HUDSON RIVER SOJOURN: Partying with the locals at Whitehall Marina
WHITEHALL, NEW YORK - This town where the Hudson River and its Champlain Canal meet up with Lake Champlain bills itself as Birthplace of the U.S. Navy. But you’re not likely to see it get top billing anywhere in Annapolis, home of the Naval Academy.
This is where the first fleet of military ships was built and put into against the British after the Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1776. And a critical naval battle was fought with these ships against the British in Lake Champlain. The problem is, the ships were built and sailed under the direction of Benedict Arnold who went on to become the new nation’s most notorious traitor. That’s also why Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee isn’t celebrated at West Point as one of the Army academy’s illustrious graduates.
None of that erases Whitehall’s pivotal position just above the final lock - Lock 12 - that connects the Hudson with Lake Champlain. But as rail transportation and modern highways started lessening the importance of canal transportation in the mid 1800s, towns like Whitehall that once prospered started to get left behind.
But that doesn’t mean the locals don’t enjoy cutting loose on Friday evenings at the Whitehall Marina bar and restaurant overlooking the canal. Transient boaters like us belly up to the bay, drink beers and Jameson shooters with the locals, talk to other boaters passing through, sing along with songs that Josh the bartender signals are his favorite by turning up the volume. The lock shuts down at 5 p.m. so most of the day’s boat traffic has tied up at the marina for the day. Lynn has signed them in, Ronnie has fueled them up, Casey’s busy in the kitchen cooking up specials for the evening’s menu - if she’s in the mood to cook - and husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, babies, and dogs all associated in one way or another with the marina hang out under a casual dockside pavilion with picnic tables and an assortment of chairs to swap stories, drink beers and smoke cigarettes as the day’s light faces toward darkness.
Here are some of the characters and images we encountered in Whitehall. Nice people, one and all, and connected culturally by life along the waterfront.
TODAY’S STORY: Ronny, thin, wiry, always in motion, finally relaxes when the last boat is fueled and the lock has shut down at 5 p.m.on Friday.
Ronny fuels the boats that stop by, pumps their wastewater tanks, tracks down miscellaneous screws and fittings for captains missing a few themselves, uses his energy to thread life through the marina. Under the pavilion where everyone gathers at the end of the day, he takes the tall seat, pops the top on a sweating cold Coors light, opens a plastic blue and black pouch of Bugler tobacco, slips a rolling paper from a Tops package, and rolls a cigarette of relaxing smoke and nicotine. No filter. Just tobacco and paper. “I used to use menthol, but haven’t for awhile.”
Uncle Ronny to some, he’s related to many who gather here along the waterfront to discuss the day’s happenings. He rolls and sips and drags and exhales - says a few words here and there - until darkness settles in, then he goes home, and sleeps, thinking about weaving along the floating docks for the first vessel that arrives through the lock tomorrow seeking fuel for the next leg of its journey.