The Staten Island Ferry is one of the only remaining vestiges of a comprehensive ferry system in New York City that once transported people between Manhattan Island and its future boroughs long before any bridges or tunnels were constructed.
Over on Staten Island, the northern shores were dotted with piers from which competing private ferry operators braved the challenging waters of New York Harbor in order ply their trade. However, today the Staten Island Ferry alone provides 22 million people a year, 70,000 commuters a day plus weekend visitors with ferry service between the terminals of St. George on Staten Island (SI) and Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan as the only non-vehicular mode of transportation between Staten Island and Manhattan. The NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) operates and maintains the nine-vessel fleet along with the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island, Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan, the City Island and Hart Island Facilities, the Battery Maritime Building, and all the associated floating docks, buildings and equipment.
The Staten Island Ferry is operated by the City of New York for one practical purpose; to shuttle patrons to and from the heart of the city that is Manhattan. Too, the five-mile, twenty-five-minute ride provides passengers a regal view of the magnificent New York Harbor as well as a convenient and often romantic boat ride that is free. It’s been referred to as one of the world’s greatest and shortest water voyages. And, from the boat decks of the ferry passengers are treated to a majestic view of the statue of “The Lady in the harbor” and Ellis Island. And, they see the skyscrapers and bridges of Lower Manhattan receding into the distance as they pull away from the terminal and then reemerging again upon their return. A typical weekday schedule includes the usage of five boats to transport passengers on 109 daily trips during the week-days. And, on weekends, four boats are used to deliver 88 trips on Saturdays and 82 trips on Sundays totaling approximately 37,180 trips completed annually.
The New York City area was first inhabited by the indigenous Leni-Lenape Native Americans who traversed the area’s waterways using dug-out canoes to travel between Staten Island to present-day Manhattan and New Jersey. The area was then known as Lenapehoking, and the Lenape traveled along nearby waterways such as Arthur Kill, Kill Van Kull, and Raritan Bay. The Leni-Lenape inhabited southeastern New York state, as well as eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and northern Maryland.
Though, in 1621 the area would be colonized as part of Dutch New Netherland and was later taken over by the then British Province of New York in 1664 that eventually became part of the United States in 1776. During the 18th century, the City of New York occupied only the southern tip of Manhattan, and Staten Island had not yet been incorporated within the greater city. So, ferry service between Staten Island and the fledgling city of New York was provided by private entities using periaugers, shallow draft, often flat-bottomed two-masted sailing vessels usually without a bowsprit which also were equipped with oars for rowing.
Then later, in the early 19th century U.S. Vice President and former New York governor Daniel D. Tompkins secured a charter for the Richmond Turnpike Company as part of his efforts to develop the village of Tompkinsville a neighborhood in northeastern Staten Island on the island’s eastern shore. And, although the initial intention was to build a highway across Staten Island, the company also received the right to operate a ferry to New York City. So, the Richmond Turnpike Company is the direct ancestor of the current municipal ferry, the Staten Island Ferry. Later, in 1817 the Richmond Turnpike Company began to operate the first mechanically powered ferry between New York and Staten Island, the steam-powered Nautilus that was commanded by Captain John De Forest, the brother-in-law of a young man named Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was a young entrepreneur from Stapleton, Staten Island and he would eventually become one of the world’s richest people by starting a competing ferry service from Staten Island to Manhattan in 1810. Although Cornelius was just 16 years old at the time he had sailed extensively enough in his father’s periauger that he knew how to successfully navigate the New York Harbor Estuary on his own. So, when he received $100 for his birthday in May 1810 he used it to purchase his own periauger and named it the Swiftsure. Vanderbilt then operated the boat to transport passengers from Staten Island to the Battery at Manhattan’s tip as he competed against other boatmen to provide service in the harbor. He acquired the nick-named “Commodore” because of his youthful eagerness, and although the nickname was used in jest it stuck to him for the rest of his life. During the War of 1812 restrictions were imposed on access to New York Harbor from elsewhere along the East Coast limiting imports to the city. So, Vanderbilt generated more revenue for his fledgling business by transporting cargo along the Hudson River, and then he procured additional boats using his profits. Later, after the war ended he continued to convey cargo in the harbor, earning more investment capital and purchasing more boats to expand his business and eventually become a world-renowned American business magnate and philanthropist who built his wealth through railroads and shipping.
