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If you were to walk through South Street Seaport today, you might be able to catch a glimpse of its rich history. What we know as South Street Seaport would have been called the Port of New York in its “heyday”, between around 1815 until about 1860, at the outbreak of the American Civil War.  In fact, the Seaport reigned supreme among other American sea ports for the majority of the 19th century. Throughout this time period New York began to establish its roots as one of the most important commercial centers of the world.  In its maritime prime, New York traded with places as far away as Canton and California- quite a long way in a clipper ship. With the opening of the Erie Canal, New York became an important outpost for agricultural trade, as well. Explore to learn all about the Seaport’s days as a bustling commercial port.

Ocean Liners

As South Street Seaport moved into the 19th century, its piers were the recipient of a new invention that would significantly contribute to the start of South Street’s heyday. This invention was the ocean liner. An ocean liner was a package of four or five commercial sailing vessels that, under a single company/line, would take turns to make the transatlantic cross between New York and Europe- in coordination with regular departures that followed a fixed schedule. Aesthetically, these trading vessels were not much different from those of the previous century; however, the concept of a fixed schedule transformed international commerce.

South Street Seaport was the first to use these concepts in 1818. The James Monroe vessel departed from the Black Ball Line on its promised date, despite unfavorable weather conditions and being only half-filled with cargo. Up to this point, a vessel departing on its promised date, due to natural and commercial drawbacks, happened once in a blue moon. The event created a buzz that reverberated throughout the commercial world. Several other liners popped up out of New York, like Red Star, Old Line, and Blue Swallowtail, as well as those in Europe and the east coast of the United States. By September 1818, four liner services each month were sailing for Liverpool on fixed days, which rose to 52 lines by 1845, meaning that an average of 3 transatlantic sailings set sail from New York each week.

Not only was South Street Seaport the first to host these liners, but because of this, South Street received more local goods and international imports than any other port in America. Merchants and civilians across the globe, who either had their own vessels or wanted vessels to export their goods quickly, relied on these liner services. They gave them the most lucrative and desirable branches of the shipping business. As a result, goods from across America, Europe, and Asia accumulated in South Street for transportation and distribution, which caused the port of South Street , and its surrounding piers and streets, to experience an exponential growth.

With the increase in cash flow, money was available to bring South Street visually and functionally up to par with its success. Piers along its edge were improved and more were built. Four and five story brick buildings appeared alongside and behind the piers, extending inland into streets. John Street, Fulton Street, Beekman Street, Water Street, Pearl Street, Peck Slip, and Dover Street , were lined with businesses, counting houses, and auctioneers (see images), as well as home dwellings, ship chandlers, and ship-building companies. These services were vital for the port’s business. Life looked promising for everyone inside or in contact with this New York port. Thanks to the ocean liners, South Street Seaport had begun to climb a ladder of success, and more was to come.

Clipper Ships

Born in the 19th century, the clipper ship was the sort of technological innovation that forever transformed the way people thought and behaved. The motivation for the creation of the clipper was the desire for speed. In every aspect of its design, construction, and treatment, the clipper ship represented a new American ideal: instant gratification.

While speed had always been a desirable attribute for a vessel, it was not the top priority. Clippers set a new precedent, distinguishing themselves not by their high quality of craftsmanship, but by the speed at which they could travel. The shift from high-quality slow craft to rapidly moving clippers of lesser quality was brought about for several reasons.

The migration to the West and, specifically, to California, began in full force on 24 January 1848, when gold was first discovered. The transposition of large numbers to the West Coast meant that trade with the region would yield huge profits. The western settlers were willing to pay a great deal of money for goods. The problem was how supplies and foodstuffs could be transported to the west coast quickly.

Before the rush to California and the first clippers, the established route to California from the east coast was via a steamboat route. One steamboat traveled from New York to the Isthmus of Panama, overland to from the other side of the Isthmus and up the Western coast. However, news of the California rush would cause many New York merchants to start considering the possibility of a faster route to the west.

