Schenectady County

Onrust, replica of old Dutch ship, will soon set sail

Two hundred fifty volunteers. A hundred trees. Three years. One perfect ship.

Two hundred fifty volunteers. A hundred trees. Three years.

One perfect ship.

The Onrust is now a golden oak monument to the Dutch who first colonized this region. It is so large that it pokes out of the pole barn erected four years ago to protect it from the elements. Volunteers who once crouched to bend the first boards must now climb ladders to paint the finishing touches.

There was a time when some believed the historically perfect replica of the first ship built on these shores would never come to fruition. There are no written blueprints for Dutch sailing ships. No one knows how to make them anymore. And no one had ever before made such a ship using only historic techniques — even to the extent of bending planks by hand with steam and heat.

But in seven days, that ship that no one could build will be launched in the Mohawk River to join the state’s quadricentennial celebrations.

“When we started this, we had no money, no volunteers, no place to build it,” county Historian Don Rittner said as he took photos of the nearly finished product. “We set up a table at some re-enactment day here at the Mabee Farm and a guy came up and said, ‘My name is George Bowdish, and I have a portable sawmill — do you need any wood cut?’ And I looked at Greta and said: ‘We’re gonna build this ship.’ ”

Greta Wagle became project manager while Rittner searched for funding. The entire ship cost $3 million, much of it in donations of priceless, century-old white oaks.

The worst moment came when they ran out of wood just four trees short of completing the ship.

“We were literally sitting down that day to talk about what we were going to do. We were out of wood. And that day, I got a call about some white oaks that had been cut down by accident,” Rittner said.

“They were cut down, there was nothing they could do, so the town [of Colonie] suggested they donate it to us. That was all the wood we needed.”

He stared up at the ship.

“Things like that happened all the time.”

Wagle spent a year searching for the perfect tree, one with a trunk that had grown in a half-circle and was at least 17 feet long. It would become the transom, the structural support for the ship.

The trouble is that such trees were harvested extensively for boat-building during the 19th century. The only trees Wagle could find were as straight as rulers.

She called all of the sawmills in five counties. Then she called every lumberjack she knew. No one had seen a tree that had grown in a half-circle.

Time grew short. The wood must cure for six months, but with just three months to go before the shipwrights had to install a transom, she still had nothing.

Luckily for her, someone had already cut down the tree she needed. A lumberjack in Feura Bush had chopped it down a year earlier. When she met with him to buy some straight trees, she didn’t even ask about a transom-shaped log — until she saw it in his backyard.

Volunteers hauled it to the Mabee Farm with just enough time to cut it in half before it had to be installed.

“When you face something you think you’re not going to overcome, with this group of people, you always find a solution,” Wagle said. “Almost we’re not afraid anymore of what hurdle we’ll come across.”

Next Wednesday, she will place the ship in strangers’ hands for the first time. Anderson Boat Transport will lift the Onrust out of its pole barn. Burt Crane will lower it cautiously into the river, where a tugboat from the Canal Corp. will be waiting to guide it to Lock 9.

The Onrust will have full sails, but they can’t be rigged until the volunteers raise the 45-foot-tall mast at the lock.

Then they will parade with more modern ships in New York City centennial celebrations in June and September, as well as welcoming tourists at Lock 9 during the local festivals. Next year, the Onrust will become a floating museum to teach children about the overwhelming, yet forgotten, influence of the Dutch.

“Our ideas of tolerance, the right to petition the government, these are all Dutch. The contributions are immense, and it’s never known,” Rittner said.

He fell in love with the idea when he first heard of the Onrust, built on the shore of Manhattan after a Dutch trading ship burned on Christmas 1614.

Capt. Adrien Block and his crew were offered passage back to the Netherlands on another ship, but they decided to stay put and build a new boat in the middle of winter in a foreign land.

With their new, smaller ship, they were able to navigate the Hudson River, which had been explored just five years earlier by Henry Hudson. Block’s maps of the rivers between Manhattan and Cape Cod were so definitive that they remained in use for more than 100 years.

Rittner and Wagle can’t wait to open those maps again. Neither of them has ever sailed down the river to New York City before.

“We want to experience what Adrien Block experienced — obviously, it’s the modern times, but the experience will be the same because we’ve never done this,” Rittner said.

Wagle agreed. The ship is so historically accurate, she said, that she will feel like she’s gone back in time.

“I expect to feel like I was one of the crew on Block’s ship,” she said.

Rittner added, “I’m going to feel like Capt. Block!”

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