From 1928 until 1945, Noble worked as a seaman on schooners and in marine salvage. In 1928, while on a schooner that was towing out down the Kill van Kull, the waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, he saw the old Port Johnston coal docks for the first time. It was a sight, he later asserted, which affected him for life. Port Johnston was “the largest graveyard of wooden sailing vessels in the world.” Filled with new but obsolete ships, the great coalport had become a great boneyard. In 1941, Noble began to build his floating studio there, out of parts of vessels he salvaged and from 1946 on, he worked as a full-time artist, setting off from his studio in a rowboat to explore the Harbor. These explorations resulted in a unique and exacting record of Harbor history in which its rarely documented characters, industries, and vessels are faithfully recorded.
Although he was raised in artistic circles and quickly gained recognition for his work, Noble always remained intimate with the people of the Harbor. “I’m with factory people, industrial people, the immigrants, the sons of immigrants,” he asserted. “It gives life to it.” Late in his life, Noble recalled his first compelling views of New York Harbor. “I was crossing the 134th Street Bridge on the Harlem River on a spring day in 1928, and I was so shocked–it changed my life. I was frozen on that bridge, because both east and west of the bridge were sailing vessels. And I thought sailing vessels, you know, were gone… There it was, and I couldn’t eat, or anything; I was so excited.” By the time of his death in the spring of 1983, shortly after the passing of his beloved Susan, the sailing vessels he loved were all gone, and the maritime industry in the Harbor had diminished significantly.