While the term “clipper” had been applied to the slender, rapid craft being built as early as 1815, the clippers themselves would not become famous until the race to California. When the rush to the west first began, several clippers stood in New York harbor already. These had been built in the early part of the decade and had functioned in the China trade.

The design of the clipper is what set it apart from other ships. Literally, they were built for speed. The hull of the ship was comparatively shallow and sleek. The most salient part of the clipper was the sail. Stretching into the sky and inspiring such names as the Flying Cloud, the sails propelled the clippers at a record speed through the water. The shape of the vessel enabled it to cut through the waves easily, while its relatively shallow hull made the vessel very buoyant. Ship designers continuously experimented with the shape of clippers. Later clippers were relatively flat-bottomed, a feature that made them even faster.

As early as 1853, the business of building clippers began to decline. The market became saturated—even the booming trade in California and Australia (with the gold rush of 1851) could not keep up with the output of New York clippers. The amount of cargo that each ship carried declined, while many sat idle in the harbor. The fashion of building ships rapidly began to wane, but the desire for rapid transportation did not. The “90-day” clipper was the 19th century equivalent of the “New York minute”. Clippers brought a love of speed to New York that remains to this day.

Continue reading about the Journey of Clipper Ships.

View Images of New York Clipper Ships.

Consult the Sailor’s Glossary.


A large portion of America’s economic success in the mid-19th century came from the productivity of the shipbuilding market. American shipyards produced some of the most expensive and most valued ships, packets, and clippers in the world. New York shipyards, in particular, produced vessels of high quality and in high quantities.

The Port of New York was not only a docking place for vessels; it was a location where vessels were built. Shipbuilders prospered at the heart of trade. Their prosperity only increased with the rush in the 1850s to build the largest and fastest clippers. The trend for the comparatively high standards for building clipper ships in New York began in the first half of the 19th century, when the standards for packet ships built in New York were set quite high. Ships built in the Port of New York were known for hardiness and speed, as well as the high quality of the ship and the modernity of its design.

Shipyards lined both the Manhattan and Brooklyn banks of the East River. In the heyday of New York’s port, the ships being built were primarily square-rigged crafts made of wood, especially oak. The raw materials for ships were readily available on the mainland and the labor force in New York did not lack members, especially during the 19th century, when immigrants were pouring in from Europe en masse. While Europeans experimented with the building of iron ships, Americans perfected the art of building the wooden ship.

Renowned for the quality and style of the ships it manufactured, the Port of New York was also known for the sheer quantity of ships that were built there. The East River was the most concentrated area of shipbuilding in the United States. The three greatest shipyards of the East River were probably the Webb-Eckford yard, the Bergh-Westervelt yard, and the Brown-Bell yard. These produced some of the most famous ships and made a fortune in the business, but they represent only a small fraction of the multiple and diverse shipyards dominating the East River.

Commercial yards made up a vast majority of the East River shipbuilding industry, but the government also took advantage of the area to establish a shipyard. The New York Naval Shipyard was established on the site of a former mercantile shipyard, located on the Brooklyn bank, in 1801. It built and outfitted approximately 100 vessels during the War of 1812 and was called upon again during the Civil War to build nine-gun steam sloops and eight-gun side-wheel double-enders. Established by John Quincy Adams, the New York Naval Shipyard continued to build ships well into the 20th century, until it was finally abandoned in 1966.

By the 1870s, the shipyards of the East Coast went into decline, as wooden ships were eschewed in favor of steel and iron ships. The decline of the shipyards accompanied the decline of the port as an imposing figure in New York’s economy. One cannot say for certain whether these two declines are linked or whether one brought about the other. However, it is certain that for a major part of the 19th century, shipbuilding and shipyards made up a huge part of the New York economy, bringing wealth and business into Manhattan.

