Feature: New York Ferry Market Roars to Life

Monday, June 09, 2003

New York was hardly unique for developing ferry services, but this city of islands was one of the most prolific. At their height, more than 60 routes linked Manhattan, New Jersey, and the four other boroughs. Before there were skyscrapers, before there were subways, the city was famous for its ferrryboats, woven together by them - who could imagine getting around without them?

City planners could. After the Civil War, New York entered a bridge-building boom that lasted a century. From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Verrazano, New York erected wonders famous to every tourist. Dozens more, less fabled, are known better to mariners. Open 24/7, indifferent to tide and most wind, frequently indistinguishable on land from the rest of an avenue, bridges made everywhere accessible to everything with near-pinpoint accuracy, for anything that could be put on wheels.

Bridges are graceful and soaring, romantic for their engineering might. Tunnels are no lesser wonders, albeit less soaring. Besides those for the subways and other rail, New York built four to Manhattan just for automobiles. Where each tunnel or bridge opened up, a ferry line or two closed down. From their sixscore peak, ferryboat rides were reduced for decades to just one.

That was, of course, the Staten Island ferry. Despite notions to dig subways under the bay shortly after World War I, Staten Island's passage to Manhattan, five miles of it, was best served afloat. And the ride was too good-looking to give up, a point much to the benefit of the tourist-promotion people.

Ripples from the Ferry

The Staten Island Ferry - that is, "the" ferry, as opposed to other ferries between Staten Island and Brooklyn or New Jersey - became a Municipal operation in 1905. Before that it was privately held with mixed reviews, and at least one fatal boiler explosion. The Vanderbilt fortune had its origins in the run, the future Commodore starting with rides from his hometown of Stapleton. The main dock for the present-day run was built a mile or so to the northwest, at a point to be called St. George, the part of Staten Island closest to Whitehall, or the Battery, or "South Ferry" in Manhattan. Steam entered the service as early as 1817. In time the majority of buses and the Staten Island railroad began and ended their runs there. As the locus of exchange between the County of Richmond and "the city," St. George became Staten Island's "downtown," where local government moved from its traditional home deep in the interior.

From New Jersey, Manhattan-bound ferries extended railroads as the bridges extended highways. A train ride to "New York" from points west could end at Hoboken or Weehawken, where a railroad-operated double-ender completed the last mile. Compared to the trains burrowing into midtown from the north, the railroad ferries gave a striking maritime introduction to New York. For thousands of commuters daily, they also provided an easy ride for shopping or work, between downtown and midtown Manhattan and their bedrooms in the southern, western, or northern Garden State.

Bridges and tunnels are great, as long as they keep people moving. But increasing the traffic was the commercial ambition of Manhattan, and it was embarrassingly successful. Besides vehicular snarls and plumes of fumes at both ends of the crossing, traffic over and under the waterways was saturating Manhattan - even as its ever-taller buildings beckoned for more. The bridge and two tunnels spanning the Hudson were installed just when the automobile was becoming a common appliance. Before that, anyone without a car, or a horse even earlier, could cross the Hudson as a foot passenger on a ferryboat. Of all the Hudson River crossings that replaced them, only the George Washington Bridge - almost as far uptown as you can get - has ever been open to pedestrians.

The vehicular crossings were rooted in place, sometimes quite a distance from popular destinations. Where else but New York, ever of a mind to challenge its travelers on land, would the main convention center be built on an inactive waterfront, in a neighborhood rich in little more than horse stables and taxicab garages? Across the street from the Hudson river between 35th and 37th streets, the complex is four long, usually windy, mostly crosstown blocks to the nearest subway, and further than that to the hotels. For all intents and purposes, the crystalline structure ironically called the Javits "Center" was closer to New Jersey.

New York Waterway has proved that point. Once they kicked-in service from their Port Imperial terminal in Weehawken, it became a seven-minute hop to West 38th street. You could spend that long in Times Square waiting for the bus.

Kickstarting the Renaissance

The high-speed ferries of New York Waterway, and the infrastructure the company has built to support them, reach many inaccessible points besides the Javits, and are regarded widely as a job well done. They're also a work in progress. Considered alone - their operation now including twenty-one routes across the rivers or Upper Bay to Manhattan - this one company is arguably the author of a renaissance of waterborne commuter travel. The company's routes reach even further, south to Belford, Highlands, and Atlantic Highlands in New Jersey. They're localities not previously linked by ferries to New York, but they already start to echo the growth of St. George as the premium rides flex their appeal to upscale passengers.

On the runs further south, New York Waterway has company. Since 1999, SeaStreak has run fast boats to the enchanted lands adjoining Sandy Hook, within view of but still 30 minutes from Manhattan. Meanwhile, last September, New York Water Taxi commenced operations with an initial fleet of three custom boats reaching six landings around mid- and downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn.

And even as these swift, smaller vessels reconfigure commuter life, the granddaddy of them all, the Colossus of Ferrydom - the Staten Island Ferry - reaffirms its future with three new builds due in 2004, the biggest double-enders ever between Whitehall-St. George.

And all of it comes none too soon, in the minds of many. Organizations such as the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a consortium of groups supporting the working as well as the recreational and residential evolution of the waterfront, advocate still more ferry routes. Shouldn't there be a ferry to La Guardia Airport? Doesn't Boston have a water route to Logan? Wouldn't even more routes speed traffic, reduce pressure, generate jobs and commerce?

The city's maritime infrastructure demonstrated its significance during the World Trade Center evacuations. The call on 9/11 was for "all available boats." The toll would have been worse if the target had been landlocked. And when the boats arrived, they found the astounding - a waterfront without bollards. Downtown had gone residential, highrise, and exclusive, on land that did not exist before the 1960s. The shore as built was better for jogging than mooring, a situation of scary implications after New York's big day as a target.

If some event should close one of the Hudson tunnels or bridges, disruption would be harrowing. The point's been proved already, after the collapsing towers destroyed the stations of the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) subway. Thousands of people daily were stranded, and would have remained so if New York Waterway hadn't cobbled-together the backup.

In this issue of Marine News, we take an overview of the history and tribulations of New York ferries, and a glimpse at two of the current players - the Staten Island Ferry, and SeaStreak.

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