In 1838 Vanderbilt who by then had already become wealthy in the steamboat business in New York purchased control of the Richmond Turnpike Company. And, except for a brief period in the 1850s, he would remain the dominant figure in the ferry company until the Civil War when he sold it to the Staten Island Railway led by his brother Jacob Vanderbilt. During the 1850s Staten Island developed swiftly, and accordingly, the ferry service grew in importance. But poor upkeep resulting in deteriorating condition of the boats became a source of chronic complaint by the clientele, as did the limited operating schedule. However, the advent of the Staten Island Railway in 1860 increased ferry passenger traffic further and so newer boats were soon acquired, and they were named after the towns of Richmond County which covered the entirety of Staten Island.One of those ferries, the Westfield, had its boiler explode while moored in its slip at the South Ferry port on Manhattan on the afternoon of July 30, 1871. The New York Times reported that within days of the disaster some 85 persons were identified as dead and hundreds more injured with several more added to the death toll in the following weeks. Consequently, Jacob Vanderbilt, president of the Staten Island Railway, was arrested and charged with murder, though he evaded conviction.Later, all the competing ferry services that were controlled by Vanderbilt were sold to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and then operated by the Staten Island Rapid Transit Railroad SIRT, the predecessor to Staten Island Railway in 1884.Disaster struck again when on June 14, 1901 the SIRT ferry Northfield was leaving the ferry port at Whitehall on Staten Island when it collided with a Jersey Central Ferry and sank immediately. There were two full deck crews aboard Northfield and their swift actions ensured that only five of the 995 passengers aboard were lost and presumed drowned. This accident, though inconsequential in comparison to the Westfield disaster, was reason enough for the City of New York to assign it as justification to seize control of the SIRT ferries with Staten Island having officially become a part of New York City, as the Borough of Richmond. Subsequently, the ferry service operations were assumed by the city’s Department of Docks and Ferries in 1905. Then, five new ferries with one named for each of the new boroughs were commissioned. And, the First ferry to make the now celebrated trip across New York harbor as a Staten Island Ferry was named the Manhattan.By 1967, all other ferries in New York City had closed due to competition by automobile traffic, and the St. George to Whitehall route was the only ferry serving New York City, and it remained as such until the 1980s when other ferry routes began to be introduced.Successively, in the late 1980s, ferries had again become a popular mode of transport in the area, and by 1991 seventy companies expressed interest in bidding for the rights to operate new ferries across the city. However, the list of potential bidders was reduced to three companies by 1993. One of these ferries was required to run between Staten Island to midtown Manhattan and to travel at speeds of 35 knots (40 mph) as opposed to the existing Whitehall-to-St. George ferry’s 15 knots (17 mph). Accordingly, New York Fast Ferry was ultimately selected to run the ferry starting in January 1997 serving about 1,650 commuters a day using the service.Immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Staten Island ferry boats participated along with other ferries, tugs, fireboats, tour and dinner boats, and private vessels in the evacuation of attack victims from the World Trade Center in response to the USCG emergency radio message “all available boats.” It is the largest maritime evacuation in history, larger than Dunkirk during WWII when 339,000 military personnel were rescued over nine days. The NYC harbor fleet rescued 500,000 in nine hours.Accordingly, on Tuesday, April 4, 2006 at 10:00 AM out of St. George the SI ferry Spirit of America made her maiden voyage. Her keel was built from steel from the World Trade Center Towers and she was named to honor the spirit and unity of America after the attacks and in remembrance of the victims who were killed, and the civil servants who died attempting to save them.One of the lowest points in SI Ferry modern times occurred On Oct. 15, 2003 when the Andrew J. Barberi ferry crashed into a concrete maintenance pier killing eleven passengers and injuring more than 100 others. It was the deadliest accident in the ferry service’s 100-year history.It was determined later that the ship’s pilot had lost consciousness just prior to the accident and the ferry had been traveling at an unusually high speed. Witnesses told The New York Times following the crash that the captain appeared to get the boat back on course before it collided with the pier, which then sliced through the boat’s hull and super-structure; they compared the scene to the Titanic. The ship’s pilot had escaped the boat and then attempted suicide, slitting his wrists and then shooting himself twice with a pellet gun. However, he survived those attempts and later pleaded guilty to manslaughter for his part in the accident.Perhaps because of its iconic route, the ferry is a frequent backdrop in films. And, it has been featured in at least six of them, including the 1987 Mike Nichols’ film “Working Girl” and, 2008’s “The Dark Knight” featured replicas of the Staten Island ferry. Too, on television, it’s been featured on “Sex and the City,” “Law & Order” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”Furthermore, most SI ferries are named in honor of renowned people or events such as JFK, Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Michael Ollis, John A. Noble a renowned maritime artist born in Paris in 1913, and Sandy Ground a settlement of freed pre-civil war southern slaves who migrated to the Rossville area of Staten Island.Interestingly, the ferry wasn’t always exclusively for use by humans as in the 19th century, passengers could take their horses aboard, and by the end of the 20th century, one could drive a car onto the ferry. After the walk-on fare was abolished in 1995 and the ride became free to pedestrians’ cars still paid a $3 fare. But NYC banned cars permanently after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when officials banned cars from driving into lower Manhattan.Also, in the early days of the ferry men and women were segregated and there was a men’s cabin and a women’s cabin separated on the lower level by the stairs leading to the upper salon which both sexes could sit in on the 1930s boat the Tompkinsville. Too, men and women were allowed the option to sit apart so men had a place to smoke and to give single women some solitude according to the Staten Island Museum. To ensure passengers didn’t walk into the incorrect cabin, there were two signs indicating which cabin they were entering; One that read “Women’s Cabin” and yet another that pointed to it and read “Read this sign.”Yes, “the beat goes on.” Even on the Staten Island Ferry.