Category Archives: On The Waterfront

Hidden Waters of New York City: Interview with author Sergey Kadinsky

Sergey Kadinsky is our city’s resident Aquaman. His Hidden Waters of New York City was the big New York City exploration guide book of the spring. In a city often characterized by glass, steel and asphalt, it’s magical to consider the metropolis almost like a human body, comprised and reliant upon water for its well-being.

As though armed with a magical divining rod, Kadinsky identifies almost every significant body of water that ever existed in the five boroughs — from ancient reservoirs to the most obscure Staten Island pond — providing modern context and directions for locating them  using public transit.  It’s a combination history book, hiker’s guide and trip planner.  My copy is presently dog-eared in about twenty places with living streams and lakes that I intend to visit this summer for my own personal mini vacations.



But the waterways that are no longer here are, in a way, even more intriguing, highlighting how New York was often sculpted around bodies of water before they were filled in or buried with the modernity of the city.

And there are a surprising number of old waterways that have disappeared relatively recently. For instance Jackson Pond in Queens. According to Kadinsky: “In 1966, the lake was dried and covered with concrete after the city determined it to be an unsafe ice-skating site.” Oh, but a Jackson Pond Playground sits upon the ghostly outline of this forgotten water today!

How do you even begin putting together such an ambitious project? Kadinsky is well suited for the task. He’s a long-time Queens resident, staff member at the New York Parks Department and an adjunct professor of history at Touro College. I asked Kadinsky a few questions about how his project came together:

Your book really identifies New York’s inescapable connection to water in almost every aspect of its history.  How did you develop the idea to find every water sources (past and present) and put them together in a guide book?

For more than a decade preceding the book, I’ve worked as a Gray Line tour guide, newspaper reporter and Touro College adjunct. These experiences gave me an ability to tell a story in a an easygoing, detailed, and captivating manner.

In my spare time, I led tours and contributed stories to Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten-NY, a blog that has become a book and subject of tours and lectures. It inspired me to think of a specific hidden city element that I felt was not receiving its due.

Seeing the success of Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller’s book Other Islands of New York City, I remembered my childhood exploring the backyard brooks of Riga, Latvia, and my parents’ home a block away from Meadow Lake in Queens and a rare grid-defying street on their block. I then recognized that I’ve found my niche.

That’s how Hidden Waters of New York City came to be. Other Islands is a blend of history, travel, and geology, with a journalist’s eye for detail and research. I followed its method in documenting the hidden waterways.

Silver Lake in Staten Island, photographed here in 1915 (and featured on pgs. 246-248 in Kadinsky’s book. Photo courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Hidden Waters feels something like a hiker’s guide to the city.  How much walking around and on-foot exploration did you do while researching it?

When it comes to exploring streams that have become sewers, I’ll leave this task to Steven Duncan. Likewise, when it comes to abandoned properties, I’ve found Nathan Kensinger’s reporting helpful in my research. I took a Circle Line around Manhattan and a Seastreak to Sandy Hook, but have yet to take a boat tour of Newtown Creek or a paddle a canoe down the Bronx River.
I explored the streams on foot and bike, following their banks and recognizing the disparity in public waterfront access. While it is possible to almost entirely circumnavigate the shoreline of Manhattan thanks to ribbons of parkland, places like Bowery Bay and Flushing Bay are not as accessible. Only a few dead-end streets allow for views of the water, and the water is not so fine.

As a historian and Parks Department analyst, I had access to old maps, reports, and photographs. There’s plenty of exploration that you can do at your desk or online. The Municipal ArchivesNew York Public Library, and Museum of the City of New York have excellent online resources on the city’s past. Finally, for GIS aficionados, the DoITT NYCity Map is second to none, followed my the NYPL Map Collection, and MCNY’s Mapping Staten Island online exhibit.

The path of old Minetta Creek from Egbert Viele’s Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York (1865). 


Perhaps the most famous body of water in Manhattan in one that doesn’t really exist above ground – Minetta Brook. You’ll find its name everywhere and, as you mention, it’s dutifully traced by tour guides. What accounts for its appeal and does it truly exist as strictly an underground stream today as some claim?

Minetta Brook’s place in local lore goes back to the Native period, when it was believed to be possessed by a spirit. The neighborhood’s love of history and storytelling ensured that it would never be forgotten, surveyors laid out the streets and with local culture in mind, Minetta Lane and Minetta Street appeared on the map.

In the 19th century following its burial, flooding in basements built along its former course was a persistent problem. Engineer Egbert Ludovicus Viele dutifully noted and mapped these floods and ascribed them to Minetta Brook. He preceded me by 150 years in tracing Manhattan’s hidden waterways.

The 1938 extension of Sixth Avenue though Greenwich Village created small triangular parks near the brook’s former course- another opportunity to restore it to the map with Minetta Green and Minetta Playground. Historical preservationism, tourism, and a way of imagining a pre-urban Greenwich Village, all appeal to Minetta Brook’s popularity.

I do not think that the brook is flowing today underground along its former course. Its sources in the Flatiron District have been covered entirely with buildings. Streets running atop its course have sewers that do not follow the stream bed’s path. Nevertheless, the soil is much softer where creeks once flowed, and that helps explain for the flooding and groundwater. Even the famous well at Two Fifth Avenue could simply be ground water not necessarily associated with Minetta Brook, though the location makes sense.

