Seaport Museum, Lightship Ambrose, & Wavertree Ship Tour

Hi friends, welcome back! Recently I shared a neighborhood tour of the Seaport District, and today I’m taking you through the museum, history, and two Lightships in the museum’s fleet. The first port in this area of the East River was created by the Dutch West India Company in 1625, and the land surrounding the port developed into a thriving city shortly after. In the 1700s the East River was filled and narrowed to add about 900 feet of land. This is what the current Seaport District sits on from Pearl Street to South Street. The Financial District (where I live) exists today because of the success of the trading industry which led to the creation of banks, stocks and commodities exchange, and insurance companies.

The South Street Seaport Museum is under renovation after devastating destruction from Hurricane Sandy, so we could only see a small section that we spent about twenty minutes viewing. The current exhibition focused on a general overview of the creation of the Seaport District, the history of trading in America, and the voyage over to America. The museum also has an interactive website with a lot of cool resources and information. This is where I learned about the destruction from Hurricane Sandy and also about the maritime evacuation efforts after 9/11. Over 500,000 people were evacuated by boat from Manhattan to NJ, Brooklyn, and Staten Island in a span of nine hours after the towers were hit. The museum shares an excellent twelve-minute documentary narrated by Tom Hanks about the rescue efforts. It’s worth a watch, especially if your faith in humanity needs a boost.

I thought this cross section of the Titanic’s sister ship was very interesting. On a ship like this, a one-way first-class ticket could cost up to $117,000 and a one-way third-class ticket was around $1,200 in todays (2017) prices. The first-class cabin on The Imperator ship included two bedrooms with a private bath, trunk room, breakfast room, salon, pantry, two servants’ rooms, and a private veranda deck.  That seems pretty absurd to me, but I suppose if you’re filthy rich it would be a comfy way to cross the Atlantic…

This bell was rescued from a “Relief” lightship that was run down and sunk in 1960 while relieving Lightship Ambrose at the entrance of New York Harbor. At the entrance to New York Harbor, a boat called a lightship used to be stationed so that ships could see it from a distance and steer their ships at it to know they were on track. Once they safely made it past the light vessel, they were basically on a sea highway to their port of destination. The lightship stayed in position unless there was a mechanical issue or some other reason the boat needed to come to port. A “Relief” boat would then take its place until the ship returned. Unfortunately, some boats steered too directly at the light vessel and ran it over. Imagine being on a relatively small ship (135ish feet long) in the middle of the channel and having a boat the size of the Titanic (882.5 feet) coming directly at you… very dangerous, and unfortunately for some, very deadly!!

At the entrance of the Seaport District, there is a lighthouse that serves as a memorial to the victims of the Titanic. You may remember from my Little Island post, that the rescue liner carrying the survivors docked at Pier 55. The Titanic would’ve passed the lightship that we got to tour, pretty neat to think about!

On the weekend, the South Street Seaport Museum offers incredible free 30-45 minute tours of the Lightship Ambrose and Wavertree ships. Our first tour was on the Lightship Ambrose, officially named Lightship LV-87. Jon and I have walked by this 135-foot boat so many times, and we finally made the time to take a tour of this National Historic Landmark. I had no idea how important this ship was or how much history she carried. The Lightship Ambrose was built in 1907 to serve as a floating lighthouse that could guide ships from the Atlantic Ocean to the busy New York/New Jersey harbors. The ship anchored in the middle of the Ambrose Channel was named after John Ambrose, an Irish immigrant that worked in construction and lobbied for a better shipping channel into the New York and New Jersey harbors. His efforts led to the dredging of the channel to 2,000 feet wide and 45 feet deep and essentially created a highway on the water. Sadly, he didn’t live to see his work come to fruition.

Working on the Lightship Ambrose was an incredibly dangerous and difficult job. The crew needed to make sure the boat was seen and heard at all times, no matter the weather. They worked in four-hour shifts, so getting some quality shut eye sounds pretty impossible to me. Imagine trying to sleep and hearing a non-stop horn or bell, or finally drifting off to sleep and hearing the all hands on deck call.

To accomplish the duty of the Lightship Ambrose ALWAYS being seen and heard, she was painted red and had two masts with lights, and there was a bell and fog horns to hear. If one system failed, there was always a backup to maintain being a functioning lightship. In 1921, the first ever radio beacon was on the Lightship Ambrose installed and this greatly helped assist navigation in the dense fog and other bad weather conditions. Another upgrade was the diesel engine in 1932, making the Lightship Ambrose the last steam powered ship to station at the Ambrose Channel.

While this ship had an incredibly important job of navigating ships into the harbor, it was also a symbol of hope and freedom. The Lightship Ambrose was the first thing an immigrant would see before making it to America. Passengers would see the light from the ship well before seeing the Statue of Liberty tucked away in the harbor.

On the Lightship Ambrose, the wheel is the original, and so are the speaking tubes that allowed the captain to speak to the crew in the engine room below. The ship also includes a 5,000 pound mushroom anchor needed to keep the ship in place.

The Lightship Ambrose served as the lightship of the Ambrose Channel from 1908 until 1932. She became a relief vessel before being moved to outside Sandy Hook, NJ and also stood watch for German U-boats during WWI. After, she was retired and donated by the Coast Guard in 1968, becoming the first ship in the museum’s collection. The Lightship Ambrose is currently docked off Pier 16 and still in the process of restorations. A few other ships took over the place of the Lightship Ambrose in the Ambrose Channel, but in 1967 a “Texas” tower (similar looking to an oil rig tower) replaced the lightships. As I mentioned, this is an extremely busy channel and multiple ships struck and destroyed these towers, so in 2007 it was replaced by a large buoy that seems to be indestructible and doesn’t put lives at risk. I’m guessing with all the technology these days the buoy isn’t as essential as the light vessels were.

