an extensive bibliography and index. The book contains numerous illustrations, mostly within chapters, and a colorful folio with stunning images of ships, artifacts and other things relevant to Long Island’s maritime history. Whether readers dip into the folio before tackling the text from beginning to end or select chapters on topics of special interest, this outstanding book is sure to captivate them.