Evolution of the Ferry-Boat 1692-1890

By Fletcher Dubois
  Article Tools

Print This Page

E-mail This Page To A Friend

From time immemorial the ferry has been celebrated in legend and story, and for two hundred and fifty years it figured in the history of the City of New York as one of the most important factors in the material progress and growth of the Metropolis.

 Being located on an island, the city was dependent to a great extent on the ferries for communication with the outside world, and in keeping with the progress in every branch of trace and transportation, the ferry-boat gradually advanced from the skiff and rowboat of two centuries ago, up to the palatial double screw, double decked ferry-boat of the twentieth century.

The construction of the several bridges over the East River marked a decline of ferry traffic on the routes to Brooklyn and adjacent territory, and the subsequent construction of the Hudson River tunnels and the subway tubes under the East River noted a still further falling off of traffic on the ferry routes; yet, notwithstanding this fact, there is probably no other point in the United States where so many people in the aggregate are carried on the ferries, and to people at a distance, who are not familiar with the situation, it would seem as if these bridges and tunnels would solve the problem of the intercity commerce and transportation. While the bridges and tunnels are undoubtedly of great advantage to through travel from the West and South, having New York or more Eastern points as a destination, there is no denying the fact that the ferries are a necessity, as was amply proved in the case of the East River routes. Before the subway tubes were built, no amount of through travel over the bridges affected the large local traffic of the ferries, as the bridge terminals were necessarily some distance back from the water front, and practically inaccessible to local traffic.

The first ferry in New York waters was established in 1642, on the exact route of the old Fulton Ferry to Brooklyn, and was operated as an individual speculation until 1654, when a regular ferry was established and made a source of revenue to the city. After the British took possession of the city they assumed control over the waters of the North and East Rivers, and made the ferry pay toll to the city government. This was looked upon by the people as an assumption of the private right to ferry themselves and their neighbors across the rivers, and so formidable did this opposition become that the lessees of the regular ferry abandoned their enterprise. Several individual attempts were made after this, but all who were engaged in them were compelled to give up in despair, from the fact that they could claim no jurisdiction over the neighboring waters.

In 1708 a charter was granted the old company which invested it with a grant of all the land between high and low water marks on the Long Island Shore, from Wallabout Creek to Red Hook, and the privilege of establishing and maintaining additional ferries within this locality. This charter, it will be see, is to a certain degree identical with that of the old Union Ferry Company, which operated nearly all the ferries on the East River up to the early 'nineties. The old company was in constant litigation, the controversy being carried from court to court, and was renewed, and has ever since furnished material for litigation, even down to the present day.

The rowboats and skiffs of the earlier days were succeeded by the horse-boats, which were double hulled, with the wheel between the hulls, operated by a treadway, and although many experiments were made by Fulton and Stevens in applying steam as a motive power on these boats, it was not until 1824 that steam was adopted generally on all the ferries, the monopoly granted to Fulton and Livingston some years previous being set aside by the Supreme Court in that year.

The principal experiments made in this line, after the success of the "Clermont" in 1807, were all more or less attended with failure, on account of the expense of running and the frequent accidents to the crude machinery, all of which combined to make the horse-boats preferable. The "Phoenix," built in 1807 by John and Robert Stevens, was taken to Philadelphia, where she ran for six years; the "Juliana," another of the Stevens boats, built in 1811, ran for two years on the Hoboken Ferry, while others were either laid up or converted into barges.

In 1812 Fulton built the "Jersey" and placed her on the route to Paulus Hook, which is identical today with the Cortlandt Street Ferry, and in the following year he added the "York" to the route. These boats were built on the catamaran principle, consisting of two hulls ninety feet long, and ten feet wide, with a space of ten feet between them. The deck was laid over these, giving a space thirty feet wide, and eighty feet long for passengers and teams. The paddle wheel was placed between the two hulls, where it was protected from the ice and other obstructions, and although the engines worked well, considering their rude construction, the boats occupied nearly an hour in crossing the river. The "New Jersey" was added to the fleet in 1813, but her career was short, the boiler exploding shortly after she commenced running, killing her pilot and one of the passengers, at the time wrecking the boat so badly as to render her useless.

The first steam ferry-boat on the East River was the "Nassau," another one of Fulton's construction hitch was put on the Fulton Ferry, May 10, 1814. This boat was similar in build to those on the Jersey ferries, but considerably stronger, and was the pioneer of a large fleet, which, although not doing away with the horse-boats, did a majority of the business transacted on the waters around New York. Many improvements were made from time to time, and it was about the year 1821 that the style of ferry-boat in use up to the time of the double screw boats of the present day was adopted, and it is strange to note that, although the boats on the North River ferries were the finest and best appointed of their kind in the world, they differed very little from those built about the time of the Civil War, being of the walking-beam type, with radial paddle wheels, and single decked, with cabins each side.