Flushing Creek, with the sites of the old World’s Fair in the distance.

Photo courtesy Friends of Flushing Creek
Photo courtesy Friends of Flushing Creek

What is personal favorite body of water in the New York five boroughs (exempting  the Hudson and East Rivers of course)?

Flushing Creek, because it’s a block away from my parents’ home and a five minute drive from my home. Unlike Gowanus CanalNewtown Creek and Bronx River, this creek does yet not have a grassroots citizen-led conservancy group. The creek flows through a series of conditions such as a nature preserve, a recreational lake, a canal beneath highways, a tunnel, Willets Point, and into Flushing Bay.

The creek was a former salt marsh turned ash dump turned fairground turned park. There was talk in 2008 of daylighting the underground sections of it, but heavily used soccer fields are in the way. The creek was also slated for a grand prix racetrack in the 1980s and an Olympic venue in the past decade.

Adding to the subject are the creek’s tributaries, Mill Creek in College Point, Kissena Creek, and Horse Brook, which also are worth mentioning considering their rich histories.

Coe’s Mill on Horse Brook

Courtesy Hidden Waters blog
Courtesy Hidden Waters blog

You mention a great number of old waterways that were completely unknown to me. What was the most surprising discovery you made in your research?

This one is very close to home, Coe’s Mill on Horse Brook, which was demolished in 1930 to make way for what would become the Long Island Expressway.

Not enough books mention the English settlers who lived in New Netherlands having fled England and New England in search of religious freedom. Feeling a lack of respect and recognition from the Dutch, they petitioned England to annex the colony. It was like our own Crimea.

Unlike the Bowne House in nearby Flushing, nothing is left of Coe’s Mill. The mill provided food for the settlement of Newtown, one of the original towns of Queens that is now known as Elmhurst. Seeking a path of least resistance when it came to acquiring land for a road, the city built the Long Island Expressway atop the filled stream bed.

A year ago, I wrote a letter to Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, whose district covers this site, requesting to rename a nearby footbridge after the mill, and I have yet to hear back from her.

Alley Pond Park in 1936, before it was rudely interrupted with highways.
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Getting back to the notion of Hidden Waters as a pure nature guide, where would you direct people to go in the five boroughs if they really a little bit of the feeling of ‘getting away from it all’?

Alley Pond Park has the creeks and scenery but because it has highways running through it, it’s difficult to appreciate the place. Even deep in the woods where you can’t see any civilization, you hear cars whooshing nearby. That’s why the Greenbelt in Staten Island is truly the get away park in the city. It has forests, creeks and ponds, but no sounds of motorists driving past.

Check out Sergey’s truly excellent Hidden Waters Blog for more information on New York’s fantastic water sources. His book is currently on book shelves


The tale of Newgate, the New York state prison in the West Village

You may not be aware of the Weehawken Historic District, a collection of 14 buildings of unique architectural character in the far West Village.  It lies at the foot of Christopher Street and centers around the one-block-long Weehawken Street. You really should take a stroll down here. It will take you all of one minute; the street is approximately 63 feet long.

But a surprising structure once sat on this very spot two hundred years ago — Newgate Prison, the official state prison of New York from 1796 to 1828.

The city of New York was still very much confined to the area below today’s Canal Street. The new prison lay on the outskirts of Greenwich Village, a hamlet of farms and estates that served as New York’s first suburb of sorts. Just a few feet from Newgate was the Greenwich Market, south of Christopher Street (on the spot of the big red, Federal Archives Building).

The prison was considered a progressive upgrade to New York’s dreadful Bridewell Prison, which sat near the area of today’s City Hall.  Built before the Revolutionary War, Bridewell had no windows and wretched facilities; prolonged incarceration here often met death.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


With Newgate, enlightened reformers moved the prison out of the middle of town — always a good thing — and nearest the water, providing better ventilation and access to ferry transportation. “A more pleasant, airy, and salubrious spot could not have been selected in the vicinity of New York,” said one writer in 1801.*

Newgate was named (or rather nicknamed) for its larger, more infamous counterpart in London which became a favorite setting in Charles Dickens novels. New York’s Newgate was similarly ominous, with high stone walls mirroring the shape of forts along the waterfront.  Indeed Fort Gansevoort, in the area of today’s Meat-Packing District, was built several years after Newgate.

Below: From the original 1796 survey of the spot where Newgate was constructed. Today’s Weehawken Street would have been later laid at the spot of the prison’s western border. Skinner Street would later be known as Christopher Street. Amos Street is now West 10th Street.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

This soon proved an inadequate and ill-placed facility. Overcrowding led to prison riots and jail breaks, hardly the behavior you want to see across the street from a civilized public market. By the 1820s, the area of Greenwich Village became desirable real estate as the boundaries of New York — bolstered by the slow development of the 1811 Grid Plan — moved northward.

The western edge of Greenwich Village would be spared from the installing the grid thanks to tenacious land-owners. But it certainly wouldn’t do to have a wily prison sitting next to a developing neighborhood. In 1824, former New York mayor Stephen Allen (technically the first elected mayor) was put in charge of relocating the state prison to someplace more remote. And so, in 1828, Newgate’s prisoners were transferred to a new facility — in Sing Sing.

Weehawken Street in 1900 looking south….

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photo by Robert Bracklow, Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

… and north.


The hefty walls of Newgate were torn down, and  l’il Weehawken Street — all 63 feet of it —  was then created and paved in 1830.

