Relics from Rye Cliff wreck on display

Sara Reres, director of the Sea Cliff Village

Sara Reres, director of the Sea Cliff Village Museum and Glenn Williams, an oceanologist, hold a brass engine vaccuum from the Rye Cliff ferry which burned and sank off Sea Cliff's shore in 1918. (Jan. 10, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan)

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Only a few divers have seen the remains of the Rye Cliff since the ferryboat burned and sank at its dock in Sea Cliff in 1918.

But now it will be easier to view artifacts from the vessel, thanks to college professor Glenn Williams.

The Mount Sinai resident has spent a decade researching the ferry and collecting artifacts from the wreck site. After a successful temporary exhibit of Rye Cliff relics at the Sea Cliff Village Museum two years ago, Williams donated some of his finds to the museum for its first permanent exhibit on the vessel.

The display, which opened this week, includes a brass vacuum gauge from the ferry's engines, a mechanic's hammer, bronze hull fastening spikes and nails, glass melted in the fire, intact historic bottles, a piece of hull timber with copper hull sheeting and nails attached, a lump of coal and photographs of the ferry before and after the disaster.

"We wanted to create a permanent exhibit because there was so much interest in Glenn's exhibit when we did it in 2010-2011," museum director Sara Reres said. "I thought it would be great to have a piece of that ferry that's part of the history of this town. Sea Cliff was founded as a resort town and ferries came from the city, so ferries are really central to our history."

Reres said that while the Rye Cliff is little known now except by people who saw the earlier temporary exhibit, "people who grew up here know it very well."

Some of them remember the fire or seeing the remains sticking out of the water afterward. And the father of one current resident went out to the wreckage after the fire and used some of the wood to build a fireplace mantel.

The 137.5-foot-long sidewheel steamship was built in Maine and launched in 1898. It was traveling between Sea Cliff and Rye Beach in Westchester County six times a day when, on Sept. 28, 1918, it caught fire at the Sea Cliff pier -- destroying the pier in the process.

It burned to the waterline before sinking in 25 feet of water in Hempstead Harbor several hundred yards offshore near the mouth of Glen Cove Creek.

Williams, 57, a scuba instructor, professor of physical sciences at Nassau Community College and a senior lecturer at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, first explored the wreck in 1992 and made more than 300 dives over the following decade.

"The visibility averages 1 to 2 feet," he said.

He worked with a team of six divers to excavate and map the wreck until the project was finished in 2010. Williams said a boiler rises 4 1/2 feet from the bottom and much of the hull below the waterline remains intact.

The dive team collected hundreds of artifacts.

The museum, at 95 Tenth Ave., next to Village Hall and the library, is open Sundays 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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