Today’s New York adventure takes place at one of its favourite, and most nostalgic, vacation destinations: Coney Island. Home to one of the world’s oldest ferris wheels, a hundred year old roller coaster, and the famous Nathan’s deli, serving hotdogs since 1916. But twenty minutes walk away behind the famous Boardwalk is Coney Island Creek, a largely forgotten backwater. Until the bridges and landfill turned Coney Island into a peninsular, it was once cut off entirely from Brooklyn; back then Coney was truly an island. Today however, the Creek is rarely visited, home to salvage yards, auto repair shops, and a waste recycling plant. A far cry from the thrills of the nearby fun fair and beaches, it is also home to the most captivating of abandoned delights– a ship graveyard…
Even more thrilling, in the midst of the decaying shipwrecks, is a mysterious, forgotten submarine, that was once at the centre of a doomed expedition to search for treasure on the sunken Andrea Doria!
I went to explore little visited Coney Island Creek in the dead of winter. Like most seaside towns, Coney Island has a desolate air in the close season. The rides are shutdown, the streets and Boardwalk mostly deserted.
But with a record setting Arctic frost covering the north east this winter, it also meant that the little Creek was frozen over. Perfect conditions to walk amongst the rotting timbers and rusting hulls of the shipwrecks left in the creek.
There are about two dozen shipwrecks in the creek, but no-one knows when they arrived, or where they came from. In the 1950s, many were still afloat. “We used to play on them”, recalled Charles Denson, author of “Coney Island Lost and Found”.
It is thought some were old whaling ships, ancient US Navy vessels, or forsaken barges, which were scuttled and left to rot. Over a decade ago, the New York Times went to explore the ship graveyard. They found, “the ribs of ships emerged from the shallows like bones.”
Today, the Creek looks much the same. Rusted iron, rotting timbers and frayed ropes are preserved in the frozen ice.
Ten years ago, the Times found a member of a local yacht club, then aged 87. Armando Gargiulo recalled how, “the creek was a wild place, a rum runner’s haven, and a dumping ground for everything from bodies to old cars. There was a time when a Chinese junk sailed into the Creek. Some where left in the shallows to rot, others were burned to their waterlines.”
Walking over the ice, amongst the ruins of these old ships, there is one that stands out; mostly because it is painted yellow, and looks a lot like a submarine.
For years, rumours surrounded the mysterious submarine wrecked and marooned in Coney Island Creek. Some thought it dated back to the Civil War and the era of the first submarines, such as the Monitor, built in the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yards. With its futuristic looking hull, it could well have sprung from the pages of Jules Verne.
In reality, the story of the submarine is every bit as fantastic as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In 1956, the Italian ocean liner, the SS Andrea Doria, sunk off the coast of Massachusetts. She had collided with the Swedish MS Stockholm, carrying to the bottom of the ocean 52 souls, as well as a supposed treasure of a million dollars.
Brooklyn shipyard worker Jerry Bianco planned to build a miniature submarine from the scrap metal yards along Coney Island Creek, and dive for the wreck. Denson recalled the bright yellow submarine, painted not in homage to the Beatles, but because Bianco snapped up a good deal on cheap, yellow chromium paint. “It was a honeycomb of steel”, explains Denson. “It was an incredible work of art”.
Bianco christened his submarine the Quester I, and she was launched with high hopes in 1970, with the traditional bottle of champagne. Unfortunately, the Quester immediately tilted sideways, and got stuck in the Creek. According to newspaper reports, the submarine was eventually righted, but a storm later in 1970, saw the ill-fated submarine break its moorings. The Quester once more stuck in the Creek, largely in the position it still holds today. Half submerged, with its conning tower and upper half of the hull visible, the stricken submarine lists into the water, as though preparing for one last dive into the ocean.
The far end of Coney Island Creek was made into a public park, largely with land fill from the nearby Verazanno-Narrows bridge construction. Birds and other wildlife teem in the Creek, nesting in the forgotten ruins of the ship graveyard. And on the remnants of a doomed submarine, one man’s dream to search for a treasure on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.