By the way, Weehawken Street did get its name from the town of Weehawken, as it was the dock of a colonial ferry that connected with the picturesque New Jersey town. Weehawken was the site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.

They both get their name from the same Lenape Indian source meaning either “place of gulls” or “place of rocks that look like trees.”



*From the official Weehawken historic designation

A Haunting Look Inside the Lusitania

The Lusitania gets dwarfed by recollections of the Titanic.  But in many ways, the destruction of the Cunard Line’s premier ocean liner on May 7, 1915, was a deeper tragedy than that of the White Star liner.

As a casualty of war — sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland — the Lusitania disaster began a slow but inevitable march towards the United States’ entry into World War I.  Its destruction send a shockwave through Americans and Britons alike. Nobody sailing the Atlantic was safe.

Almost 1,200 people died that afternoon of May 7th. Among the deceased were millionaires (Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt),  impresarios (Charles Frohman), writers, scientists,  nurses and soldiers.

The ship itself was a major loss both for Cunard and the British military as the ship was fitted for active service. Here are a selection of images from 1905 (courtesy SMU Central University) of the Lusitania in all her glory, years before her demise.  Interspersed are some newspaper clippings from its initial launch in 1906 and some from 1907, the year the vessel first sailed to New York.

For more information on the Lusitania, check out our podcast on the Chelsea Piers or read my book review of Dead Wake, the latest by Erik Larson.


“GLASGOW, Scotland, June 7. — The new Cunard Line steamer Lusitania, the world’s largest liner, was successfully launched at Clydebank to-day, and was named by Dowager Lady Inverclyde. Hundreds of visitors from all parts of the country, besides thousands of the local population, witnessed the ceremony.

The Lusitania is the first of the giant Cunarders to be launched, and her sister, the Mauretania, will follow her into the sea a month ago.  The Lusitania is 790 feet long, and her greatest breadth is 88 feet, while her depth molded is 60 1/2 feet.”


Cabin accommodations:  552 first class, 460 second class, 1,186 third class. 2,198 total

Second class entrance
Second class entrance

NYT , July 31, 1907:  “LUXURIOUS OCEAN TRAVEL. The new Cunarder Lusitania is now afloat, and will soon be on her way to New York. She is at the present moment the largest and most richly appointed ocean steamship in the world, though she may take second place within a year or so.”

Side view of Lusitania showing the launching cradle and the propellers
Side view of Lusitania showing the launching cradle and the propellers
Interior staircase and elevator
Interior staircase and elevator

Headline from the New York Times, September 7, 1907:

LUSITANIA STARTS FIRST TRIP TO-DAY; Will Race the Lusitania Across in an Effort for a New Record. BOTH BOATS ARE FULL Colossal Ferries Groomed for the Event — Lusitania Will Burn 1,000 Tons of Coal Daily.

First class promenade deck
First class promenade deck


From the New York Tribune, October 10, 1907



Third class:



The kitchen:


Second-Class Ladies Lounge:


Officers smoking lounge:


From the New York Tribune, October 14, 1907


First class smoking room, music lounge, and library entranceway:








And pictures of the ‘regal suite’, the nicest rooms on the boat:

1 2

An officer atop the navigation bridge:



And finally — the navigation bridge


You can find many more images at Flickr Commons, courtesy Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Chelsea Piers: New York City
 in the Age of the Ocean Liner

PODCAST The Chelsea Piers were once New York City’s portal to the world, a series of long docks along the west side of Manhattan that accommodated some of the most luxurious ocean liners of the early 20th century.

1Passenger ocean travel became feasible in the mid 19th century due to innovations in steam transportation, allowing for both recreational voyages for the wealthy and a steep rise in immigration to the United States.

The Chelsea Piers were the finest along Manhattan’s busy waterfront, built by one of New York’s greatest architectural firms as a way to modernize the west side.  Both the tragic tales of the Titanic and the Lusitania are also tied to the original Chelsea Piers.

But changes in ocean travel and the financial fortunes of New York left the piers without a purpose by the late 20th century. How did this important site for transatlantic travel transform into one of New York’s leading modern sports complexes?

ALSO: The death of Thirteenth Avenue, an avenue you probably never knew New York City ever had!

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #180: Chelsea Piers in the Age of the Ocean Liner


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The offices of Steamship Row near Bowling Green and Battery Park. With the rise of ocean travel in the mid 19th century, passengers went to these buildings to make voyage accommodations.  These were later replaced with more lavish offices, many of which are still around in the neighborhood today.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


A jaunty song written for the Cunard ship Mauretania, sister ship of the Lusitania.
A jaunty song written for the Cunard ship Mauretania, sister ship of the Lusitania.


The crazy scene out in front of West Washington Market in 1905. The market was built well before the Chelsea Piers and helped preserve a bit of 13th Avenue when most of that street was eliminated for the Piers’ construction.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Construction of the Chelsea Piers complex in progress, looking northwest from 16th Street, 1910.

Courtesy New York Department of Records
Courtesy New York Department of Records
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

The lavish Chelsea Piers headhouse, designed by Warren and Wetmore of Grand Central Terminal. This picture was taken in 1910 at their completion. It looks very calm on the street in front, a rarity!

