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Tender return as historic ship Lilac ties up in Tribeca again

BY THE VILLAGE SUN | The Lilac is back.

Pulled across the harbor by two tugboats, the historic lighthouse tender returned Downtown to Pier 25 in Tribeca last month after a stint for repairs in drydock on Staten Island.

The “museum ship” reopened for tours for the Memorial Day weekend on Sat., May 28. To celebrate the vessel’s 89 years of service, there was a birthday cake.

Mary Habstritt — seen above at Caddel Dry Dock and Repair on Staten Island in 2020 — is the museum ship’s president and director and also an expert in industrial archaeology. (Photo by Milo Hess)

The Lilac is America’s only remaining steam-powered lighthouse tender and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She is operated as a museum by the nonprofit Lilac Preservation Project while undergoing rehabilitation. The goal is to make her self-powered once again so she can operate as an educational excursion vessel.

“We’re working to restore her to run again on the original steam engine,” Mary Habsbritt, the ship’s director and president, said. “Right now we operate her as a pierside museum.”

Habstritt has a background as a librarian and is also a research specialist on industrial sites and maritime topics. She is the founder of the Historic Ships Coalition and a past president of the North River Historic Ship Society.

(Photo by Milo Hess)

Lighthouse tenders carried supplies to lighthouses and assisted the keepers with with major repairs. They spent most of their time maintaining buoys, range lights and other smaller aids to navigation that guide ships and boats safely into harbors. Today, the lighthouses on America’s coastlines and harbors are automated and are visited by a tender only about once a year.

(Photo by Milo Hess)

During an active career spanning nearly four decades, Lilac — which was launched in 1933 in Wilmington, Delaware — was responsible for maintaining aids to navigation on the lower Delaware River and Delaware Bay. Like all other lighthouse tenders of that era, she was named for a flower or tree.

Lilac was decommissioned on Feb. 3, 1972.  She was the last ship in the Coast Guard fleet to operate with steam engines.

(Photo by MIlo Hess)

She then did a stint as a dorm for Coast Guard cadets followed by some years during which a section of the ship was used as a real estate office. In 2003 the Lilac was sold to the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project, which held temporary ownership of her until the new nonprofit Lilac Preservation Project was formed.

The ship cost $25,000, on top of that needing $250,000 of work at a Virginia shipyard. She was then towed to New York City and moved to a berth at Pier 40, at Houston Street in Hudson River Park, on New Year’s Eve 2003.

With the Lilac successfully berthed, the two tugboats — including a smaller platform tug — headed back to Staten Island. (Photo by Milo Hess)

In May 2011, Lilac moved Downtown to the newly rebuilt Pier 25 in the waterfront park’s Tribeca section. Since arriving there, the ship has been open to the public for tours and cultural events.

In the early 20th century, there were more than 30 similar lighthouse tenders under the U.S. Lighthouse Service. One of them, Lilac’s sister ship, the Arbutus, was later used — succcessfully — by a treasure hunter in the 1980s, who, however, scuttled her afterward off the Florida coast.

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