Merchant Houses

"The packages of merchandise gathered at New York from the ends of the earth penetrated into little back-country stores all the way from Michigan down to Arkansas. Widespread as that activity was, the authority which decided upon those voyages, employed those captains, and called into being those vessels, was concentrated into a few blocks of brick counting houses near the tip of the Manhattan Island. In those surrounds, the merchant princes carried on the manifold aspects of their business."

-Robert Greenhalgh Albion, The Rise of the New York Port

According to the census of 1840, there were 417 commercial houses engaged in foreign trade and 918 commission firms in New York City. These buildings were normally three to five stories high and built primarily of brick. (Although, the more pretentious houses were of granite from Quincy or the Maine coast). The front part of these merchant houses was used as a showroom, where customers were received and goods were inspected. The upper stories served as warehouses for the storage of such goods. In the 1820’s, these merchant houses were advertised as fireproof. However, such claims were dispelled after The Great Fire of 1835 wiped out most of the buildings in the district.

The merchant houses were organized by a strict, entirely masculine hierarchy. At the bottom of the merchant hierarchy were the boys who worked from dawn to dark for a mere dollar or two per week. Above them were copyists, specialized clerks, book-keepers, and the confidential chief clerk (in that order). Most unique about these merchant houses was the absence of women.

The merchants of New York City were a very wealthy and powerful class, that wielded tremendous political influence. Few merchants, however, held office. Those who did were very successful, such as Edwin D. Morgan and Oliver Wolcott Jr., Governors of New York and Connecticut, respectively.

The South Street Seaport was a place for ambitious up-and-comers to establish themselves, because it was seen as a place of opportunity. Therefore, the South Street Seaport attracted many determined men. Merchants and those who worked under them were men of unquestionably varied backgrounds. Many of the more experienced merchants had been trained in the houses of older ports, such as those in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Amsterdam, or Hamburg. There was a large number of transplants from England and Scotland to New York, due to the enormous volume of trade with Liverpool. Some of the merchants were Frenchman, as there were several distinct waves of Frenchmen, who came to New York at varied periods and did remarkably well in the trade. Lastly, many successful merchants were from Connecticut and Massachusetts. All of these men came together to form the merchant class of New York.

Movers and Shakers

If you have ever visited the Seaport, you may have walked down Beekman Slip. Just like any area of commerce and activity, there was serious money behind the scenes at the Seaport of the 19th century. The Beekmans were a prominent and “old” New York City family whose money helped to fuel the seaport, especially during the years leading up to the Heyday and stretching into the late 19th century. During the mid-1800s, ship-building and sea trade were vital to New York’s economy, and these industries required a great deal of start-up money. Commerce on the open ocean was one of the most profitable businesses of the time, and this did not go unnoticed by New York’s elite. With large start up costs, but potentially high returns, families like the Beekmans quickly sunk their money into and monopolized the sea trade.

The China trade was especially profitable, and the clipper ships necessary for successful voyages over such a long distance were very expensive to build and maintain. For this reason, trade between New York and Canton inevitably became dominated by a few wealthy people. For its first voyage alone, the Houqua, built in 1844, cost forty-five thousand dollars, a huge amount of money in the 1840s. Some ships cost more than seventy thousand dollars. For the most part these enormous sums were financed by individual mercantile houses with a lot of flexible money. These initial investments were often returned after the first voyage. The vessels continued to return profits on subsequent voyages, which explains why these “movers and shakers” were willing to put so much money into a small vessel floating halfway around the world. Since making money was the ultimate goal, it was not long before the businessmen behind the journeys associated speed with improved profit. This led shipbuilders in New York to begin constructing clippers destined for shorter voyages.

It is not hard to imagine why, with the discovery of gold in California in the late 1840s, the money behind sea commerce shifted away from China and towards the fastest way to the west coast of our own continent. New York’s wealthy did not overlook this. They soon began to construct the speedy ships of the California trade that began to define New York as a leader in shipbuilding.

Subcultures: The Underworld

Upon entering New York’s South Street Seaport during its heyday, a sailor would have discovered an array of activities to help him unwind after a long voyage. However, in order to do so, he would have had to march into the belly of New York’s underworld.

New York’s underworld was housed in the dilapidated, overcrowded tenements that lined the streets of southern New York. In this maze of vice, a sailor could get lost in the seductive eyes of a call girl, a seemingly bottomless pint of beer, or a rigged game of chance. All of this debauchery was at the fingertips of any sailor passing through New York. He would merely have to take a stroll down Water Street to quench his insatiable thirst for vice.

He could have entered one of the many dive bars. Dive bars were not intended to be aesthetically pleasing. They were intended to get people drunk. Located on the waterfront, they were in a prime location to provide sailors with inexpensive alcohol and a crowd of fellow sinners. From the ruthless crimps, looking to take advantage of any vulnerable sailor, to the shameless prostitutes, who had fallen victim to the vicious cycle of slum life, individuals looking to profit off of vice were drawn to waterfront saloons. There was always a steady supply of eager sea weary sailors looking to let loose after a long trip.

In the 1820s, gambling houses entered the slum social scene. These halls of vice were housed in tenements. Some of these gambling houses even boasted of housing a saloon, brothel, and dance hall in one tenement.

A sailor would also encounter social reformers. These moral crusaders were predominantly evangelical Protestants, attempting to eradicate sin and vice from America.

If a sailor were ever bored aboard a long voyage, a stay in New York would solve his problems. Or rather, create more interesting problems.


Prostitution has always been a part of New York City’s history. At the time of South Street Seaport’s heyday, the public generally accepted prostitution as a nuisance. It was only in the case of disturbances that the almost non-existent police force took action. This was also partly due to the fact that members of the upper-middle class who ran the city also participated in soliciting prostitutes. It was a facet of gentleman culture.

In the waterfront area, the prostitutes generally resided where they did business. It was an economic choice. No other profession provided the opportunity to make what a woman could by selling her body. Prostitutes often lived in a brothel, where business would come to her. If business were slow, she would venture away from the brothel to pick customers up off of the street. There were more “streetwalkers” in the more impoverished areas due to the fact that women weren’t only prostitutes. They were women trying to survive.


While underworld life was fun, it was not always safe for a sailor. One major threat to sailors and other patrons of saloons and gambling houses was Crimps, individuals who specialized in drugging and robbing sailors.

A sailor would be at a saloon having a good time, then wake up in an alley stripped of his clothes or even aboard a ship at sea. Drugging and robbing sailors became such a frequent occurrence that bar owners and the police would arrange a place for the bar owners to leave sailors’ bodies. The police would then take the sailors in for intoxication.

Gambling Houses

The first gambling houses in New York opened in the 1820s. These were large halls housed in tenements. They provided people with a place to bet on animal fights and to play cards.

One of the most popular blood sports of the time was rat fighting. Rats would be pitted against dogs and in several instances a man with boots. One of the gambling houses was called The Rat Pit for this reason.

Faro was a popular card game of the time. It was played extensively in these gambling houses along with many more games involving cards and dice.

Of course, these gambling houses had alcohol. In some instances they had brothels in the tenements, too. Two of the big vice houses were John Allen’s Saloon Cum-Whorehouse and Kit Burn’s Sportsmen’s Hall.

Moral Reformers

Moral reformers attacked the slums on two fronts; temperance and prostitution. Temperance had long been an issue of controversy. Temperance organizations claimed that alcohol was the root of social disturbances. Of course areas such as the waterfront were the frontlines of this battle. These were the areas most adversely affected by alcohol.

In the early 1800s a popular approach to solving the problem of prostitution was rescue. Moral reformers entered the slums to liberate prostitutes from their horrible fates of sexual deviance and sin.

A prominent organization was the Magdalen Society of New York, which was organized in January 1812. Their goal was “to rescue from a profligate course, those unhappy females, who, through neglect of a virtuous education in early life, by mismanagement, by unforeseen accidents, or other untowed circumstances, have been involved in distress, or reduced to a state of misery and despair...”

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