I met Frank Ganter on a bone-cold day in February 2011. I was writing a story about the Mimi, an 80-year old decrepit French trawler that was laying against his wharf on Meridian Street in East Boston. Ganter’s yard is a muddy half-acre mess on the waterfront directly across from Charlestown's Navy Yard, in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge on Chelsea Creek.
A mangy German shepherd in a crude doghouse, rusted piles of steel and a small clapboard house – Ganter’s – fill out the yard, which overlooks quite possibly the ugliest, most industrial beach in New England.
About the Mimi, Ganter would say little at the time – there were a lot of people interested in the boat and some controversy over its ownership and he thought it best to stay mum. But coming back to see him this fall, I found a welcome, smiling man, eager to share his stories and home.
The more time you spend with Ganter, 69, the more you realize what an anachronism he and his business are in a city where waterfront property is king. Ganter, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, with wispy gray hair and a captain’s belly, stands proudly on a plot of Boston land whose purpose and work hasn’t changed in two hundred years.
JM: You’ve got the shortest commute of anyone I know.
FG: It used to be from Dover, where I lived for 38 years. My kids are all grown and gone. Now I co-own this place with [scrap company] Scrap-It. I used to be full owner, then I put it in my partner’s name and he tried to take it…the court gave me back the yard, because there was a mortgage on it, but they gave him my house (which we had a handshake on). This is my house now.
JM: When we last spoke, you were headed to Dominica for a scrap job.
FG: Yeah, they had ten ships on beaches down there, and so we had to come down and cut them up. They came in a while back, in a hurricane. They were emptied… people had taken out all the money items, so they were just hulls. And the government wanted a clean job so the beach was restored. I just came back from Texas, too, where I was buying a boat. See that boat there [the Acadian Freedom]? It’s those got North Sea stacks on it, which are meant to take fifty-foot waves. The boat I bought last week has stacks, but they’re gulf stacks, meaning they sit on the back. It’s an offshore supply vessel, with tanks for drilling mud and water and carrying fuel for the rigs. We'll use it for towing.
JM: The Mimi was a historical vessel. Have you dismantled other historical boats?
FG: In dives, yes. I’ve been a commercial diver my whole life. We'd dive to wrecks and take spikes and various things off of them, you know, keepsakes…and I had Whitey [Bulger]’s boat here this year. It was the Fair Wind, and it was painted over and called the Girl Joyce. It was kicking around the Fish Pier for a long time. Whitey sold it to [Patrick] Nee, and Nee’s nephew, he had to move it and he talked to me. Then it sunk at our dock and we scrapped it. I thought it would be a clever thought to buy it…it was an interesting boat. Whitey, he took a lot of people one way on it.
JM: Do you only scrap boats?
FG: No, we scrap anything. But this yard is only for marine stuff. We have another yard on Second Street in Chelsea.
JM: What’s a typical day like for you?
FG: Yesterday, I was out here, running the 750 [bulldozer]. All these plates you see right here, these bottom pieces…came from that barge in the water. We took the bottom out. Then we’ll bring in the next barge [we bought], and get that ready to load for cargo. This is a speculative job. We paid a couple hundred thousand for the barge. We bring it in, cut it up, and junk it. We sell it to Polarizer in Chelsea, or a scrapyard over in the shipping docks, where they ship it out of the country. Or we sell it to another scrap buyer, or move it by barge to New York or New Jersey. The shame is, these are really good barges, but they're no good because they're single wall barges, and that's illegal now…because of oil spills.
JM: Have you lived in Boston your whole life?
FG: I grew up in Jamaica Plain, on Danforth St. My family came in 1840 from Germany, and built the German Club at 35 Danforth St…my father died when I was 16. I had no supervision, and I was married by 17…with a kid. I was very brilliant!
But we were married for 38 years and our oldest kid is 50. But my first wife left me [in 1996]. She said, “You're either going to retire from going to sea or I'm out of here.” After the divorce, I stayed down south for three years, but I always had business up here.
JM: Before you bought this land in East Boston, how long did you work at sea?
FG: In the 1970s, I was a tug captain, and had my own boat and my own barges. I was a marine contractor. I did dives, and I did work mostly for the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, State Waterways Division, or Boston Redevelopment. I did [things like] taking out Packet Wharf over where Columbus Park is now.
Then I bought an LST – a landing ship for tanks. They were selling dope auction boats very cheap back then. In the islands of the Caribbean you can do a lot with one. So you advertise in the papers down there, and you got a response. So I'd load it up with cargo here, Haitian cars and trucks, cause there's a hundred thousand Haitians here in Boston. And I'd load up with all that stuff and take it to Haiti.
JM: What was this land like when you bought it in the 80s?
FG: It had eleven sunken barges on it, mostly wooden ones, not steel. They’d been abandoned, illegally.
JM: You’ve seen some risky business drive by your yard over the years.
FG: I knew Arthur Fournier, [Governor] Eddie King’s guy. He had barges he rented out, and took them to sea for burning things…and he was shot thirteen times. He would take in cash for the dumping business and he always had bags of cash on him. So these three crooks peppered him and he survived. Arthur knew me for ten years before he knew I carried too. In Boston, if you didn’t carry [on board], you were a target.
JM: And nowadays?
FG: There’s definitely problems. People for drug money will come after copper or steel on the yard and are willing to fight for it.
JM: How else has your business changed over the last decade?
FG: We used to do a lot more scrapping for the Corps, and the fishing business went really down, and there was a load of boats sunk for insurance that [we scrapped]. Then they started cutting down the amount of fish you could bring in and amount of fare you could work, and I had steel jobs, and a whole bunch of them to raze.
JM: And have more regulations at sea put a damper on your business?
FG: There’s a lot of regulations. We get searched all the time, but then, we go to a lot of bad countries, like Haiti. And half of my crews come out of jail, and half come from Vets that didn't get along with society.
We get stopped by the Coast Guard all the time. They show up unannounced. And even out to sea too. I was 750 miles offshore once, on the other side of Bermuda, bringing in a friend of mine's ship that broke down. And I’m lying in the bunk and Dean says, “Hey, I think the Coast Guard wants to talk to you.” I said, “I didn't hear them on the radio.” I sit up and there's this 200-ft. cutter working with me, a hundred feet away. Immediately, they say, “Stop your engines, we're coming aboard.” They do this to test you. I said, “That’s unacceptable, I’ve got a ship in tow. How about I drop it to two knots and give you a lee on my starboard side?”
JM: Any retirement plans?
FG: I told my son, I’ve tried three or four times and stayed out for three months or six months – I said, “When you find me dead at the wheel, I’m retired.” I can’t stop. I have too much fun.