The Mary A. Whalen By The Red Hook WaterStories team

The MARY A. WHALEN is an early example of lap welding – the transition between riveting and the butt welding of today. She is also a rare surviving example of a bell boat.

The oil tanker MARY A. WHALEN was launched May 21, 1938 The ship is PortSide NewYork’s ambassador to the BLUEspace and site of our offices and many programs.

Why she is significant?

She is the the last of her kind in the USA. She is the only oil tanker cultural center in the world.  She is on the National Register of Historic Places for many reasons. She is an artifact of Ira S. Bushey & Sons, a Red Hook business that ran an innovative shipyard and fuel terminal. She is significant for her role in the 1975 Supreme Court legal decision U.S. vs Reliable Transfer a major case in US maritime law. The MARY is a symbol of post-Sandy resiliency in NYC because the PortSide crew rode out Sandy on the ship, and then we brought our office equipment ashore to set up and run a hurricane Sandy pop-up aid station.

October 2012, she was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  See the enthusiastic Determination of Eligibility Letter here.  According to that evaluation report, she issignificant in the area of historic marine technology as one of few remaining intact examples of a 1930s motorized coastal/harbor tanker, and because of her association with Ira S. Bushey & Sons” a Red Hook business of national importance that closed in the early 1980s.  Bushey’s” was a shipyard and fuel terminal at the foot of Court Street. . The Vane Brothers tugs and fuel barges and fuel tanks run by Buckeye are the legacy of Bushey’s.

Bushey’s was an unusual combination of shipyard and fuel terminal. The company built over 200 vessels and was a significant for developing new shipbuilding techniques. The MARY is an early example of lap welding, the transition between riveting and the butt welding of today.  She is also a rare surviving example of a bell boat.  On this bell boat, the people steering (the Captain or the Mate) had no control over the throttle or engine direction, they pulled manual bell signals to ring bells which told the engineer two levels down what settings on the telegraph to use to control the engine. Speaking tubes were also used to communicate.

Her important legal history

The MARY A. WHALEN is also significant for a Supreme Court decision “United States v. Reliable Transfer Co.”  This major case is taught to all maritime law students.  The MARY went aground on the Rockaways in New York, Christmas Day 1968.  A Coast Guard light was out and the MARY’s owners blamed the Coast Guard.  The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1975 that in marine accidents, damages should be apportioned according to blame.  Sounds logical, but prior to this decision, damages were split 50/50 regardless, and those at fault could shirk the financial consequences of their actions.

This 1975 decision overturned US maritime law in effect since 1854 and had the USA finally join maritime practice common in other nations.  US Courts had been struggling for decades to make this change, with the famous Judge Learned Hand dismissing US admiralty law on these cases as an “obstinate cleaving to the ancient rule which has been abrogated by nearly all civilized nations.”  The case is summarized in a recent article from Professional Mariner.

Her early days and work

The tanker MARY A. WHALEN was launched in 1938. She is 172’ long.

She was originally called the S.T. KIDDOO, for Solomon Thomas Kiddoo, the Vice President and Treasurer of Fairbanks Morse.  The tanker has a Fairbanks Morse engine (37E12 direct reversing).  Bushey’s distributed Fairbanks engines. She moved gasoline from 1938-1968 during her years as the S.T. KIDDOO.

In 1958, she was converted to  move heavier fuel products and rechristened, MARY A. WHALEN. At that point, Alf Dyrland became one of her captains and worked on the MARY for twenty years. His family has donated to us an extensive collection of Captain Alf’s documents, photos, and objects pertaining to the MARY.

The MARY A. WHALEN worked until 1994 and covered an extensive territory in New EnglandShe “went outside”  (in the Atlantic) delivering gasoline as far away as Maine until 1958 (a testament to the small number of cars in Maine then). She went up many rivers.

She also covered a lot of the New York City metropolitan region doing various kinds of work. She did “creek work,” harbor slang for working little waterways like the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek where she delivered home heating oil.  She also fueled ships, “bunkering” them at dock and at anchor.

Her voyages became shorter as Americans consumed more fuel and her size became too small to merit sending her very far.   She went out of service in 1994 after her engine crankshaft was damaged.

In 1995, she came back home to Red Hook where she served in Erie Basin as a dock and office for Hughes Marine, a sixth-generation firm self-described as “the clearinghouse for marine difficulties.”

September 2006, she became the base of operations for PortSide NewYork.  In January-February 2007, she underwent hull repairs and maintenance for the first time in 16 years.  PortSide’s offices moved aboard in July 2007.

Ship plansOur Guide to the words for ship parts.

LOA 171′, beam 31.5.  draft 1’5′ bow, 8′ stern
Mathis 124-135-1 — Hull 124 Tonnage offsets (5.3 MB)
Mathis 124-203-1 — Hull 124 Molded lines (9.6 MB)
Mathis 124-480-1 — Hull 124 Plan of elevation for main engine room (11.8 MB)
Mathis 125-207-1 — Hull 125 General arrangement (12.4 MB)

Plans are thanks to the Independence Seaport Museum

The MARY is Mathis hull  #124. The F.A. VERDON was hull #125 and had 38′ longer cargo tanks.  During the 1940’s, Bushey  considered adding 30′ to the MARY’S cargo tanks, and we have several  blueprints from this period. The expansion was never completed.  We would like plans to the MARY. The F.A. VERDON was scrapped in 1976.

Calling all former crew!
We want to tape record your memories and copy your photos to add to our collection of photos like those above. Your advice can help us restore the MARY A. WHALEN.For more information, see these PortSide New York links:
Audio tour
MARY A. WHALEN present


A downloadable pdf version of the guide to THE MARY A. WHALEN is available in English

Red Hook WaterStories is a PortSide New York project. To see photos and read more click here!

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