Showboats traveling up and down rivers such as the Mississippi and Ohio were very popular during the 19th century. People lined the riverbanks straining to get the first glimpse of the barge with a flat-roofed theater on top “comin’ round the bend.” When she docked, people gathered for a show that included singers, instrumentalists, acrobats, and plays. Showboats also traveled the Hudson River and throughout New York Harbor. One barge, the Lehigh Valley No. 79, continues to provide the history and entertainment of showboats that once populated the Hudson and other rivers. Her home port is Red Hook, Brooklyn, but this Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge will be part of the North River Historic Ship Festival at Hudson River Park Pier 25 in Lower Manhattan, June 20th to June 23rd.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad Barge No. 79 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1914, she is a completely restored wooden covered barge that is floating and open for visitors. Railroad barges played an important role in moving freight cars across waterways such as up or down river, or from one side of a harbor to the other. Destinations often were waterfront warehouses or another railroad that would take the cargo to a final destination. Lehigh Valley No. 79 worked in New York Harbor until approximately 1960 transporting cargo ranging from coffee beans to general merchandise. She, and thousands of barges like her, were no longer needed after the construction of more bridges and tunnels. She was abandoned until 1985, when she was purchased by David Sharps. The barge was sunk in the mud but worth saving. Sharps used his own extensive knowledge of barges, combined with ship historians and volunteers, to restore her. He serves as her captain and the president of the Board of Trustees.
In addition to being used as a showboat barge, she is a museum with programs about showboat history, New York’s waterfront, and the importance of barge traffic. Education programs for kindergarten through university level enhance classroom studies that range from guessing the color of the water to New York Harbor history.
Sunday, June 23rd, at Manhattan’s Hudson River Park Pier 25, children of all ages will have a chance to see the kind of circus, carnival, vaudevillian showboat performances that made these traveling shows famous. Show times are 1:00 and 4:00 pm. People who went in previous years remember a small stage on a table about three or four feet high. Above the stage was a sign that said “Flea Circus.” A black curtain was pulled across the stage with a smaller sign attached to it. It said, “Shhh! The fleas are sleeping.”
Written by: Cynthia Collins, Museum Correspondent