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York


An insurance map from 1885, detailing the streets near the areas of waterfront along West Village and the Meat-Packing District.  Note the location of 13th Avenue along the water, running along the top from center to right. Most of this was removed for the construction of the piers.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


The arrival of the White Star ocean liner Olympic into New York harbor, 1911.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress


The Titanic on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. This was obviously taken from Southhampton where they had much more room for massive ocean vessels!



Crowds gather at a location near Chelsea Piers awaiting the survivors of the Titanic disaster.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

People gather in New York to await the arrival of survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic aboard the RMS Carpathia

The RMS Carpathia arrives at Pier 54 on April 18, 1912.  Reporters scurry to interview survivors of the Titanic.

Courtesy New York Times
Courtesy New York Times

The Lusitania in New York Harbor, and other with the Lusitania at Pier 54 (date unknown but obviously before the Chelsea Piers were completed)




This striking image (cleaned-up photography courtesy of Shorpy) shows the Chelsea Piers in context with the streets of Chelsea in front of it. 1920

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy


An excellent image of the crazy pier situation in lower Manhattan. This picture is from 1931. Chelsea Piers would be in the upper left-hand corner.

Courtesy Internet Book Image Archives
Courtesy Internet Book Image Archives


There were of course other pier structures running down the Hudson shoreline, many of them quite imposing such as this one at Pier 20 and 21 for the Erie Railroad Company at the foot of Chambers Street, picture taken in 1930.

Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A photomechanical postcard of the piers further south of Chelsea Piers, 1916.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


The three largest ships in the world in 1940, all docked in mid-Manhattan, not Chelsea Piers because it could not accommodate their size.

The three largest ships in the world, all docked in mid-Manhattan, not Chelsea Piers because it could not accommodate their size (Courtesy State Library of New South Wales)
(Courtesy State Library of New South Wales)


This is what Pier 54 looked like in 1951 after Cunard and White Star merged to become a single transatlantic company.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

The piers of Washington Market in the 1970s. Most of the pier structures along the water had badly deteriorated by then.

Courtesy Andy Blair/Flickr
Courtesy Andy Blair/Flickr

The Elevated West Side Highway being torn down in front of Pier 62. The area looks quite different today. In fact Pier 62 is part of the Hudson River Park system.

Photo by Edmund V. Gillon, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Photo by Edmund V. Gillon, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

The Chelsea Piers sporting complex was constructed in the 1990s, saving a portion of the original Chelsea Piers from further deterioration. Although I think we can all agree the exterior could be a bit sexier.



Meanwhile Pier 54 continues to find a variety of new uses.  Here’s a dance party deejayed by Paul Van Dyk from 2008.

Courtesy Rukes/Paul Van Dyk Fan Board
Courtesy Rukes/Paul Van Dyk Fan Board


And finally….

The complete words of Charles Dickens, describing his voyage over on the Cunard steamship Britannia to the United States in 1842 :

To say that she [the ship] is flung down on her side in the waves, with her masts dipping into them, and that, springing up again, she rolls over on the other side, until a heavy sea strikes her with the noise of a hundred great guns, and hurls her back — that she stops, and staggers, and shivers, as though stunned, and then, with a violent throbbing of her heart, darts onwards like a monster goaded into madness, to be beaten down, and battered, and crushed, and leaped on by the angry sea — that thunder, lightening, hail, and rain, and wind, are all in fierce contention for the pastry — that every plant has its grown, every nail its shriek, and every drop of water in the great ocean its howling voice — is nothing.  

To say that all is grand, and all appalling and horrible in the last degree is nothing. Words cannot express it. Thoughts cannot convey it. Only a dream can call it up again, in all its fury, rage and passion.

This is in describing his voyage to the United States. Horrible, to be sure.  But given the thousands of people who involuntarily traveled across the Atlantic in the decades earlier, and the wretched conditions they faced, it’s hard too be overly sympathetic to Mr. Dickens’ inconvenience!

New York’s first ferry service

"As it appeared about the year 1640, while under the Dutch Government. Copied from an ancient Etching of the same size Publd. by Justus Danckers, at Amsterdam. Printed and Published by H. R. Robinson, 52 Courtlandt Street New York" Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
“As it appeared about the year 1640, while under the Dutch Government. Copied from an ancient Etching of the same size Publd. by Justus Danckers, at Amsterdam. Printed and Published by H. R. Robinson, 52 Courtlandt Street New York” Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a broad expansion of New York ferry services beginning in 2017, taking commuters to various destinations along the East River and New York Harbor.  And fares will cost as much as a bus or subway ride.   Proposed services would head to the Astoria and Rockaway Beach, Queens; the Lower East Side in Manhattan; and Soundview in the Bronx.  The New York Times also mentions possible future routes to Coney Island in Brooklyn and Staten Island’s Stapleton neighborhood.

If these plans come to fruition, it will be a grand return to a form of transportation that once dominated New York waters in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Ferries connected the two great cities of New York and Brooklyn well before there was any bridge  or consolidation plan.  The Vanderbilts made their early fortunes on ferry service.

Yesterday’s announcement got me thinking about where all of this began — along the sandy shores of Manhattan in the years of Dutch occupation. [NOTE: The story below is partially reprinted from a blog post I wrote in 2010.]

Reproduction of an earlier print of the city depicted in 1652. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Reproduction of an earlier print of the city depicted in 1652. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The year 1642 saw the very first regular ferry service in (later named) New York Harbor, between the two small villages of Breuckelen and New Amsterdam.

The populations of both areas numbered less than 1,000 at most, combined, and most were employed by the Dutch West India Company. New Amsterdam, under Peter Kieft, had a modicum of defenses (notably Fort Amsterdam) but that famous wall demarcating its northern border would only come many years later, as would Peter Stuyvesant.

Across the water, Breuckelen was nothing more than a cluster of basic structures along the shore, near the area where the anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge sits today. Its long stretch of flat shore in full view of the harbor and a high bluff (later Brooklyn Heights) made it a choice spot for adventurous Dutch settlers who made it their home in 1636. In contrast, other areas of Long Island were settled by other nationalities under Dutch authority, e.g. the English settlements of Gravesend (modern Gravesend and Coney Island).

Just north of New Amsterdam resided a man who would be the first to link the two tiny settlements. Cornelius Dircksen was a farmer and inn owner with prime real estate, even in 1640, along the eastern stretch of Mannahatta at Peck Slip, just north of the city.

New Amsterdam 1642. The boat depicted would have been much like the vessel used to ferry passengers. Courtesy New York Public Library
New Amsterdam 1642. The boat depicted would have been much like the vessel used to ferry passengers. Courtesy New York Public Library

In the early 1630s, Dircksen’s ferry was an irregular service, a way to earn extra income. Perhaps he considered it a special accomodation for guests of his inn. And who was staying at his inn, at this time? Mostly newcomers to New Amsterdam, or Dutch West India fur traders passing through.

As legend has it, if one of his guests or a passerby wanted conveyance across the river, they needed only to take a horn hanging from a tree and blow it. Cornelius would drop what he was doing to arrange the voyage, even if he was tending to his own fields. (I imagine the money must have been good.) His small boat would take passengers from the foot of his farm to a small landing on the other side — not surprising in the area that would later develop the Fulton Ferry in the 19th century.

Even in 1650, small skiffs such as Dircksen's ferry would have had to dodge large vessels inhabiting the waters. (Courtesy New York Public Library)
Even in 1650, small skiffs such as Dircksen’s ferry would have had to dodge large vessels inhabiting the waters. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

In 1642, Cornelius decided to jump into the ferry occupation full time. Dircksen was, according to old histories, “the earliest ferryman of whom records speak and was, probably, the first person who regularly followed that calling.”

In a modest skiff, Cornelius (or his assistants) would take passengers across the harbor for shells: “the small price of three stuivers in wampum, meaning nine purple beads or eighteen white beads.” Wampum would be the colony’s most versatile form of currency, usable in both the Dutch settlements and with the Lenape themselves. The ride, often choppy and unpredictable, would sometimes take a full hour.

Cornelius owned the land on both sides but later sold the Breuckelen landing in 1643 to Willem Jansen — who then opened a competing tavern there himself.

Flash forward ten years later, and enough budding (and inept) entrepreneurs had gotten into the unregulated ferry business that people complained to the city of “waiting whole days before they can obtain passage and then not without danger and at an exorbitant price.”  So in 1654 the city began issuing licenses to ferry operators.

But it would not be until British occupation that regular ferry service was actually operated by the city itself.


Troubled Waters: The story of the Grand Republic steamboat, the cursed sister ship of the General Slocum

Above: The Grand Republic steamship. As you can see from its paddlewheel, it was a twin to the General Slocum [source]

This could not have made New Yorkers feel very safe about even the briefest of river excursions.

Days after the General Slocum excursion steamer caught fire and sank in the East River, killing over 1,000 people, its older sister ship the Grand Republic — a twin of the doomed vessel, owned by the same company — kept operating along the waters of New York Harbor.

To many, it looked like the ghost of the Slocum.

The Grand Republic often ran in tandem with the Slocum, transporting passengers to the seaside amusements of the Rockaways.  During the month of June 1904, the Grand Republic was assigned to the Hudson River, while the Slocum ran the Long Island Sound.

An advertisement in the New York Evening World, June 10, 1904

After the Slocum tragedy, steamboat inspectors were heavily scrutinized and excursion companies were accused of endangering lives for a fast dollar.

Rallying to the side of safety was, of all people, the venerated Daniel Sickles, former Congressman and Civil War officer.  (You may remember him from his early days back when he killed the son of Francis Scott Key.)

The retired politician had no tolerance for the bureaucrats he believed were responsible for the Slocum disaster.

“Scalp those moribund Federal officials who sit with their roll-top desks and draw their salaries for doing nothing while human life is allowed to be sacrificed by the hundreds,” he said.  “Only yesterday, I am informed the Grand Republic was allowed to leave her wharf with more passengers than the law allows.  Broadside these fellows and let every man and woman write President [Theodore] Roosevelt a letter demanding an investigation.” [source]

Sickles made good on his word, writing Roosevelt and lashing out at the steamer companies in no uncertain terms, the overcrowded General Republic his chief example of their continued malfeasance.

Below: A graphic on the Grand Republic in a book called American Steam Vessels. “Built in 1878” “This steamboat was the largest ever constructed for excursion purposes exclusively at the port of New York.”

The Slocum disaster obviously hit business hard for the entire excursion industry.  The weekend after the Slocum sank, the Grand Republic was supposed to host another church group for a tour of the Hudson, but, understandably, only one-fourth of its passenger list arrived.  The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, owner of the Slocum and Grand Republic, went out of business, and the Grand Republic was sold to another concern.

The captain of the Grand Republic steamer John Pease had been responsible for inspections on the Slocum and was eventually indicted, “criminally responsible for the Slocum disaster.”

Still that did not take the Grand Republic off the waters. ‘THE GRAND REPUBLIC STILL RUNS,” declared the Tribune on July 4, 1904.

Below: A view of the Midland Beach pier, where excursion steamers would frequently dock. (NYPL)

Four days later, the Grand Republic almost crashed into another steamer off the coast of Coney Island.  Two weeks later, with 500 passengers aboard, it slammed into the Kismet steam yacht.  In August, the boat was revealed to have the same sort of rotten life preservers that had so doomed the Slocum.

Still that did not take the Grand Republic off the waters. “GRAND REPUBLIC DEFIES ORDERS,” declared the Evening World on August 3, 1904.

Below: The Grand Republic, illustration by Samuel Ward Stanton

The steamboat owners argued with the New York inspectors in the press, neither looking very trustworthy.  Eventually the boat owners surrendered the Grand Republic to the government for inspection.  Believe it or not, even with hundreds of life preservers declared ‘rotten’ and promptly removed, the boat was eventually declared safe, although its capacity was greatly lowered — from 3,750 to 1,250 passengers, a major financial blow to the owners.

It led a quiet career for many years afterwards, although many feared the boat’s association with the doomed General Slocum and refused to ride it.  It resumed trips to the Rockaways and Coney Island, taking tens of thousands of people through New York Harbor for many, many years.  And it even returned to taking church groups on day excursions, similar to the journeys that the General Slocum had taken.

But the boat would continue to get into rather significant accidents.  In 1915, even the suggestion of fire during one voyage sent a thousand people scrambling for the life preservers, resulting in several injuries.  In a disturbing parallel with the Slocum, “[w]omen shrieked as they were knocked down by the mob that surged about the lifeboats.” [source]

On August 1, 1922, the Grand Republic smashed into another boat in the Hudson River, injuring over a dozen people.  Luckily the boat was filled with Boy Scouts, who calmed the panicked passengers. (Below, from the Evening World)

You might think this would spell the end for the old steamboat, but no!  It remained in the waters, continuing to transport passengers to upstate New York, one of the oldest vessels in service.

The Grand Republic, like its sister ship, was brought down by fire, although luckily without the terrible casualties.  In 1924, while docked along 155th Street, a severe dockside blaze caught several boats on fire, including the Grand Republic.

The fire erupted late at night, and thirty men were sleeping aboard the boat at that time.  Fortunately, this was the era of the automobiles; car horns from a nearby street awoke two seamen, who safely evacuated the crew.  The Grand Republic, however, was lost, eventually sinking into the Hudson River.

By the time of its demise, the boat seems to have shaken off much of its bad reputation.  Later that year, in a sort-of obituary to the excursion steamer industry, the New York Times declared, “[C]ertainly the Grand Republic was a grand success as an excursion boat.”

American tragedy: The tale of the General Slocum disaster

PODCAST On June 15, 1904, hundreds of residents of Kleindeutschland, the Lower East Side’s thriving German community, boarded the General Slocum excursion steamer to enjoy a day trip outside the city. Most of them would never return home.

The General Slocum disaster is, simply put, one of the greatest tragedies in American history. Before September 11, 2001, it was the largest loss of life of any event that has ever taken place here.

This is a harrowing story, brutal and tragic. The fire that engulfed the ship near the violent waters of the Hell Gate gave the passengers a horrible choice — die by fire or by drowning.

In the end, over one thousand people would lose their lives in an horrific catastrophe that could have been easily prevented. But there are also some surprising and even shocking stories of human survival here, real tales of bravery and heroism.

PLUS: The extraordinary fate of little Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon (at right)

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The Bowery Boys #166 General Slocum Disaster


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The General Slocum, in its glory days.  I believe this photograph was taken in the Rockaways.

A tugboat attempts to put out the remaining flames of the Slocum, now a burning husk in the water.

A make-shift map, from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1904, late edition:

Bodies washed ashore on North Brother Island

Two morbid photographs from Charities Pier:

For days later, recovery workers sifted through East River debris, looking for additional bodies:

A funeral procession through the Lower East Side for some of the victims:

Two headlines from the New York Evening World, one week after the disaster:

The cover of Puck Magazine, one year after the disaster, wondering if justice would ever be served to those under indictment for the disaster. “Illustration shows an old and haggard “Justice” sitting in a chair on a rock in the East River, cobwebs have grown over her sword, scales, and an “Indictment” (Library of Congress)

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the following day:

A mural in the Bronx that depicts the General Slocum disaster (courtesy Flickr/Joe Schumacher):

The initial list of the deceased, from the June 16, 1904 edition of the New York Evening World.  The number would increase over the coming days.

A short history of New York City’s various Titanic memorials

From a 1912 handbill, drumming up support for a proper memorial. (Courtesy Seaman’s Institute)

In our podcast on the South Street Seaport, we forgot to mention a very interesting little landmark to the area — the Titanic Memorial, a 60-foot white lighthouse that sits in the little plaza at Fulton and Water Streets.

This was no mere decorative lighthouse as it seems today.  For much of its history, it was an operational light source, a beacon over the East River.  Below: The memorial’s first home, atop the Seamen’s Church Institute (Courtesy NYPL)

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 people from all social classes.  The loss shook society to its core.  Among the victims were prominent New York businessmen and benefactors such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim.  As New Yorkers mourned the loss of loved ones, they immediately funneled their grief into the building of memorials, the physical remembrance of a disaster that left virtually no trace behind.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor gathered community leaders to City Hall in May 1912 to solicit ambitious ideas of the new memorial.   The Evening World attributes one idea for a lighthouse to engineer Carroll Livingston Riker, who suggested “the lighthouse should be located at some perilous point on the coast, illuminated by a most powerful light and with a great fog horn that may be heard many miles as part of its equipment.”

Meanwhile, a less dramatic lighthouse memorial (pictured at right) was funded by J.P. Morgan and planned for the top of the new Seamen’s Church Institute at 25 South Street.  The lighthouse was equipped with a time ball which was lowered at noon to help distant sailors adjust their equipment.  (This same sort of ball is affixed to the top of One Times Square in 1908, dropped every year at ring in the new year.)

The lighthouse memorial was dedicated on the first anniversary of the disaster with many family and friends of victims in attendance.

The New York Times claims the lighthouse and ball drop features atop the Institute “were simply features of the existing plan, relabeled as a memorial.” [source]  However it became New York’s most prominent remembrance of the Titanic disaster after all when, over at City Hall, nobody could make up their mind on a truly grand memorial.  (All you need to know about the city’s failed efforts is illustrated in this 1912 headline on one meeting — “One Man Made 18 Speeches.”)

Meanwhile, there were other Titanic memorials being planned in other parts of the city.  In Greenwich Village, in the Washington Square studios of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the artist began work on a sculpture for a national memorial in Washington D.C.

She displayed a model for the memorial in February 1916 that drew gasps from society women.  “[T]he present figure with its pedestal extends from floor to ceiling and catches interesting lights that add to the highly dramatic conceptions.”  [source] At left: A study of the Titanic memorial which was displayed at Whitney’s Village studio. (Courtesy AAA/Whitney Museum)

Whitney’s triumphant statue –of a figure with arms outstretched (not unlike Kate Winslet’s pose in the film Titanic) — was completed in 1918 but not installed in Washington until 1930 due to waterfront construction delays.  A

Yet another Titanic memorial was planned in June 1912 to honor philanthropists Isador and Ida Straus near their home on the Upper West Side. A competition was held in 1913 for aspiring sculptors, with Augustus Lukeman’s pondering nymph the eventual winner. The statue and the newly named Straus Park were formally dedicated on April 15, 1915.

Featured at the dedication ceremony were 800 children who had been helped by Straus’ Educational Alliance in the Lower East Side.

Below: Dedication of Straus Square and its curious monument. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As for the Titanic Lighthouse Memorial?  It sat dutifully atop the Seamen’s Institute for decades, its green light a welcome beacon to those entering the harbor.  By the 1950s, shipping no longer came through the area of New York’s waterfront, and the Institute eventually sold its building.

The lighthouse was donated to the South Street Seaport Museum in 1968, then a budding institution formed just a couple years prior to protect the historic structures of the area.  For a time, the lighthouse actually sat on the waterfront before relocating back to its present home in 1976, in a park partially funded by Exxon Oil.

There was one other memorial to the Titanic disaster — the Wireless Operators Memorial at Battery Park.  This bronze cenotaph and fountain was dedicated in 1915 to nine intrepid employees — “wireless heroes” — who died on the Titanic and in other ocean disasters.

Wrote J. Andrew White in 1915: “It is an eloquent reminder of a tradition that has grown out of the brand of courage which seeks no precedent, which, founded on the heroic action of a mere boy, has been written in the indelible annals of the men who go down to the sea in ships.”

But don’t go looking for the memorial today.  It’s been in storage since 2005. Will we ever see it again?

The history of the South Street Seaport: A robust story of economic power, historic preservation, rat fights and fish guts

The daily bustle at the Fulton Fish Market, 1936, photographed by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

PODCAST  The glory of early New York came from its role as one of the world’s great ports.  Today the South Street Seaport is a lasting tribute to that seafaring heritage, a historical district beneath the Brooklyn Bridge that contains some of New York City’s oldest buildings.

But there are many secrets here along the cobblestone streets.  Schermerhorn Row, the grand avenue of counting houses more than two centuries old, is built atop of landfill.  Historic Water Street once held a seedy concentration of brothels and saloons. Not to mention a very vibrant rat pit! And the Fulton Fish Market, the neighborhood’s oldest customer tradition, once fell into the river.

The modern South Street Seaport, a preservation construct of concerned citizens, become popular with tourists during the 1980s but saw severe damage during Hurricane Sandy.  It’s now the subject of some potentially dramatic changes.  How much of an adherence to the traditions of the past will determine the Seaport’s future?

ALSO: The FDR Drive — How it almost went below the Seaport!

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The Bowery Boys #163 South Street Seaport

A painting of the Empress of China, the vessel probably most responsible for the growth of New York’s trading power. (Courtesy nyhistorywalks)

Peck Slip, providing ferry service to Brooklyn. The very first ferry service to Brooklyn was launched from this spot over two hundred years before the era depicted in this image. (NYPL)

South Street, circa 1892, via stereograph (courtesy Library of Congress)

A different world: The glory of South Street in 1890 and 1900, respectively, still a non-stop churn of unloading, delivering and transport, even as the Brooklyn Bridge in the distance marks big changes to come for the neighborhood. (courtesy NYPL and Library of Congress)

The Fulton Fish Market, as photographed by Berenice Abbot, November 26, 1935 (NYPL)

Fulton and Water Streets, 1975 (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

[Fulton and Water Streets.]

Richard Haas’ trompe l’oeil excellently masking a Con Edision substation. (Museum of City of New York)

[Trompe l'oeil concealing a Con Ed substation at 237-257 Front Street, and the Jasper Ward house, 45 Peck Slip.]
Pier 17, the ambitious 1980s project that transformed this once-vital economic center into a viable tourist attraction.  But it didn’t exactly appeal to large masses of regular New Yorkers. (Pic courtesy Wired New York)

Arbuckle’s Deep Sea Hotel, aka ‘the Working Girls Hotel’, a coffee king’s housing solution for independent women

The boat hotel built by a coffee manufacturer, photo from January 1913 (courtesy LOC)

Arbuckle’s Deep Sea Hotel was neither in the deep sea, nor was it a hotel.  But for hundreds of young, single women at the end of the Gilded Age, it was home.

Accommodations were indeed limited for the thousands of women who arrived in New York City at the start of the 20th century.  Wealthier single ladies could enjoy a degree of independence by indulging in fashionable apartment living.  Affordable options like boarding houses were often socially binding.  For instance, the morality-minded YWCA housed hundreds of New York women by the 1890s.  It was often too expensive to rent on your own place, even with roommates, and the neighborhoods where such housing was available would not have been too desirable.

Enter Brooklyn coffee millionaire John Arbuckle.  The sugar manufacturer, already a chief competitor of William Havemayer, innovated the mass production of coffee by the 1890s, making himself extremely wealthy.  His Jay Street plants and Water Street warehouses dominated the Brooklyn waterfront in the area of today’s DUMBO.

In emulation of greater New York philanthropists, Arbuckle commissioned free water-bound excursions for the overcrowded poor of the Lower East Side.  However, when a steamboat owned by another company — the PS General Slocum — exploded during one such excursion, killing over 1,000 people, such trips quickly went out of fashion.  Arbuckle then decided to use one of his ships in a more unconventional way — a long-term hotel for single women.

His ship the Jacob A. Stampler was turned into a floating hotel for one hundred women, with a smaller ship nearby for young working men.  It was docked at West 21 Street on the Hudson River, near the massive piers for passengers liners.

“The fundamental idea of this hotel scheme,” according the New York Tribune in 1905, “is to benefit young men and young women who are receiving low wages and are striving to live respectable lives.”  In 1905, its first year of operation, women paid “40 cents a day, or $2.80 a week, while the young men pay 50 cents a day or $3.50 a week.” [source]

From the Tribune profile:

While both genders benefited from the unusual hotel idea, Arbuckle’s focus was in the assistance of women.  “A young fellow can fight for himself and get along his own way,” said the millionaire, “but it is different with a woman or girl confronted with problem of keeping herself respectable while working for low wages.”

The women were fed well and provided a selection of magazines and newspapers, not to mention a piano for Sunday evening sing-alongs.  They were also given sewing machines and laundry facilities.

The rocking of the boat and the relative bustle of a busy pier seems not to have bothered Arbuckle’s early tenants.  “It’s so quiet here. No rattle and roar from the streets,” said one young woman. [source]  Ladies could receive gentlemen callers, but men had to vacate by 10 pm.  As many women worked quite late in the day, this probably didn’t amount to much socializing.

During the summer, the boat actually did take regular trips to various places in the region, from Coney Island to the shore of Staten Island.  In July, the two floating hotels would head out to Coney Island every day, docking for a couple hours at Dreamland amusement park.  Surmising from its frequent journeys, I imagine Arbuckle’s floating hotels had few long-term summer tenants in these early days.

Below: The dining room and the sleeping quarters of the Deep Sea Hotel, circa 1913 (LOC)

Over the next ten years, the Deep Sea Hotel took fewer trips, becoming more or less a semi-permanent, floating apartment complex.  It was referred to by this point as the Working Girls Hotel.  At some point, perhaps due to overwhelming traffic at the Chelsea piers, the Stampler made the east side its home, regularly docking at East 23rd Street.

The floating hotel never really made a profit, and after Arbuckle died in 1912, his inheritors attempted to shut it down.  I should also note that the Stampler was a very, very old boat. “[The] ship was beginning to rot and soon would be unsafe,” said the New York Sun.  The women who lived there, however, fought successfully to keep it open until 1915, when they were finally told to permanently disembark

Interesting fact to note about its final days — both single men and women lived aboard the boat by 1915.  Its last documented population was 50 girls and 16 boys, according to the Sun.  It rarely sailed to Coney Island in the sumner, but had become a destination in itself.  “One of the five decks is fitted up as a dance hall,” “crowded every night with dancers” when music from a nearby pier begins to play.

The last tenants finally left on September 1, 1915, with many unable to find further housing.  “There isn’t a girl on this boat that makes $9 a week,” said one mournful tenant, “and you know how far that goes in this city.” [source]

By 1917, the Stampler was a rotted breakwater off of Bayville Beach in Oyster Bay.  To this day, perhaps, some remnant of the ship still sits in the water off the coast of Long Island.

By the way, they still make Arbuckle’s Coffee today.