Historic Ship Lilac Shoves Off from Its Tribeca Home at Pier 25

Lilac is tugged away from Pier 25. Pushed by one tug, the former lighthouse tender is accompanied by a second. Both are needed to move the ship into its narrow, temporary berth in Staten Island. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 18, 2020

Note: This story was updated on Nov. 23.

On Monday morning, Nov. 17, two tugs snuggled up to the historic ship Lilac, berthed on the north side of Tribeca’s Pier 25. In short order, towlines were attached, mooring lines freed and America’s last surviving steam-powered lighthouse tender was on its way to a berth in Staten Island, its first time away from “home” in five years. 

Lilac was to spend a week at Caddell Dry Dock and Ship Repair where students from Webb Institute would conduct a study of the ship’s stability that will inform future modifications needed to allow Lilac to one day carry passengers. With the use of a crane, weights would be set on various sections of the ship to determine how it is balanced when alterations are made.

“We’ve always wanted to get the ship operating again and be able to take passengers on educational excursions,” said Mary Habstritt, museum president and director of the Lilac Preservation Project, “and to do that we would have to meet different regulations than a workboat would. 

Restoring Lilac, which moved to Pier 25 in 2011, and educating the public about her history has long been a labor of love for Habstritt and a group of volunteers. 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. 

At the shipyard, debris from months of restoration work would be removed and the propellers, in need of repair, lifted by crane from the buoy deck where they’ve been stored since 2003. The fuel tanks were to be cleaned and the deck generator moved into a newly renovated space on the boat. Although Habstritt was hoping that Lilac would be taken to another industrial berth for the winter, it was not to be. The ship returned to Pier 25 on Monday, Nov. 23. 

In an update, Habstritt wrote: “We got a huge amount of work done and the ship is lighter for all the debris that we took off…Getting the propeller and generators off the deck makes more space for the public to ciruclate when the ship is open again.”

In the meantime, the short voyage to Staten Island was something to remember, Habstritt said later. “It was a beautiful day, quite windy, so the water was a bit choppy. But it was a very comfortable ride. It actually shows how stable the ship is that we weren’t bouncing around a lot in the waves.” 

And then there was the critical maneuvering by the two tugs that slid the powerless Lilac into its narrow berth. “It was like a ballet,” Habstritt recalled. “The two of them took turns pushing us from different sides to get us turned and tucked in. It was quite amazing.”

Many of the expenses for the move, including towing, crane operation and dry dock services, were donated. But there will be more costs down the road for the ship’s maintenance. (Taking it out of the water in order to paint the hull with donated paint, for example, is estimated to cost $60,000.) The Lilac Preservation Project is requesting donations to cover such costs. Go here to contribute. And for more information on the Lilac’s restoration and history, click here.