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The Influence of Transportation on the Decline of South Street Seaport

by Brooke Burdge

Ferryboat Frustrations

In 1882, just one year before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, a newspaper article reported that there were over 200 separate shipping lines currently operating in the New York harbor, thirty of which were privately-run ferryboat lines.1 Before bridges and tunnels, the ferry was the only way of travel to and from the island of Manhattan. People were forced to deal with the limitations of travel by ferry, since there were no other available choices.

Due to the high costs of property in Manhattan, many people opted to live outside of Manhattan and travel to work on ferries. One significant “ferry suburb” was Brooklyn, located directly across from the South Street Seaport. People would travel across the East River on the Fulton Ferry, which provided a route of passage between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Before the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Fulton Ferry was the only way for Brooklyn-ites to gain entry into Manhattan. Docking directly at the seaport, the Fulton Ferry encouraged immediate contact with South Street area.

The ferries posed a wide range of problems to travel and trade, ultimately causing people to seek more effective alternative forms of transportation such as bridges, tunnels, and roadways. Accidents on the harbor were certainly a common occurrence during the time of ferryboat predominance—primarily from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Ferryboats would often collide with passing freighters, excursion steamers, oyster boats, and other ferries on the water. In 1901, a Staten Island ferry collided with a Jersey Central ferry, resulting in the deaths of five passengers onboard1 However, possibly the most deadly of all harbor disasters in ferry history didn’t involve a collision but rather a mechanical nightmare1 In 1871, a boiler explosion on a Staten Island ferry called The Westfield took the lives of 66 ferry passengers and crew1 Both of these devastating incidents, along with many other accidents on the New York harbor and in the direct vicinity of the South Street Seaport, ignited public outcry against the dangers and inadequacies associated with ferryboat transportation1

In addition to collision and mechanical failures, the public was also greatly discontented with the conditions onboard the ferryboats. Ferries were frequently very crowded, and passengers complained about the dirty and uncomfortably cramped conditions1 In 1873, an editorial ran in the New York Times that exposed the hot, overcrowded conditions onboard the Fulton Ferry1 Before the construction of bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and the George Washington Bridge in 1931, and tunnels, such as Path train tunnels in 1908 and the Holland Tunnel in 1927, no alternative forms of transportation existed for people to get into and out of Manhattan. The ferryboat was king of the harbor and the people relied strongly upon the ferryboat lines to get to where they needed to be. Even railroad lines were not direct routes into the city. Any railroad line that offered service to Manhattan also had to promise a ferry service connection for the last leg of the trip or else the passengers had no means of getting to their final destinations.1

Another dilemma that ferryboat passengers faced was the ferry’s reliance on the water and vulnerabilty to the powers of nature. Ferries were much more difficult to operate during inclement weather. During the wintertime, ice would become stuck all over the paddlewheels of the ferries. Teams of up to 100 men had to struggle to get the ice off the wheels so that the frozen ferry could be mobilized into action again1 Additionally, ferryboats would also often get stuck and frozen into large chunks of floating ice1 These environmental setbacks, combined with the high chance of accidental collisions, mechanical failures, and unsatisfactory travel conditions, greatly dissatisfied the ferryboat passengers and made many of them extremely impatient for the development of another mode of transportation in and out of Manhattan1 The ferryboat “service” became more of the ferryboat “nuisance.” 1 In 1883, the ferryboat would have to surrender its throne as the predominant king of the harbor and make way for a new dominant form of transportation: The Brooklyn Bridge.

The Impact of the Brooklyn Bridge on the Seaport

The importance of the ferryboats in regard to the South Street Seaport is that they provided the people with direct contact with the southern tip of Manhattan. The Fulton Ferry was a particularly important ferryboat line in this respect since it offered a direct route for Brooklyn-ites into Manhattan through entry at the South Street Seaport. Once the Brooklyn Bridge was opened, many former ferryboat riders chose to pass over the East River on the Brooklyn Bridge instead of on the ferries. Bridges and tunnels overshadowed the predominance of the ferryboats1

Before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, ferryboats ruled the harbor and controlled the way people accessed Manhattan. If, for example, a Brooklyn resident wanted to get to Manhattan, they had to do so by traveling upon a ferryboat such as the Fulton Ferry. This ferryboat would then dock along the South Street Seaport. From there, the ferryboat passenger was to traverse the seaport area by foot, increasing the likelihood that he or she would stop by some of the local merchant shops, or perhaps make a stop at the Fulton Fish Market. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened, people were now able to enter into Manhattan on a carriage, or perhaps by foot on the bridge’s promenade. It therefore became more likely that they would simply continue past the seaport area, remaining on route to their final destination. The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge resulted in the decentralization of the seaport as the core point of entry into Manhattan. Now there was another option of transport available for those ferryboat passengers who were frustrated with the conditions and setbacks of the ferryboat lines. The decentralization of the seaport as a main point of entry into Manhattan intensified even more so as various other options of entry into the city developed through the years, including Path train tunnels through the Hudson River in 1908, the Holland Tunnel beneath the Hudson in 1927, and the George Washington Bridge spanning over the Hudson in 1931. It became feasible to enter into Manhattan without ever coming into contact with a ferryboat or with the South Street Seaport.

