Inwood’s Forgotten Houseboat Colonies

by Cole Thompson

Boats moored in Inwood Hill basin, 1935

During the 1920’s and 30’s an intrepid group of amphibious New Yorkers thumbed their noses at urban living, and high city rents, and took to dwelling in houseboat colonies along the perimeter of the Island of Manhattan.

Two of those colonies, consisting of a ragtag group of artists, electricians and even police officers, were right here in Inwood. One was located on the shore of the Harlem River near 207th Street, while the other was in a boat basin once located at the foot of Inwood Hill along the Spuyten Duyvil.

Like today, there was an east versus west of Broadway debate concerning who had the better digs. House-boaters east of Broadway, along the Harlem River, insisted they had better boats, hook-ups to electricity, city water and other public works as well as easy access to the local shopping district. Conversely, the Inwood Hill homesteaders, who lacked all modern amenities, including gas, water and electricity, considered their plot of shore, shaded by the famous Inwood Tulip, not far from the Inwood Pottery Works, to be the most tranquil and awe inspiring location in all of Manhattan.

Inwood Hill Boat Basin, 1935.

While some of the houseboats in both colonies were no longer seaworthy, their owners having long forsaken aquatic adventures, most were active sailing vessels whose owners lived for the summer months and life on the water. According to a May 24, 1923 account, published in the New York Evening Post which focused primarily on the Inwood Hill colony: “They seem to know that it will not be long before they will be able to forget the boredom of winter and slip away through Spuyten Duyvil into the broad Hudson, or down the Harlem for any one of a thousand places.

The land-bound houseboats, the half-and-halfs, and the floating ones are all alike, though, in feeling the meaning of the spring season. Most of them have already had fresh coats of paint; some are getting theirs now. They look as new as if they had never seen another spring, trim and neat as some old-time sailing craft just from the dry-dock and ready for her owner-master to sail her away across the seas.

Even if the houseboats do wander around five or six months out of the year they are more closely related to the house branch of their family tree than to the boat,” the article continued. Many had gardens, dogs and cats, and access to the old Cold Spring, a reliable source of pure ice cold water that once quenched the thirst of Lenape Indians who previously inhabited the region.

Of course there are other houseboat colonies around Manhattan. There is a large one down the Harlem only a little way from Inwood with handsomer boats, perhaps, or more pretentious ones that are to be seen along the little cove, but what they lack is Inwood, a perfect background, majestic and colorful.

What follows is a description of both Inwood houseboat colonies as seen through the eyes of Eleanor Booth Simmons, who, time and time again, turned her reporting to an Inwood that now exists in all but a few fading memories.

 

The Evening Post
July 10, 1920
By Eleanor Booth Simmons

The Evening Post, July 10, 1920

 

It was a king of ancient times, wasn’t it, who could be healed grievous illness from which he suffered only by wearing the shirt of an absolutely happy man? And when his courtiers had scoured the land and found the happy man, he had no shirt. Well, I have seen a happy man, right here in Manhattan, and he had a shirt. He was wearing no collar when I met him, but that was merely because he didn’t want to be bothered. He pointed out that this was one reason he was happier than a millionaire; the millionaire had to “dress tight,” as he expressed it, while he could be loose and of comfortable attire.

Houseboat in Harlem River at 204th Street, 1925.

A happy man, you will say incredulously, here in Manhattan with the housing problem to contend with? That is the point. He has no housing problem. He beats the landlord by living all the year round in a houseboat, for the privilege of mooring which on the Harlem River he pays the city $60 a year.

And he has a garden to boot, stretching up the shore back of his boat, in which he raises all the vegetables consumed by his family of a wife and three sons and himself. There is food for the spirit here, too: and my happy man, albeit a cabinet-maker employed in a shop near his boat, has poetry in his soul. He was a seaman before he became a cabinet-maker, and absorbed something of the mystery of the deep.

