In a New York town of literary fame, controversy over a new kind of monument

The retired John D. McKean fireboat is moored at an inlet in the quiet village of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., causing some residents to complain.
The retired John D. McKean fireboat is moored at an inlet in the quiet village of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., causing some residents to complain.
(Nina Agrawal / Los Angeles Times)

About an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, past the point where the Hudson River widens out, sits a quiet nook of a town, just two square miles. Streets slope upwards from the waterfront, passing stone churches and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the writer Washington Irving is buried.

The small glen, which every fall welcomes out-of-towners with spectral house decorations, haunted hayrides and meals at the Horseman Diner, was the site of Ichabod Crane’s ill-fated attempt to woo a young lady in Irving’s 1820 story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The area is also home to Kykuit, the Rockefeller family’s opulent hilltop estate, and the vast Rockefeller State Park Preserve, which includes a network of carriage roads traversing woodlands, fields and streams.


Down at the river’s edge, where General Motors workers once assembled cars and barges unloaded oil, sit a four-story apartment building and a townhouse complex, both built in recent years. To the south looms a sparkling new bridge replacing the former Tappan Zee crossing. Visible under it, a miniature New York City skyline beckons, and to the north, the open Hudson.

But extending directly out from the waterfront is a wooden pier, and at the end of that the newest addition to Sleepy Hollow — one that some residents aren’t too happy about: a retired fireboat.

On Friday, the 129-foot John D. McKean rocked peacefully from its mooring on the wind-whipped waters, its candy-red water tower shooting up toward the blue sky. Below its deck, four 1,000-horsepower engines — two to power the boat and two to pump water — thundered as the owner demonstrated how to start them.

The boat, which once belonged to the Fire Department of New York, is now the property of a restaurateur based in North Salem, N.Y., who just opened an outpost in Sleepy Hollow.

Named after a marine engineer who was fatally burned in an explosion aboard another boat, the McKean was commissioned into service in 1954 and has played more than a bit part in New York’s history.

In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it drafted water from the Hudson River to put out the fires at ground zero. When Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009, the McKean ferried passengers to safety.


After 56 years in service, the McKean was retired in 2010.

Two years ago, Edward Taylor bought it at a city auction with business partner Michael Kaphan for around $70,000, Taylor said. They refurbished it, scrubbing the wheel and brass fixtures, replacing the rotting floors and freshly coating it in gleaming red, white and black paint.

“You come on board an old gal like this and you don’t want to see her go to the scrapyard,” Taylor said.

Last Thanksgiving the McKean pulled into the cove at Sleepy Hollow, straight down the pier from where Taylor’s new restaurant sits in the ground floor of the riverfront apartment building.

That’s when the trouble started.

At the meeting of the village Board of Trustees in November, residents complained that the boat blocked their views and that they hadn’t been properly notified.

“I woke up from a nap Sunday morning, and I saw a ship. This isn’t a boat. It doesn’t belong here,” said Michael Savitsky, who lives in a river-facing apartment.

“As a taxpaying resident of Sleepy Hollow I had a reasonable expectation to at least have forewarning of a major change in my neighborhood,” said Paul Viboch, whose townhouse is one of nearly a dozen that line the inlet’s northern edge.

The John D. McKean pulls a US Airways jet that crashed into the Hudson River.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images )

In interviews, Savitsky and Viboch said Taylor didn’t have the right permits to moor the boat at its current location, or to build a gangway down to it. They worried Taylor would use the boat as an extension of his restaurant, adding noise and crowding to the now-tranquil adjacent public path.

Taylor said the McKean was legally moored and that as a private citizen leasing the pier, he was within his rights to bring the boat to Sleepy Hollow. He also said he plans to operate the boat, which on Friday had three picnic tables and a grill on its deck, as a nonprofit educational institution that will be open to the public.

Anthony Giaccio, the village administrator, said the site where the boat is moored is under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, from which he said the boat’s owners were in the process of getting a permit. Giaccio also said the local building department had notified the pier’s owners that they will have to amend their site plan for the gangway, subject to a public hearing.

“I don’t have an opinion and the Village Board hasn’t issued any judgment,” Giaccio said. “What I can say is we’ve gotten a lot of emails and letters in support of keeping the boat there.… We’ve received more in favor than against.”

Some of those in favor say the boat is simply a part of riverfront life.

“Look at that — it makes the scene,” said Kim Babicz, a Sleepy Hollow resident who was eating a berry-and-cream-topped dessert at Taylor’s restaurant Friday afternoon. “You’re on the river — get a grip!”


Others said the boat should be honored for its history.

John Korzelius, chief of Sleepy Hollow’s all-volunteer Fire Department, which assisted on 9/11, said, “For us, that boat has a special meaning…. The whole Fire Department is 100% in support of that fireboat.”

As he spoke, a Tappan Zee Constructors tug made its way north of the new bridge and dropped off three workers at the Sleepy Hollow dock.

Lt. Billy Ryan, a New York City fireman who lives in the village, had worked at ground zero. As he dropped his two daughters off for swimming and ballet lessons Friday afternoon, he described searching for survivors among the burning remains of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. All the water mains and hydrants in the area were broken.

“If the water wasn’t there from that boat, we wouldn’t be alive. Hands down — take it to the bank,” Ryan said. “I understand [some residents’] displeasure, but I have an obligation to be respectful to the boat and its history.”

Those opposed to the boat’s presence in Sleepy Hollow say they don’t discount the historic value or the beauty of the McKean.

“It’s a nice boat. It’s in the wrong place,” said Michael Aaronson, adding that “it should be in a museum somewhere.”


Standing in the ground-floor living room of his townhouse along the inlet, Aaronson pointed toward the boat, which filled the better part of the view framed by the glass doors to his backyard.

“Look at what that did — I used to be able to see the city,” he said.

Aaronson may not have to wait long to see New York’s skyline again. Taylor said that when construction on the new bridge is complete, he plans to pull his boat in lengthwise along the dock — under an apartment building currently being built.

“That’s going to be all new owners,” Aaronson’s wife, Nancy, said of the new development. “They’re not going to be happy.”

Twitter: @AgrawalNina