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National Maritime Historical Society navigates an uncertain future

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Burchenal Green, president of the National Maritime Historical Society, gave an impromptu tour of her nonprofit organization’s Peekskill headquarters on a recent weekday morning. She gestured to the various historical artifacts on display, from model ships to an aging library of texts to a newspaper proclaiming the sinking of the Titanic.

“I grew up every summer on boats,” she said, “and I think we all have an affinity for water.”

America’s maritime history is also important because many of the population’s ancestors came to the country by ship. It’s important to understand what they went through.    — Burchenal Green

The National Maritime Historical Society brands itself as the national voice for America’s maritime heritage. Along with hosting a variety of educational seminars, conferences and award ceremonies (“We’re sort of the Oscars of maritime,” she quipped), the organization also works to save historic ships
in trouble.

“It’s important to keep some of these ships alive,” she said. “They’re all part of the story of America, so we continue to tell that story.”

The organization also publishes a variety of educational materials and programs, including a periodical, Sea History, which is distributed worldwide to its roughly 10,000 members.

Those members are a diverse group, from shipbuilders to sailors, historians to military personnel.

“You have to tell the stories,” said Greene, who has served as the organization’s president for more than two decades. “It’s just critical.”

The Cortlandt Manor resident said that at her home along Cortlandt Lake, she enjoys watching cardinals, woodpeckers or the occasional Kingfisher. At work, she gazes out the windows of her waterfront office, taking in the eagles and other wildlife who call the Hudson River home.

“The view has changed a bit,” she said with a laugh, gesturing to a recently constructed addition to Charles Point Marina, the building that houses her offices. “They built this little ledge.”

That ledge is just one of a number of changes that have come to Charles Point Marina in recent years. The structure at 5 John Walsh Blvd. has been transformed into a multipurpose attraction, complete with a restaurant, brewery, ropes course and laser tag arena.

The multimillion-dollar project, which was constructed around and above the society’s offices, was led by Diamond Properties co-owner William Diamond, who signed a 50-year lease for the property with the Peekskill Industrial Development Agency in 2014. Other partners in the project include Peekskill restaurateurs Louis Lanza and John Sharp and Captain Lawrence Brewery founder Scott Vaccaro. Today, the marina is home to Spins Hudson, Fin and Brew restaurant and the recently opened River Outpost Brewery.

“Because our mission is to save historic vessels, I can’t object when they want to save an old historic building,” Greene said. “This is one of the great old brick buildings along the Hudson River. It had been deteriorating and we wanted this building to be saved.”

Construction caused some issues for the organization, Greene said. Noise and dust created by the redevelopment made for some less-than-ideal working conditions for the organization’s employees.

“But we’re on the other side of that now,” she quickly added. “I’m very appreciative of the fact that they did some quality work in taking care of the building.”

A STORIED HISTORY

The National Maritime Historical Society traces its roots to a small group of maritime preservationists that joined forces in the 1960s to save the Kaiulani, a ship built in 1899 and the last American-built square-rigger to round Cape Horn.

“We were unable to save the Kaiulani,” she said. “It was a real wake-up call that America needed an organization that told the stories of our maritime heritage.”

Since that time, the group has worked to save ships like the paddlewheel tug, Eppleton Hall; the World War II ship, John W. Brown; and the Elissa, a ship built in 1877.

Along with saving the ships themselves, the organization also aims to raise awareness for the nation’s shipping industry.

“Unbeknownst to most people, 95 percent of all the goods you have come by ship. The sneakers you wear, the food you eat, your clothes,” she said. “But because shipping has become so efficient, it’s a hidden industry. It’s totally invisible.”

Still, she added, “people have to realize that America has to support this industry.”

America’s maritime history is also important, Greene said, because many of the population’s ancestors came to the country by ship.

“It’s important to understand what they went through.”

An Uncertain Future

The organization’s lease at the waterfront structure runs until June 2020.

“Our lease has not been renewed, so we’ve been looking around for other places,” she said.

Greene hopes the organization’s headquarters will remain in the area, with most of the staff traveling to work from northern Westchester or southern Dutchess counties.

“We would like some kind of water location,” she said. “There are some of my staff who would love to get out of this old building, but I don’t really see us moving into anything really modern.”

Greene said she’s in the process of working with the town of Cortland to build a new headquarters, along with a museum or visitors center.

She hopes the new museum would be “more interactive” and “hopefully involve getting people out in some kind of boat on the water.”

“It’s just in the beginning phases,” she said. “The Hudson River has so much history, and the ships on the Hudson have so much history.”

Eventually, Greene hopes to turn the area into a maritime attraction for visitors.

“You have 40 million visitors to New York each year and most of them, when they come from overseas, they would like to see at least one other city,” she said, “and now that there are so many cruise ships that go up and down the Hudson River, to have them stop here, it could be a real tourist destination.”

Despite the organization’s somewhat uncertain future, Greene remains hopeful.

“I think it’s good for the community, and I think sometimes you have to get away from yourself and look at the larger picture,” she said of the revitalization of Charles Point. “Hopefully we will find a new home and it will be even better.”

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