A former Staten Island ferry, docked on the Raritan River since the mid-1970s.
The Mary Murray, decommissioned in 1975, was part of a class of steam ferries that carried thousands of people daily into Manhattan and back.
EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J., March 4 — In this age of online auctions, rapid-fire sheriff’s sales and everything-must-go closeouts, who has not made an exorbitant purchase only to tuck it away in a closet or garage once at home, its usefulness a sudden mystery?
For George Searle, there is very little he can do to keep his biggest impulse buy a secret. His relatives have rolled their eyes about it. Millions of drivers along the New Jersey Turnpike have gawked at it. And state environmental officials, after threatening fines and penalties, have started their latest assault on it.
For the better part of three decades, Mr. Searle has been the proud owner of the Mary Murray, an old Staten Island ferry that he bought at auction and had towed up the Raritan River to the marina here where he lives and works. And ever since, its rusting and unmistakable outline has been a landmark for turnpike motorists crossing the Raritan near Exit 9.
Now, after a permit for the ferry expired last year and plans to refurbish it fell through, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection is trying to decide just how to make Mr. Searle remove the decaying vessel, which it describes as a low-level hazard.
“We’re aware of the status of the ferry and its storied history,” said Darlene Yuhas, a spokeswoman for the agency, which has worked on Mr. Searle’s case with the Tidelands Resource Council, a state government group that helps regulate such matters. “We’ll be working closely with the council to decide the next step.”
Mr. Searle is not waiting for the state. He’s already enlisted family members and a cadre of workers to help him start preparing the ship for removal or whatever its fate may be. But like so many others who have made “why did I ever buy that” purchases, Mr. Searle, 79, a former merchant mariner, is finding that getting rid of the boat is a challenge.
After spending the past 25 years berthed on the tidelands here as part of an agreement with the state, the rotting vessel might not be stable enough to be towed away using conventional methods. The presence of asbestos on the ship complicates any plans to destroy it and cart it away. And, in any case, the price tag for most solutions — upwards of a million dollars, the Searle family says — is out of reach.
So, the Mary Murray sits, much to the chagrin of both the state and the ship’s still-proud owner.
“To him that thing is a work of art,” said Mr. Searle’s daughter Georgeann Searle. “It’s killing him to have to get rid of it.”
But go it must, say environmentalists, even as they acknowledge a bit of grudging respect for the old ship’s grandeur, however faded.
“Think of how many streams and rivers you drive over, and you don’t give it a second thought,” said Bill Schultz, the Raritan Riverkeeper. “It might not be the most favorable of landmarks, but if nothing else it gives people reason to think of my river.”
Mr. Searle, who has also endured complaints from neighbors and even a lawsuit from the state, wishes that those thoughts would stay on the river — and not on the ferry, which does not seem docked on the river so much as stuck in the mud.
Already a bit of a recluse, Mr. Searle does not like to talk about the Mary Murray for fear of further antagonizing those who would like to see it shipped away. Nor does Mr. Searle revel in news accounts about the vessel, one of about a dozen boats that are stored at the disused marina he owns here, which rests just a few hundred feet from where he and some of his children live within a few houses of one another.
So it fell to Ms. Searle to reluctantly offer her family’s perspective on the boat, which she said came into her father’s possession with a half-hearted bid in an auction shortly after the vessel was decommissioned in 1975.
“He didn’t think he was going to get it,” Ms. Searle said. “He told my mom to call and see who had won.”
To Mr. Searle’s surprise, he was told that the boat was his for a sum that he surely felt was modest but which has since been lost to family lore.
“Then,” Ms. Searle recalled, “they said, ‘Come and get it.’ ”
The Mary Murray, named for a Revolutionary War figure, had served Staten Island Ferry riders since 1938. It was part of a once-grand class of 300-foot-long steam ferries that carried thousands of people daily into Manhattan and back.
With the construction of the tunnels and the emergence of faster vessels, the old steamers were sold off. Many became floating cafes. A few were sunk to create manmade reefs. One, the Elizabeth, endured the indignity of being converted into a Hooters restaurant.
Mr. Searle, whose love of the sea and watercraft stems from his boyhood days near the docks in Elizabeth, N.J., and his time as a member of the United States merchant marine, apparently wanted to spare the Mary Murray from a similar fate.
He had the boat towed up the Raritan to his marina near the lazy — and lazily christened — “No-Name Creek” and started dreaming: Could the Mary Murray become a restaurant, a floating ferry museum, a reef?
While Mr. Searle tried to give it a new identity, the rusting ferry began to gain one of its own: landmark and, most painfully, eyesore.
The state sued Mr. Searle in 1981 because the boat was docked in the middle of the river, and the next year he reached a settlement in which he promised to keep the boat moored, more or less, on the tidelands in view of the turnpike.
In 1999, after environmental officials lodged another complaint, Mr. Searle brokered another deal under which he would be allowed to annually renew a special permit to keep the boat in place for seven years. The final permit expired last year.
Ms. Searle would not let a pair of visitors into the old marina to get a closer view of the boat. But even from afar, a glimmer of the boat’s old glory showed through.
More than a few of its windows below the wraparound promenade have been lost to vandals and time. Its faded orange paint job now drips with rust. And some of the smokestacks on the roof seem to have been eaten away by decay. But the columns and arches recall the vessel’s Art Deco design, and its football-field-size mass and its double-decker construction recalls its sturdiness.
Off to the left of the old ferry, a modern yacht could be seen. That, Ms. Searle said, was another of her father’s purchases. According to family lore, the shinier ship used to be owned by a former shah of Iran.
“He sailed that one up here,” Ms. Searle said,
shaking her head. “My dad has always been a little eccentric.”