Jon and I LOVED touring the Lightship Ambrose so we were excited to step aboard the cargo sailing vessel The Wavertree for another tour. Right after I stepped aboard, I couldn’t believe how much bigger this ship seemed compared to the Lightship Ambrose. The Wavertree is 325 feet long (almost three times the size of the Lightship Ambrose) and the world’s last surviving wrought-iron sailing ship. Nowadays, ships are built with steel. The Wavertree was built in 1885 in Southhampton, Great Britain and originally hauled jute from India to Scotland. Two years later it entered the “tramp trade” and took any cargo from multiple ports around the world to different destinations as long as it was profitable.

In 1910, the Wavertree was dismasted by a storm in Cape Horn ending her use as a cargo ship. The Wavertree was rescued and used as a floating warehouse and then a sand barge in South America. Karl Kortum, a historic ship advocate, spotted her in South America and convinced the Seaport Museum to rescue the ship and include it in the museum’s fleet. In 1968 the Seaport Museum took Karl’s advice and saved the Wavertree, towing her back to New York for restoration. In 1978 the vessel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2015 NYC awarded $13 million in funds for additional restoration that has greatly helped the ship.

We checked out the “Tween” deck. On the walls were numbers that corresponded to a spot in the rear of the ship so they could know how to counter balance the ship so it didn’t tip over. That must’ve been quite the job to keep the ship balanced!

Next we went to the hull and I couldn’t believe how massive the cargo storage was!

We went into the captain’s quarters of The Wavertree and our guide told us this was the equivalent of a business or hotel lobby. The captain wanted this area as elegant looking as possible so merchants would feel confident transporting their cargo on the ship. The captain’s quarters was quite the contrast from the area of the crew, and the crew was prohibited from this area.

The original steering wheel for the Wavertree is in the back of the ship, opposite of the Ambrose with the wheelhouse located in the front of the ship. As you can see, the museum has done an excellent job restoring The Wavertree!


I absolutely loved touring the Lightship Ambrose and Wavertree and would highly recommend joining a tour! They are both free and the guides provided excellent insights and could answer any possible question. A caveat to this recommendation is if you get seasick easily, the Lightship Ambrose may not be a great idea because the relative smallness of the ship makes it more susceptible to waves. This area of the river is pretty calm and I didn’t notice any rocking, but if you’re sensitive to motion maybe stick to The Wavertree. The South Street Seaport Museum is small, but worth checking out and it’s the meeting place for the tours, so it’s perfect to meander through while you’re waiting. I learned a ton on these tours and feel even more fortunate to have The Seaport District just a few blocks away. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post as much as I’ve enjoyed writing, learning, and experiencing this cool area!

24 thoughts on “Seaport Museum, Lightship Ambrose, & Wavertree Ship Tour

  1. The ship tours look amazing! That is so neat that they let you walk on them and really get a feel for what it may have been like to be on them. Someday when we come up to New York, we will have to check it out!

    1. It is neat to hop aboard them, I can’t believe it took us so long to join a tour! You’ll love the ships, they’re neat!

  2. Thanks for taking us along on your tour Lyssy. We did not do this tour on either of our trips to NYC. We love maritime museum and ship tours and were very lucky to visit the Portsmouth Naval Museum and tour the HMS Victory and HMS Warrior. So much history and hardship. Stay well. Allan

    1. Glad you enjoyed the tour 🙂 Maybe next time you come back to the city you can attend a tour, can’t beat free! I’ll have to visit the Portsmouth Naval Museum one day. It is amazing to think about the conditions they worked in back then and the unpredictability of the sea. I’ll stay on land!

  3. The South Street Seaport Museum reminds me of San Diego’s Maritime Museum, which includes four sailing ships and a submarine. The Wavertree is an impressive vessel but I found the Ambrose more endearing because of its role as courageous “lightship” (never heard that term before). I imagine the lights on her masts were powerful, rotating like the ones in lighthouses? They really knew how to build ships back in the day (Titanic aside). The Ambrose still looks pretty ship-shape considering she’s over a hundred years old.

    1. Maybe one day I’ll make it to San Diego’s Maritime Museum, I know we’d love it! I liked the Ambrose better too, she reminds me a bit of the little engine that could. I had never heard of a lightship either, they used to have oil lamps, sounds like a major fire hazard! Once they had the technology the lamps rotated like a lighthouse. I agree, they don’t make most things like they used to!

  4. Aren’t lightships so neat? I saw one a few years back in Delaware, and prior to that I didn’t even know they existed. We weren’t able to go onboard though, so this was neat to see what the interior looked like. I can’t believe how large the second ship is (and also, I’ve never understood how something that large made of iron could possibly float)!

    1. They are so neat! I had no idea they even existed until this tour. Not a very glamorous interior, but still super cool to see. I felt like I was on Noah’s ark when we were on the second ship haha. I agree – it seems to defy logic!

    1. It was so cool we could just walk aboard! I’m sure it smelled very bad and it must’ve been terrifying in bad weather! I’ll stay on land 🙂

    1. I’ve lived here almost four years and have so much to explore still, but I’m making progress 🙂

  5. Enjoye this. I spent some time on the Ambrose. The cutter I was assigned to in the Coast Guard and brought supplies and changes of personnel on a regular schedule. You captured the feel! Note: the ship also bobbed around like a float – it had a round bottom.

    1. That is so neat! I can imagine that was a difficult task. I’m glad you enjoyed this post and hope it brought back some good memories 🙂

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