An article that appeared in the New York Times on April 3, 1868 reported on the development of the Brooklyn Bridge project, calling the construction of the bridge “less a complicated one, than a great one.”2 The article goes on to discuss the complex difficulty in constructing such a monumental structure. It states that one of the key reasons for this complexity is that the shores upon which the bridge will be “thrown across” are both “completely built over and densely populated.” 2 Apparently, the public was giving some consideration to the impact that the bridge would have directly on the seaport area. It would result in an increase of property costs in the “ferry suburb” community of Brooklyn, as well as a potential decrease in business for the ferryboat lines. Even poet Walt Whitman saw the need for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The language of his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” suggests that Whitman saw the ferry as a highly inefficient way for millions of people to cross the river.3 As demonstrated by the eventual construction and opening of the Brooklyn Bridge on May 24, 1883, the need to enhance rapid transportation outweighed the need to consider the effects of the bridge structure on the nearby communities.

The writer of the abovementioned New York Times article boldly made the claim that “the ferries will still remain to transport such passengers and vehicles as can more easily or conveniently pass by them than over the bridge. The quickest transportation, for persons and teams happening to be near the river, will still be by the ferries.” 2 The writer of this article predicted that the main business of the bridge would likely be to transport merchandise and that the ferryboats would still remain to be the most desirable way for pedestrians to gain access into the city.2 On September 30, 1876, the Tribune published an editorial that questioned the future value of the Brooklyn Bridge.3 Regarding the raised promenade which was going to be built above the automobile traffic of the bridge, the writer of the editorial claims that “for foot passengers it will be of no great importance; after its novelty is over people will think a walk over the bridge more wearisome than a ride on a ferry boat.” 3

Just what was the actual impact of the Brooklyn Bridge upon the ferryboat industry and consequently the South Street Seaport? Initially following the bridge’s opening in May 1883, there was a significant drop in passenger ferry rates.1 Ironically, after this initial drop, the figures began to swing greatly in the opposite direction.1 A New York Times article published on April 10, 1896 explained that people were discovering that the ferry was a “good thing,” especially when the Brooklyn Bridge was congested around peak rush hours.1 After the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, several ferryboat lines remained in use. The bridge, however, marked the beginning of additional transportation options in New York City, detracting the focus further away from the seaport area because of the increasing number of additional prominent points of entry into the city, over both the East and Hudson Rivers.

Other Options of Transportation

Alternatives to the ferryboat would continue to arise after the development of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. The Brooklyn Bridge provided transportation over the East River, but the gap between the Hudson River and New Jersey had yet to be conquered. Path tunnels going through the Hudson River first appeared in 1908.1 The Holland Tunnel was opened in 1927, followed by the George Washington Bridge in 1931.1 Throughout the city, more and more methods of transportation were being constructed. There were now additional routes into Manhattan, other than through the southern tip at the seaport. Even though ferryboats continued to function throughout the 20th century and into today, the South Street Seaport lost its place as an important point of entry into the island of Manhattan. It gradually lost its direct contact with travelers.

One reason for the expansion of transportation in the 20th century was World War II. The war provided the necessary momentum to greater develop the transportation industry.4 These advancements would not have occurred so rapidly had the nation been under normal circumstances.4 Americans of the post-World War II era felt the need to get where they needed to be as quickly as possible and in the most efficient manner.5 A 1959 Newsweek article cited the rise of transportation as a result of the “national passion for haste.” 1 The more quickly products could be at the marketplace, the more quickly a profit could be made. This mindset of transporting people and products as quickly and effectively as possible can account for the expansion of transportation in the 20th century, including the rise of bridges, tunnels, highways, railroads and the manufacture of automobiles. Goods could be transported in more cost and time efficient manners than shipping, such as railroads and trucks, and so the South Street Seaport was losing some of its significance as a central hub for trade and travel. Advances in transportation, beginning with the Brooklyn Bridge and continuing throughout the 20th century, yielded great, direct impact on the South Street Seaport.

Endnotes

1. Solberg, Sarah. “New York Ferryboats: Three and a Half Centuries in the Harbor.” Seaport Magazine 16 (Fall 1982): 10-16.

2. “The Brooklyn Bridge Project,” The New York Times, 3 Apr 1868, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2004), 4.

3. Trachtenberg, Alan. Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.

4. Mott, George. Transportation Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.

5. Condit, Carl. The Port of New York. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

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