Double-Screw Ferry-Boats

It is a singular fact that John Stevens in the year 1804 three years before Fulton's success built a small boat with a screw at each end, but through some fault in construction it was not successful, and just before the Civil War the idea was revived by Edwin A. Stevens, but never carried into actual operation.

About 1890 the double screw idea, one at each end of the boat was revived again by Colonel Stevens of Hoboken, and the "Bergen" was built at Newburgh, by the Marvel Shipyard. This boat at first was supplied with a triple expansion engine, but after a short trial it was found that this type was not adapted to short runs, the third cylinder being practically useless. The engine was entirely rebuilt as a compound, surface condenser, and at once the "Bergen" proved herself a complete success.

The owners and managers of the other big ferry companies, recognizing the importance of this radical departure from the old-style mode of ferry propulsion, watched the "Bergen's" performances with much interest, and after a one-year's trial, during which she fully demonstrated her superiority over the old-style side-wheel boats, it became evident that she had turned the tide in favor of the screw propeller on ferry-boats.

Following the "Bergen," the first route to adopt this style of boat was the Pavonia Ferry, owned and operated by the Erie Railroad, the "John G. McCullough" being placed on the route in 1892, running on the Chambers Street Ferry. This boat, like the "Bergen," was typical of the large fleet of similar ones adopted by all the North River ferries in recent years, and was 215 feet long, with a deck 62 feet wide, the engine being of the compound, surface condensing type. The one marked improvement in this style of boat is the added space given in the vehicle gangways and cabins, the absence of the paddle-wheel boxes leaving a clear open space in the cabins from end to end, while the character of the engine permits it to be below the main deck, thus giving more width in the vehicle gangways. The addition of cabins on the upper decks increases the passenger carrying capacity of the boats, and at the same time enables the passengers to have a better view of the harbor scenery, a feature especially appreciated on the longer routes to Staten island and the upper sections of New York City.

Following these boats, the Hoboken route added a number of the same type, and the Pennsylvania Railroad also added a number to the Cortlandt and Twenty-third Street routes, the "Cincinnati" and the "Washington" being similar to the Erie and Hoboken boats, only some-what larger. Later on, the Pennsylvania Company added four larger boats to the Twenty-third Street route, equipped with twin screws at each end, the "St. Louis," "Pittsburg," "Philadelphia" and "New Brunswick" and they were the largest and finest ferry-boats ever built in this country for passenger traffic, excepting the large railroad ferries at San Francisco, and the car ferries on the Mississippi and the Pacific Coast, operated by the Southern Pacific Company.

The opening of the Pennsylvania tubes and the establishment of the railroad terminal in the heart of the city demonstrated the fact that the days of the railroad ferry was a thing of the past, and the Pennsylvania Company abandoned the Twenty-third Street route, and the lower ferries are now given over mostly to local passenger and vehicular traffic, and while these boats are still in use, probably no more of this class will be constructed in the future.

There are in the neighborhood of two hundred boats employed in the ferry service on the waters of the Port of New York, the boats ranging in size from the little propellers on the Liberty Island route up to the mammoth double deckers on the Staten island and Pennsylvania routes. The average cost of maintaining a modern ferry-boat ranges from $20,000 to $50,000 a year, and when one takes into consideration the fact that all the companies are operating at a profit, we can readily gain an idea of the volume of travel on the various routes in these waters in the course of a year. Previous to the opening of the river tunnels and subways, it was shown by the reports of the various companies that 170,000,000 people crossed the ferries running between New York, New Jersey and Brooklyn, during a period of one year, while over 40,000,000 crossed the Brooklyn Bridge during the same period.

The remarkable speed attained by the double-screw ferry-boat raised the question whether it was safe, in view of the overcrowded conditions in the harbor, to increase the speed on these routes. Taking into consideration the large number of railroad passengers, as well as local traffic, carried on these lines, there has been a remarkable record of fewer accidents with this class of boats than attended the use of the old side-wheel type, and it is to the credit of the ability and skill of the pilots, as well as to the facility with which the engines can be handled, as compared with the old walking-beam engine, coupled with the clumsy radial side wheels.

The large number of boats employed on the various routes in these waters, as well as on the many routes on the bays and harbors along the Atlantic seaboard and the Pacific coast, bear testimony to the important part the ferry plays in the movement of the water-borne commerce of the United States.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Evolution of the Ferry-Boat 1692-1890
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From My Collection of Books: Valentine's Manual of Old New York No. 7, New Series 1923; Edited by Henry Collins Brown, Copyright: 1922 Henry Collins Brown
Time & Date Stamp: