South Street Seaport Museum
I got the idea for my first novel, The Unicorn Tree, from maritime museums, historic house museums and 19th-century ships along the northeast coast. The book contains scenes of people waiting on the pier for ships to arrive or depart, descriptions of sail training and ship restoration, the Fourth of July celebration on the waterfront, and restaurants and shops with a nautical theme. These events were inspired by life at waterfront locations like South Street Seaport Museum in New York City.
The ships that make up the museum’s fleet take visitors back to the schooners, cargo ships, lightships, and tugs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sail training aboard the schooner Pioneer (1885) is available for qualifying museum volunteers and supervised by licensed captains. Public sails, charters, and educational sails for school children provide a New York Harbor view of maritime history and how that has changed over the centuries. Check the museum website for information about the sailing schedule.
In addition to the waterfront and ships, the museum has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Age of Sail and Port of New York history. At one time, clipper ships filled the harbor after weeks and months at sea, with cargo from ports throughout the world ready for unloading at South Street. Business transactions took place in the counting houses in the area. Items in the collection are available for viewing in the lobby of the museum's administrative building at Schermerhorn Row, a row of buildings built on land-filled water lots by Peter Schermerhorn in 1811.
Noble Maritime Collection at Sailors' Snug Harbor
Before the days of social security and other retirement programs, a sailor who became too ill or too old to continue his work at sea had to rely either on his savings or his family for support. Without that, he often had no means of income or medical care. Sailors' Snug Harbor on Staten Island was created as the first retirement home for sailors and opened in 1833. Its residence halls, hospital, chapel, laundry facilities, and other buildings made it self-sufficient.
This facility was the dream of a millionaire and sea captain, Robert Richard Randall, who envisioned a place where sailors could live and receive the care they needed without worrying about money. Capt. Randall died in 1801 and his will stipulated that his money would be used to build a "Marine Hospital, to be called 'Sailor's Snug Harbor' for the purpose of maintaining and supporting aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors."
The Noble Maritime Collection is a museum in one of the front five original buildings. Its exhibits tell the story of what life was like for the residents (called inmates) at Snug Harbor, their hobbies, concerts, rules, etc. Visitors can see a restored room that was typical for those who lived there, and enjoy a stroll around the grounds to watch the ships as the sailors did long ago.