A bell from the steamboat Rip Van Winkle slumbered for decades in a lumberyard in Kingston, N.Y. — an upstate town along the Hudson River.
That was before Port Jefferson business owner George Wallis acquired it last year.
And here’s why:
A family of color once owned and operated the steamboat throughout the Civil War, so for Wallis and others, the bell represents much more than mere local maritime history.
On Saturday, Wallis and Roger Rutherford, the general manager of Roger’s Frigate candy and ice cream store unveiled the bell at its now-permanent home in the village.
The restored bell hangs in the corner garden on the north side of The Steam Room restaurant parking lot along East Broadway. (Wallis also owns the restaurant.)
It’s mounted on a concrete platform specifically made for the display.
Passersby can admire the bell and learn about the original steamship, which ferried passengers from New York to Albany from 1845 to 1872.
Proudly stamped on the plaque are the words “Owned and Operated by Captain Samuel Schuyler, A Free Person of Color.”
restored but un-rung
Wallis got the bell from a friend who had transported it from the Kingston lumberyard to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., just 20 miles south and on the other side of the river. There it sat for another 40 years before Wallis brought it to Long Island.
An obscure article claims that after the ship was broken up in 1880, the bell could be found above the Cornell shops in Rondout, N.Y.
Wallis said it took a while to get the bell in shape for its unveiling.
“It was just dirty,” he said.
Right now the bell can’t be rung, but Wallis promises that at some point it will be.
“Oh yeah, we will be able to ring it,” he said. “We have the gong.”
At Saturday’s ceremony, Rutherford spoke about the Rip Van Winkle’s history before peeling a red sheet off the bell for a crowd of onlookers that included Mayor Margot Garant, Congressman Lee Zeldin, and state Senator Kenneth Lavalle.
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A framed drawing of the steamship also hangs inside The Steam Room.
“Mr. Wallis has always tried to do things to preserve the community,” Rutherford told GreaterPortJeff after the unveiling. “We felt like the bell was very fitting for our community, being that we have a shipbuilding history.“
It’s also certainly a symbol of something greater.
an inspiring history
He eventually founded his own company and became a successful business owner. Two of his sons, Samuel and Thomas, took over the family business. In time they purchased the Rip Van Winkle steamboat in the mid-1800s for their fleet.
“It means a lot more to me as a person of color, in that the captain who owned and operated that ship was a person of color,” Rutherford said.
Even before the Civil War, the Schuyler family was able to establish themselves and find success on the waters of the Hudson with their shipping businesses — despite the intensity of prejudice and discrimination, when American slavery had yet to be defeated.
“I find it to be a tremendous accomplishment,” Rutherford said.
He noted how tough it must have been for the Schuylers to prosper in those years.
“It’s very hard to imagine,” he said. “I’m uplifted because we’ve come so far as a nation and we can only build on what we’ve accomplished over the years.”