You must look closely to discern what’s left of Kingston’s past as an important industrial center of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once home to some of the nation’s largest cement works, bluestone companies, and brickyards, Kingston’s economy has evolved into one based on service industries rather than manufacturing. But the remains of its industrial heyday can be seen in the repurposed factory buildings throughout the city, the stone kilns along East Strand, and the brick stacks and sheds along Rondout Creek and the Hudson River. Today, Kingston’s industrial heritage is kept alive by two businesses still operating in the city: Binnewater Ice Company and Feeney Shipyard.
Binnewater Ice Company operates out of a brick and cinder block building on South Pine Street. When it was founded in 1910, there were at least seven other ice companies in the area and competition was fierce to supply ice blocks to the growing metropolis of New York City. Until the 1930s the company procured the ice blocks in the winter by cutting them from frozen lakes The blocks were then stored in a huge ice house where they were packed with insulating hay. Thus stored, the ice would last through the summer and was shipped by barge or rail mostly for use in New York City, but also to far away climes like the Caribbean and even India.
The original buildings were constructed of wood and when they were torched by a competitor, Binnewater Ice Company rebuilt them. A year later, its buildings were destroyed by explosives said to have been planted by another competitor. Determined to continue in the still booming ice industry, Binnewater rebuilt again. Maybe due to all this effort, Binnewater was one of the last local ice companies to install ice manufacturing equipment at its facility – it seems the company really was reluctant to abandon the option of cutting “natural ice” as it held on to its cutting rights on Williams Lake until 1999!
By the 1970s, when current owner Gordon Davenport bought the company, Binnewater was the only ice company still in business in Kingston. In the 1980s the Davenports added bottled water to their products. They continued to make ice on site until about three years ago. According to Dianne Davenport the old technology was inefficient, and getting the parts needed to keep it going was just too difficult.
Binnewater still supplies block and cube ice, but its products and services have grown to include bottled spring water in bottles sized from 8 ounces to 5 gallons, coffee and tea along with related needs like cups, sugar and creamer, and delivery of the above items to homes and offices in four counties. Binnewater can also supply its customers with rock salt, ice melt chemicals and firewood. A more recent addition to its offerings are custom labeled water bottles which offer local businesses and organizations a unique marketing opportunity by putting their names and logos in a very visible place and directly into consumers’ hands.
Feeney Shipyard is another business that is carrying on in an industry that played a major role in the development of Kingston. Beginning in the 1800s with the Delaware and Hudson Canal, and continuing through the mid-20th century heyday of the NY State Barge Canal (modernized Erie and Champlain Canals,) Rondout Creek bustled with tugs and barges as a major east coast port. In the early 1900s it was home of the largest marine towing company in the world, the Cornell Steamboat Company. The company now known as Thomas J. Feeney Enterprises, Inc. was also in business then.
Founded over 100 years ago, this family business has skillfully adapted to changes in technology and transportation trends, and today employs over 30 skilled workers from the Kingston area. Feeney is able to offer superior service at slightly less cost than the shipyards closer to New York City. As to how Kingston might best attract new industry, Tim Feeney said he thinks the problems lie at the state level. “Our local government wants to do more to attract and retain business, but taxation, compensation costs and environmental review process kill projects before they can get started. These problems, coupled with the utter dis-functionality of the New York State Assembly and Senate, prevent many solid companies from even considering New York as a potential locale for a new or expanding business,” he said.
In 1904, when Thomas A. Feeney started his shipyard, the D&H Canal was newly defunct but traffic on the Barge Canal was booming. Feeney specialized in the construction of wooden barges and scows, and between 1917 and 1931 built an average of 14 per year. During the same time, the company was building its own fleet of barges, acquired several tugboats and entered the lucrative towing business on the Barge Canal and Hudson River.
In 1941 the shipyard was retooled to meet the demands of the emerging market for steel-hulled barges. In 1959 Thomas J. and Bernard A. Feeney took over the operation, and over the next decade the yard prospered, expanding it towing fleet to eight tugs and 40 barges, and constructing some 75 barges. Due to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, canal traffic declined in the 1970s and Feeney’s towing business was hard hit. In response, the company constructed a 1500-ton floating dry dock and focused on their repair business.
By the early 1980s the shipyard was under the sole ownership of Thomas R. Feeney. He embarked upon an ambitious modernization of the yard’s equipment in order to stay competitive in modern steel repair techniques. Scow and barge repair became the company’s bread and butter for the next 20 years. During these years, Feeney was also able to undertake a few new construction projects including scows, a crane barge and a 180’ dry dock hull. It became clear that the company’s future lay in repair, not construction.
A new opportunity to specialize in tug repair has been seized by the current generation of Feeneys – Tim and Sean. The yard recently completed several installations of bow pins on traditional tugs to allow use in an ATB (Articulated Tug Barge) system, which is a new method of coupling a tug and barge using an articulated or “hinged” connection system.
Recent improvements to the shipyard include 350’ of new bulkhead, new heated fabrication and repair shops and a second dry dock. Although maintaining a competitive edge in a modern industry, Feeney prides itself on its traditions. Its corporate goals include the expected promise to provide customers with on time and on budget services, but also include pledges to provide its employees with a safe and friendly atmosphere, and to provide its community with a clean and environmentally responsible business.
On paper, the history of the company shows that it has been passed from father to son through three generations, but when asked about the role of Feeney women, General Manager Tim Feeney stresses that it was they who have contributed the “strong, supporting voice of reason” over the last 100 years. “I know for a fact that without my great grandmother, grandmother, mom, wife and sister-in-law that this business could not have survived this long.” Enter the next generation: Tim’s 18 year old daughter now works part time at the shipyard – in the field with her dad and her uncle.