It's Homecoming Day for the Lilac as Historic Ship Returns to Pier 25

Jerry Weinstein, with the Lilac Preservation Project, ties up the Lilac following its return to Pier 25 in Tribeca. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 29, 2022

Buffeted by heavy winds and choppy waters, the historic steamship Lilac returned by tow to its Pier 25 berth on Wednesday after a winter of repairs at a Staten Island shipyard. It was the vessel’s first time away from “home” in five years.

“We did it. We got it done!” Mary Habstritt, museum president and director of the Lilac Preservation Project, said the next day in a phone interview. “The towing company [Miller’s Launch] did a marvelous job of handling the ship in windy weather.”

The voyage from Staten Island was preceded by coordination challenges. A contract with the Hudson River Park Trust, the subject of renegotiations, needed to be finalized before the Lilac could return, Habstritt said. “There was a lot of back and forth for several months over pieces of it, and signed just in time.” In the meantime, the shipyard, Caddell’s Dry Dock and Repair, “had gotten really busy and was donating the berth to us. They could’ve had it occupied by a paying ship so I didn’t want to overstay our welcome.” Then there was the extra work of getting U.S. Coast Guard towing approvals, needed because the Lilac is not self powered. 

“It wasn’t like I was afraid it wouldn’t happen, but there is a lot of stress in making sure all the pieces fall into place,” Habstritt said. 

Some 10 volunteers performed most of the work at the shipyard.  One of the “amazing transformations,” Habstritt said, was the installation of a new deck for the room where the seamen and petty officers once ate. It also served as the top of the fuel tank beneath the floor. Years before the Lilac Preservation Project owned the boat, a leak in the roof of the wheelhouse had allowed water to run down through a wall of one room and into the crew mess, corroding the steel deck. Volunteers went to work lifting out plywood, removing steel and a built-in table and chiseling out concrete and rust before a new steel plate, with the help of shipyard welders, could be installed.

Launched in 1933 and decommissioned nearly 40 years later, the Coast Guard lighthouse tender maintained the navigational aids on the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. It was the Coast Guard’s last ship operating with piston-driven steam engines. The boat has been a feature of the Tribeca waterfront since 2011.

Since the pandemic, the Lilac has not been able to host regular tours and programming. Now it can, and Habstritt’s next task is planning for the summer. “We haven’t had a normal season for two years,” she said. “I have to remember how to do that.”