North River Historic Ship Society

You can ride a century-old tugboat, get wet aboard a New York City fireboat and explore a once-sunken lightship, thanks in part to the work of the North River Historic Ship Society (NRHSS).

Since 1994, this small state-chartered, not-for-profit organization has championed the vintage ships and workboats that tell the important story of New York’s maritime heritage. These vessels, some of which are more than a century old, keep that history alive by offering public trips and dockside tours that illustrate our harbor’s colorful past and its present-day vitality. The ships we work with are all eligible or listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

What is the North River?

“North River” is the historic name of the Lower Hudson River (from the Battery to the northern tip of Manhattan). It dates back to the 17th-century Dutch who called the Hudson the “North River” and the Delaware (along New Jersey’s southern shore) the “South River.” Today’s professional mariners still call the Lower Hudson the North River.

What We Do

We support and encourage the restoration of historic ships, and we work to secure free or low-cost dock space so that these vessels have a way to bring the public aboard. We raise funds so that historic ships can afford to offer free public programs and we sponsor programs of our own.

Why It Matters

New York became the great city it is because its harbor became the center of commerce two centuries ago. The port continues to be the lifeblood of the city. These old boats help tell that story.

The Origins of Public Access to Waterways

Long, long ago, the Romans stated the idea that “running water” was “common to mankind,” meaning it could not be owned. They agreed that “all rivers and ports are public, hence the right of fishing in a port, or in rivers, is common to all men.” Their doctrine said that this was “one of the laws of nature, established by divine providence,” and which would “forever remain fixed and immutable.” It recognized public rights to use the banks as well as the surface of the water, on non-navigable as well as navigable rivers. These concepts were rooted even further in antiquity, in Greece and other ancient civilizations.

The very first law passed by the United States Congress said the “navigable waters,” as well as “the carrying places between the same, shall be common highways, and forever free” to the public “without any tax, impost, or duty therefore.” Additional Federal Law in 1796 confirmed the public right to “all navigable waters.” Over time, the courts has repeatedly held that public use of waterways and their access cannot be a “taking” under the fifth amendment, as is often claimed by waterfront property owners, because rivers were public before the original property deeds were prepared.