Tappan Zee Bridge History: Washington Irving Boat Club Still Going Strong 60 Years Later

This active club celebrated an anniversary July 4 and began in the Quonset hut used by those who built the Tappan Zee Bridge.

looking outWhen the sun begins to set, the view from the Washington Irving Boat Club can take your breath away with its unobstructed view of the river and bridge, where President Obama and Governor Cuomo addressed Tarrytown and the nation last year.

Saturday before Memorial Day found Fleet Master Walter Gregory and several members moving boats via the Travel Lift into vacant slips (the club has 85 to 90 docked boats).

“We’re proud of the work that members put into developing the club and maintaining it,” Gregory said, securing a boat. WIBC property includes the boatyard, the outside patio, the restaurant bar, the Tiki bar, and the grounds.

front awningNote: WIBC formerly managed the restaurant and later leased it to the Maceyak family, which opened Windows on the Hudson. When the family opened another restaurant, WIBC remodeled the kitchen and interior. It changed ownership and became Sunset Cove, which has an extensive menu, a birds-eye view of the bridge and sunsets, and a public dining room.

At opening day ceremonies last month Jacques Vieweg, Vice Commodore of Administration/Treasurer, introducing the 2015 officers — Ken Fiala, Commodore; Thomas Murphy, Vice Commodore of Operations; himself; Dann Soldan, Secretary; Raymond Fagan, Sgt. of Arms; and Gregory — and recognized new members.

photo4Vieweg thanked the members for maintaining the club and emphasized safe boating amid the bridge construction. Past secretary Mike Smacchia (1970-1992) was recognized for his contributions (including documenting the club’s history), after which club flags were hoisted and the canon was fired twice.

Flashback to 1951, when four men — Joe Reis, Dominick Cerbone, Andrew Nemeth, Mike Kooney and Toby Mosiello — who liked boating got together. Twenty-five men came to that first meeting, elected officers and set a $5 initiation fee. Dues were 50 cents for eight months (boating season).

The only available place along the river was a basin next to and south of the Tarrytown Boat Club where the village dumped refuse during its bi-annual cleanups. Undaunted, the members cleaned up the area and kept each boat tied to a stake in the water.

“Members used to row out to boats in the 50s and 60s,” Soldan said. WIBC had 50 members by the end of its first season. New officers were elected the next season, and members kept improving the area. Things changed when the Tappan Zee Bridge opened on December 15, 1955.

Tarrytown Harbormaster Kevin Lustyik remembered when the bridge was built. “They completed it in two and one-half-years,” he said. “There were no restrictions on noise back then, and they did pile driving day and night.”

moving buildngLustyik pointed to a collage of pictures on the clubhouse wall. “See that building in the background?” he asked, referring to the Little Red Schoolhouse purchased from the Tarrytown School Board more than 25 years ago. “That’s the Pierson School at Broadway” and Hamilton. “The building was on its lawn and had to be taken away in sections.”

Merritt-Chapman (formerly Merritt-Chapman, Inc. and Corbetta) — Merritt-Chapman & Scott was prime foundation contractor, and Corbetta was concrete subcontractor) — put up a Quonset hut as its headquarters and staging area on the last bit of riverfront land. Construction crews made a 40’ x 40’ concrete slab created next to and west of the hut for welding parts and built five docks along the southern shoreline.

Note: American Bridge Company (a division of U.S. Steel Company) and Bethlehem Steel won the state’s bid to furnish and build structural steel for the bridge’s superstructure and the tied-arch section and was the prime contractor.

hutA written agreement with Tarrytown required the bridge builders to dismantle and remove the Quonset hut, break up and cart away the concrete slab and remove the docks when the bridge was completed.

Club officers had another idea and met with the Tarrytown Waterfront Commission, which agreed to turn over the lease. Its 75 members committed to work 20 hours each season to tend the grounds for village residents.

Now they had a basin for mooring boats and a clubhouse for meeting per a one-year renewable lease for a maximum of 225 members.
The Quonset hut needed heat, electricity and running water, weatherproofing and insulation, and later, indirect heat and a small kitchen, a bathroom and a breakwater to protect it from storms.

“Members put all of these in a little at a time,” Gregory said as we walked through the clubhouse. “It was all volunteer back then, like it is today. Members are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, all professions.

Nearly five years later (September 1960) Hurricane Donna seriously damaged yet did not destroy WIBC’s $17,000, 300’ bulkhead.

todayNote: Hurricane Donna wasn’t the last storm to impact WIBC. Hurricane Sandy (2012) necessitated new carpeting in the main bar and restaurant, and Quonset Hut, Commodore Ken Fiala told The Hudson Independent that year. “We felt very lucky that there wasn’t any permanent damage to the buildings,” he said.

By 1963 they’d built and installed floats and finger floats for mooring boats. During the years the five docks were reinforced with donated concrete from Cooney Bros., Inc., and the launch ramp and area next to the docks were laid with asphalt. Members planted a lawn and flowers around the buildings and added a chain-link fence.

“Literally thousands of hours of personal work time were put in by members each according to his own skill,” Smacchia wrote. WIBC was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1956. Fast forward to 1979, when members wanted a new clubhouse and decided to buy the Little Red Schoolhouse from the Tarrytown School Board. Former Commodore John O. Speight detailed the events, perhaps with a grin.

“We agreed that we would make an offer of $1500 and agree to disconnect all services and redo the grounds,” Speight wrote. “We attended the School Board meeting. At this meeting, the Fire Dept. was also there looking to make a bid. They didn’t, as they thought I said $15,000 instead of $1500.”

schoolhouseMembers tried to move the three separate sections that day (April 13, 1979), and finally succeeded after jacking up each section at a time, sliding the trailer under it, and lowering each section onto the trailer.

“Untold hours of work,” Soldan said about the sections. “They brought it down (here), and then they had to erect it onto a foundation.”

In 102-degree weather members volunteered to lay the schoolhouse’s foundation. Because of the brutal heat, they jumped into the basin, violating a club rule that exists today, celebrating more than 6,000 hours of work. WIBC’s Grand Opening was July 4 (1981).

To this day, Gregory said, “We have strict rules, including no swimming in the basin.”

While the river scenery changes, WIBC remains a professional marina with a friendly, small-club atmosphere and a calendar of activities. For information, call 914-332-0517 or email info@wiboatclub.com.

My article originally appeared in The Hudson Independent July 2015.

Copyright © Janie Rosman and Kaleidoscope Eyes 2015

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