Updated: 5:25 p.m. April 3
Pittsburgh is a land of boat wrecks. Naturally.
Given all this traffic, sometimes things go wrong. (Take Bigelow, indeed.)
And while most nautical fails are cleared quickly, others aren’t.
Take, for example, the capsized boat on the Allegheny River just off River Avenue in Troy Hill. If you’ve ever crossed the 16th Street Bridge toward the North Side, you’ve probably spotted it. It’s been there for years, like a forgotten art installation rusting before our eyes.
It’s been there so long, in fact, that a reader turned to The Incline’s Peculiar Pittsburgh series — where readers submit questions and we turn up answers (and often even more questions).
There is a boat capsized on the Allegheny River along River Ave, across the river from 21st St. (approximately). What’s the deal?
Turns out that while the boat’s story is fairly routine, the length of that story is not.
Pittsburgh River Rescue Chief Richard Linn said officials have been trying to track down the owner for years, to no avail. To say this white boat has become his white whale would be to overextend a literary reference in an attempt to sound clever — and I promise not to do that, at least not directly.
But it’s fair to say that Linn finds this case unusual. And that led us down a rabbit hole — and also a muddy river bank in the middle of the day.
The one that got away
So, first things first.
Linn said that capsized boat off River Avenue is a privately owned vessel that now rests on the river bank. It’s been there for years, Linn said, though he wasn’t sure exactly how many.
We walked down to see for ourselves and found the boat rusted and peeling. Sleeping bags and blankets lay nearby.
The boat is on its side with a faded blue — and now extensively graffitied — hull resting on the bank. It sits steps from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail not far from Heinz Lofts. It’s at least 50 feet long. The word “Pittsburgh” is printed on the stern in faded paint, but no other identifiers were immediately visible from our vantage point.
It’s almost certainly a commercial vessel, possibly a tugboat, Linn said, which makes the fact that no one’s claimed it even stranger.
“The white boat off River Avenue is very unusual,” Linn added. “And we’ve been trying to get ahold of the owner and consequently the insurance company to try to get it out of there, but up ’til now we haven’t had any success.”
Linn said he didn’t have any information on the owner but added, “It’s very uncommon for a vessel like this to sit for so long.”
“Because boats are big investments,” he added.
Linn doesn’t know how the white boat got there exactly. He said smaller recreational boats are sometimes ditched after being stolen, but for a commercial vessel like this one, it’s more likely that “something catastrophic happened.”
(After this story first published, more than one reader reached out to say they believed the boat had been moored in Verona, across from where the Steel City Rowing Club is located, up until the flooding seen after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Officials could not confirm the theory.)
River Rescue always checks capsized or seemingly abandoned boats for signs of life. Then they consider the safety hazards posed to other boats — often moving the adrift or damaged one to the side — and then any related environmental hazards, like leaking fuel.
“When our initial response is complete, we’ll contact the Coast Guard and Fish and Boat Commission,” Linn added.
At that point, the search for an owner begins.
Whose boat is it anyway?
Sometimes (but not often) that search proves futile.
Usually, if a boat is stolen and ditched, if one comes unmoored or just stops working while out on the water, authorities will get a call from the owner or someone else who notices first.
In either scenario, most are claimed quickly, Linn insists. It remains the owner’s responsibility to have the boat removed and re-secured — much like when your car breaks down on the side of a highway.
But sometimes no one comes. In those rare cases, removal typically falls to the county or state, said Christopher Davis at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Operations Unit in Louisville.
As one might expect, it can take awhile to resolve the jurisdictional issues there, as well as the legal issues around the requisite condemnation of property. (Pittsburgh’s waterways are federal waterways and regulated — but not necessarily maintained — by the federal government as such.)
Again, Linn said this type of thing is rare.
The county is working to identify the owner of the boat off River Avenue and to “work with our stakeholders, first and foremost, to encourage the owner to take action to remove the craft,” Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs said.
If that doesn’t happen, and if the boat doesn’t impede navigation, Downs said the Coast Guard could turn the boat into a landmark. A corresponding timetable for that wasn’t immediately clear.
As for how often boats are reported loose or missing or abandoned in Pittsburgh, that’s a little harder to nail down. Those calls are most often placed to 911 or River Rescue directly. Some are made to the Coast Guard.
But there’s no central repository for sharing such information between those agencies, meaning it’s hard to come up with an exact total.
For instance, the Coast Guard’s database reflects one report of an abandoned or adrift boat on the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh since 2008, Davis explained.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t more boats beached,” Davis added. Linn assures us there are.
At the moment, Linn said there are maybe half a dozen derelict boats within River Rescue’s area of responsibility — one that extends from the Highland Park Dam on the Allegheny to the Braddock Dam on the Mon and the Dashields Dam on the Ohio.
Of course, most will be claimed quickly.
In rare instances, we’ll be left with an urban shipwreck like the one off of River Avenue as officials try to find an elusive owner before having to do the heavy lifting themselves.
Worst-case scenario, there’s always Chesney’s Navy. Maybe they can help.
A closer look
Since first publishing this piece, we heard from a lot of readers who’d noticed the boat through the years and who had their own questions and theories about how it got there and why it’s remained there for so long.
Reader Larry Gioia provided a very unique perspective, sending us these photos from inside the boat, which he’d taken on a kayaking trip on the Allegheny a while back. Gioia, you may remember, captured this iconic kayak-based photo from inside the flooded bathtub section of the Parkway last year. We thought these images cool as well and wanted to share with you. Thanks, Larry.