“There’s nothing so secret as the sea in its ways,” he told me, “but nothing that will talk to you like the sea when you know it. The water talks to me at night when the comes up the Harlem, and this houseboat, that rests on land at low tide, rises and floats with the waves all around it. It has a pontoon bottom and floats like a steamship. It’s mighty pretty then, sitting here on the front deck like, and looking at the lights across the Harlem. Some folks may be coming along that bridge and looking down here will say, ‘What a poor little place!’ but I wouldn’t change with the happiest of them. I wouldn’t.”

Policemen Colony Members

His is not the only houseboat in this little sheltered nook on the Harlem, at 207th Street east of Tenth Avenue. At least fourteen of them are moored there, each with its little garden of flowers and vegetables , and each is occupied winter and summer. They have city water, gas and electricity, and their snug little coal-houses filled against the winter. My happy man assured me that there was never the shadow of trouble among them.

“There’s a policeman living in the boat next to mine,” he said, “and a police inspector in one of the others. But we never need ‘em though,” he added magnanimously; “we’re all good friends with ‘em.”

Houseboat Colony by 208th Street & Harlem River, 1933.

This is one of two houseboat colonies to be reached by 207th Street. The other may be termed the colony de luxe, for the boats are handsomer, there are some artists and such among the occupants, and the surroundings—the winding inlet of the old Spuyten Duyvil, and the vista of the Ship Canal in front, and the background of climbing cliffs hidden in splendid oaks and tulip trees—are as beautiful as could well be imagined. On the other hand, it is further away from the conveniences, and the house-boaters have to depend on kerosene for lighting or generate their own electricity. But they have the most delicious water in the world, cold and clear, from the springs that are everywhere in the cliffs above.

Finding the Happy Man

It was a hot, breathless Sunday when I started out in search of the houseboat colonies. From the Dyckman Street station of the Seventh Avenue subway I wandered north a little way, and found myself in a yard filled with Street Cleaning Department wagons, where two dogs with their foreheads wrinkled with responsibility to the city government made invidious remarks about me, and a good-natured man with a cat on his knees told me to keep on the right around the end of the bridge that spans the Harlem River at this point, and I’d find the houseboats. I did so, and there, looking at his corn and potatoes, with his wife and some visitors from downtown, was my happy man.

Further along the row of boats was Mr. Callahan, another old resident, who was cultivating the geraniums in his brilliant flowerbeds. In front of the boats the reeds, which at high tide are quite covered, waved in the slow breeze. There was a good smell of salt water and fish in the air. The inhabitants can cast their lines from their front porches and catch perch and other small fish, and clams are plentiful. Across the winding Harlem, a little way to the south, rose the buildings of New York University and the Hall of Fame, and all the opposite shore was beautiful with trees and stately red brick institutional buildings.

Harlem River at Dyckman Street, 1937.

The happy man showed me through his houseboat and pointed out the various conveniences. The front room, opening off the porch, was a fair-sized sitting and dining room. Back of this were comfortable bedrooms, which were large enough to hold big beds and bureaus and so on and there was a bathroom with a good tub. A furnace heats the place in the winter, and I was told that even in the coldest weather it was snug as could be.

No More Houseboats Welcome

Its present owner paid $2,000 for this boat several years ago. Now, of course, it is worth more. They say there’s a long waiting list of people anxious to buy into the colony, but it’s a restricted suburb. The residents are determined not to be crowded, and they say there is no more room for any more boats. However, a couple of new boats are being built there now. It is the Dock Department to which one must apply for a permit to enter the colony, but, according to my happy man, he and his neighbors are dead set against anyone else coming in.

Inwood Park boat basin, 1920's.

To reach the houseboats that lie below the Ship Canal I walked along 207th Street, across Broadway, to Seaman Avenue, followed the winding road up the hill and found four or five people working away around a little old house half hidden in the woods, carpentering and beating cushions, and a lady in a cretonne artist’s apron, Mrs. Alma (sic) Voorhees, came to answer my questions about where the houseboats were.

May Waldis in center

An active brown curly dog welcomed me at the first one, the Roanoke II, and its mistress, Mrs. May Waldis, who is a swimmer of note and has no end of cups and medals won in diving and swimming contests at Sheepshead Bay and the Sportsman’s Shows, and so on, took me inside and told me proudly how her husband had built every bit of the boat—and he is not a builder by trade, but an electrician. It is quite a palace of a boat, all brown and white outside, with Colonial-looking pillars, which are really water tanks.

Inside the walls are prettily paneled and the living room, the bedrooms and the kitchen and bathroom are as perfectly fitted up and as roomy as a nice apartment. And everywhere outside is the lapping water, and when Mrs. Waldis feels like a swim she can just dive of her front porch. Yet the Waldises are willing to sell this boat because Mr. Waldis, who is Virginia born, longs for the South again. Mrs. Waldis isn’t keen about parting with the snug little craft her husband built, but she is resigned. There is another fine houseboat there for sale—the “June”—for the owners, who are Swedes, want to go back to the old country.

Boats moored in Spuyten Duyvil Creek in Inwood Park, 1935.

 

Interested in reading more on life inside Inwood’s former houseboat colonies? Click here to read the story of Bill Isecke’s strange childhood growing up on the Harlem River near 207th Street during the late 1940s and mid-1950s – on a derelict cabin cruiser, berthed in a forgotten boatyard.  This incredible oral history was collected by New York Wanderer Ben Feldman.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim April 5, 2011 at 11:02 am

Remember the Con ED plant at Dyckman Street on the Harlem, in the nook was Houseboats with an old lady with a Parrot. That was the fifties, a long time ago.

Doug Miller April 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I remember being in PS 98 and one of the students lived in probably the last of the house boats north of the 207th st bridge. This was between 1950 and 1957. Thank for the memories.

Rosanna July 11, 2011 at 12:13 am

The Sherman Creek boat basin at the foot of Dyckman Street was still in use even until the 1960′s. I and my siblings lived on our father’s boat there until 1959. The boatyard as we called it was ran by a fellow named Al (Evald) and although the place was run down we had more adventures there than you could imagine. I would love to know if anyone has photos of the houses that clung to the shore along the Harlem River Drive just south of Dyckman Street.

Jack Flynn July 30, 2011 at 7:39 pm

My parents lived in one of the house boats for several years during and after World War II. My brother Charlie and I spent the early years of our lives living there. My mother hated living the lonely and frightening life of a shift worker’s wife. So she lobbied hard and we moved to Sherman Avenue around 1947. We were getting civilized.
My dad kept the place as his sometime rental property and then as his get away shack for many years,
The house boat was down the Speedway from Dyckman Street close to the ornate sea wall. Anyone with pictures of those houses to share would be much appreciated.
It was located right where the new Swindler’s Cove boathouse is located, and I want to thank Bett Middler for building a nice monument to my birthplace suitable to my station in life ;-)

Monroe Pastermack August 24, 2011 at 10:15 pm

I grew up in Inwood. Born in 1935, I live first on Park Terrace West and then on 211th street. I attended PS 98, PS 52 and went off to the Bronx to attend Theodore Roosevelt HS. I wanted to study German and they did not teach that at George Washington. i
I have the photo of my graduating class from PS 52 and, while I cannot recall her name, I do recall the classmate who lived in of of the houseboats N, of the 207th street bridge.
I moved away from NYC in October 1951.
At the corner of 211th and Isham streets was a magazine/smoke shop run by the Wolf/Gherson familes. It had a great selection of penny candy.
On the corner of 207th and Vermilyea was a ice cream fountain store that made great Egg Creams, and cherry soda (Cherry smash)

Mariette Bates January 23, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I lived at the Sherman Creek Boat Basin from 1974-1979, on a 52-foot schooner, with Larry Gardner. My neighbors Hugo Edwards and Horace Hill, also had boats nearby; we had a neighbor named Chino and there were other ‘regulars’ too. I was the only woman there, which meant I cooked a LOT! I remember that the river was just starting to get cleaned up but there were occasional herons and sometimes raccoons too! And our cat, Kitty, used to bring us mice regularly.

There were about 5 or 6 of us that lived aboard – the manager of the boat basin was Al, who was originally from Estonia and who used to haul boats and keep order.

Pat Farrell March 14, 2012 at 12:04 am

There was a girl in my 5th grade class in Good Shepherd named Patricia. She lived in one of the houseboats under the 207th St bridge. I loved going there it was like nothing I had ever seen. Growing up in Inwood in the 40′s and 50′s was truly the end of a wonderful era .

Steve March 22, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I never lived anywhere near any of the boat basins but I find the photos and memories facinating. Thanks for sharing your memories of what sounds like a wonderful and memorable era.

Larry March 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Back in the 1980′s I used to sometimes walk down to my job which was near the Port Authority Bus terminal on west 4oth Street from Dyckman Street. I’d crawl in by the fence by the boat yard by Dyckman and walk south along the Hudson. The stretch between Dyckman to south of the GW Bridge was deserted. You’d never know you were in Manhattan. I don’t think I ever saw anyone else in there. The river used to be very active with boating clubs. Just south of Dyckman I remember old canoes with Gaelic writing on them. There was also a big wooden house, marked canoe club i think. It burned down shortly thereafter, also in the 1980′s. I used to know an Inwood Park “hermit”. His name was Sebast. He slept in the indian caves. He was the only other person I knew of who ever went down that way. He said that in the summer he used to blow up his inflatable cloak, and get in the river by Inwood Hill Park and float down river to the bridge. There were various public facilities down by the bridge, all overgrown and long abandoned. Under the Palisades, on the opposite side of the big river, there were abandoned places like that too. And on islands off the coast of NYC too. I used to canoe out to them, but my canoe didn’t have Gaelic writing on it.

Larry March 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Edit – correction:

“And on islands off the coast of NYC too”

Should say, “And on islands off the coast of the Bronx and Westchester too*

Jeanne March 25, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Pat Farrell are you referring to Patricia Muse from Good Shepherd if so she is my cousin and her and my mom lived in the houseboats on 207th Street in the 40′s.

Chick Donohue April 4, 2012 at 6:00 pm

There were a number of what we called boat houses along the hudson south of dykman street. Most were torn down by the city during the late 50s or early 60s. There was one which was left alone. I believe it was the inwood canoe club and the reason they said was because some of the members of the club were rowers in the olympics in 1956 and 1960. It would be nice if some one could confirm this. I believe the names were Wilson and Listl.

Ken Dartley April 27, 2012 at 11:04 am

I grew up in Inwood from 1933 till 1950 Went to PS98–Then 52 Then to GW High . We lived on Seaman Ave then moved to Sherman Ave.
Great experience growing up and exploring Inwood Hill Park and watching the building of the second deck of the H H bridge.
There was and still may be a great little beach between the H.H Bridge and the railroad bridge that took some doing to get to but was fantastic. My Dad owned the Hardware store on Broadway just down from the Capitol Diner.
I worked at Shillingham’s Ice Cream Parlor on Dyckman St and then at Sheslows hardware on Dyckman. My Mom was a seamstress at Richmans Dress Ready To Wear.

Jeanne June 20, 2013 at 8:09 am

My grandparents and family lived in the boathouses on 207th back in the 40′s and 50′s then moved to 215th down passed the sanitation on the water there. Their name was Broderick.

jmilani March 12, 2014 at 11:41 pm

Does anyone recall the De Georges Boathouse

Jim May 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm

I lived in Inwood (Thayer St) in the 50s. I never saw any houseboats down the Speedway but did see at low tide the hulks of boats half covered in the mud.

Tracy August 25, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Does anyone know of a boat house that had Interstate written on the front. My grandparents use to go to this canoeing all the time and I don’t know where it was located.
Thanks for any leads!
Tracy

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