“There isn’t a boy anywhere who wouldn’t envy the lot of the Plumb lads. Living in a houseboat is just like playing all the time to Franklin, who is fourteen, and to Ben, who is sixteen.” (The Pittsburgh Press, April 20, 1913)
Of the many strange times and locales one could imagine spending a childhood the Harlem River houseboat of brothers Ben and Frank Plumb holds a special place in the history of northern Manhattan.
In the early 1900’s the siblings and their parents, Arthur, the manager of a piano business, and Margaret, lived aboard a snug little vessel they called the Tortoise.
After paying an annual docking fee of ten dollars the Plumbs were able to go off the grid and avoid the steep rental costs incurred by their landlubber neighbors.
The Tortoise, which they kept anchored on the Harlem River off West 215th Street, cost the family $4,000 to build and outfit and was said to have been “a much finer home than the average high-priced apartment.”
“The kitchen is as large as those one finds in flats,” wrote a newspaper reporter after touring the Tortoise. “Across the hall from it is a storeroom. Then come the dining room, parlor, living and bedrooms. All of them are of as good size as the New York apartment dweller is accustomed to. They look larger, too, because every inch of space is economized. Wall tables and shelves and beds fold up. In fact, everything that takes up less room vertically than horizontally is made collapsible or on hinges. One reason for this is the increased comfort when the boat is on its voyage and unexpected guests have to be accommodated. Of course, the house part does not take up all the space, by any means. There is a good bit of deck left forward and aft and on the roof for open-air living.” (The New York Press, November 3, 1912)
The Plumb family lived on the craft year round, excepting summers when they rented the Tortoise out and used the extra income for their own far-flung vacations.
One might expect living on the river might have been unbearable in the winter, but the Plumbs claimed their boat was comfortable year-round.
“In the winter the rooms are heated by coal stoves,” the news account continued. “Oil heaters are used for the chill between-season days and nights. Oil is used, of course, for the anchor light that is run up at sunset, in accordance with maritime law. Ice is delivered on deck every day by the iceman, just as it is at the door of any New York home.” (The New York Press, November 3, 1912)
The family lived without electricity and collected their water from a nearby fire hydrant.
Live on the Harlem was not without certain shortcomings. Homeschooling on the riverfront became an impossible task for Mrs. Plumb.
“There is continual life and variety in the water traffic, so much so that the Plumbs had to abandon the idea of having a private tutor for their children aboard the boat,” the newspaper scribe explained. “There was so much doing on the river that the youngsters could not pin their minds down to study and recitations. Therefore, they have to go to school ashore, like other children.”
The siblings likely attended Public School 52 on Academy Street and Broadway.
Surprisingly the Plumb brothers weren’t the only kids to grow up on this stretch of the Harlem River. Brothers Addison and Royal Rothermel lived on a similar vessel not too far south from the good ship Tortoise.
Life, a century ago, was mighty swell for the Plumb’s as they lived out their life aquatic.
“And only think,” wrote a reporter, “they can move at their own sweet will. No bothersome leases. No need to stick around if the scenery gets monotonous. Just up anchor and away behind a tow to the grassy bank of a wooded hillside.” (The Pittsburgh Press, April 20, 1913)
For a Cold War Harlem River sequel to this wonderful article, see my essay entitled “A Cold War Atlantis” at
In 1948 my friend Patricia was in the 5th grade with me in Good Shepherd. Patricia lived in a houseboat on the Harlem River with her Mother and Aunt. I loved going there it was the coolest place a 10 year old could imagine. Patricia went on the Ted Mack show and sang Galway Bay. Can’t remember if she won but I thought win or lose how lucky was she to live in the little houseboat on the Harlem River.