Maritime Festival: When There’s Fire on the Water

The Fire Fighter.
Charles Ritchie, above, in the engine room of America’s first fireboat. Rachel Bosworth photos

By Rachel Bosworth

On the outskirts of Greenport, hidden behind the North Ferry’s pilings, Long Island Railroad, and East End Seaport Museum, is a dock often used by fishing and party boats. In a village teeming with maritime history, which is celebrated every September, the dock is also home to a moveable, floating National Historic Landmark – America’s first fireboat. Now a nonprofit museum operated by dedicated and passionate volunteers, the fireboat is preparing to celebrate another birthday in Greenport just in time for the Maritime Festival.

Designed by famed naval architect William Francis Gibbs, who later went on to build the world’s fastest ocean liner, USS United States, the 134,000-foot long fireboat is called Fire Fighter. The name is simple yet profound as the vessel served New York’s harbors for seven decades since its construction in 1938. President and museum director of the Fireboat Fire Fighter Museum, Charles Ritchie, credits Gibbs’ involvement and notoriety for the boat being deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

The Fire Fighter.

“It was the most powerful fireboat in the world for years,” Ritchie says as he shows old photographs from Fire Fighter taken on Brooklyn and New York City piers, with oil refineries and chemical plants at the heart of massive fires and explosions. “It was really gutsy stuff these guys were going into.”

The museum is working to restore the boat to its original form in appearances as much as possible, said Ritchie. The first major transformation came when the boat was taken out of the water to be repainted from red to its 1938 black and white, thanks to grants received last year. While some things like the brass fittings may not be able to be replaced, every effort will be made.

“The whole idea is to get things operational so it’s safe, but also bring it back to where it was and do whatever it takes,” Ritchie explains. “If we can’t find it, we’ll reproduce it as close as we can.”

While explaining the boat’s history, as he often does during free daily tours, Ritchie points out Henry Wassmer working in the engine room. “A guy like Henry would be here,” he says, pointing to the back of the boat where there are many moving parts, flips, switches and more, which were crucial to know and master in the event of a major fire. It’s also the first diesel-electric boat in the world. “They would telegraph back and forth from the control room to the wheelhouse what they wanted to do.”

Wassmer was Fire Fighter’s chief engineer for 17 years while the boat was still in action, and now serves as the museum’s chief historian. Ritchie got involved while working on another historic boat in New York City when it was suggested that he acquire Fire Fighter and make it into a museum. He then formed a nonprofit, and the fire department donated the boat. “It’s kind of like getting Governor’s Island for a dollar,” Ritchie laughs. “Now you have a lot of expenses and work to do.” As of 2013, the decommissioned fireboat has been docked in Greenport.

With a background in youth development, Ritchie’s goals are to increase programming and volunteer membership. Totally driven by donations, the museum relies on public support as well as grants to keep the restoration going. His passion for the work is evident as he describes the vessel’s former glory, and everything he hopes to bring to the boat and museum in the future.

The East End Seaport Museum’s annual Maritime Festival begins Friday, September 22. That Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Fire Fighter will be part of an antique fire truck display with the new Long Island chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America. Antique trucks will line the dock and the area behind the East End Seaport Museum as a joint fundraising effort for the organizations. Immediately following, Fire Fighter will go out into Greenport Harbor for a water display celebrating her nearly 80-year history.