Each of the world's great cities has at least one attraction noted for its historic, cultural or architectural significance. Some cities have a setting admired simply for its beauty. New York City has many such sights, one of the more notable among them is the Staten Island Ferry. Guidebooks and tourist Web-sites call it ‘One of the world's greatest (and shortest) water voyages.’ The 5.2 mile trip from lower Manhattan across New York Harbor to the borough of Staten Island costs you nothing but your time. The voyage repays you with the spectacle of several sights of historic, cultural and architectural significance, and more than a few of wondrous beauty. No trip to the Big Apple is complete without a ride on The Ferry.
History – Wind, Steam and Diesel
In the 18th Century, New York City was confined to the island of Manhattan and Staten Island, officially Richmond County1, was administered as five independent townships. The only way to get from town to city was by boat and, until 1713 when a sporadic and unreliable ferry service was started, it had to be either by your own boat or one you chartered for the purpose. In 1747 a more permanent operation with regularly scheduled trips was established. Over time, the situation improved further as several companies vied for passengers.
With the maiden voyage of the 'Nautilus' on 29 November, 1817 a steam-powered ferry started to compete with the sailing boats that had shuttled people back and forth across the harbour for over 100 years. Before long, steam-power pushed sail-power out of the ferry business and eventually, all the ferry services were consolidated under one owner, 'Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt. The industrious Commodore leveraged this core business into a shipping and railroad empire that ultimately made him the richest man in America. The Vanderbilt family retained control of the Staten Island Ferry until 1884 when it was sold to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, under whose ownership it remained for the rest of the century.
In 1898, the residents of Staten Island2, along with those of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, voted to become part of the City of New York. On 14 June, 1901 the 'Northfield', a Staten Island Ferry, was struck by a Jersey Central Ferry, the 'Mauch Chaunk', and sank immediately - fortunately, a larger tragedy was averted when all but five of the approximately 1,000 passengers survived. The consolidated authority granted by the first event, coupled with the concern for safety engendered by the second, created the necessary conditions for the New York City Department of Docks and Ferries to take possession of the Staten Island Ferry. The city officially assumed control of the service in October 1905 after commissioning five new steam-powered ferries christened: 'Richmond', 'Bronx', 'Queens', 'Brooklyn' and 'Manhattan'. It was the 'Manhattan' that made the historic first trip as a New York City Staten Island Ferry. All five boats remained in the service until after the end of World War II.
The first diesel powered ferries entered the fleet in 1965 when three new boats, designated the Kennedy Class, were commissioned. Despite these modern vessels, steam power remained in use until the late-1980s when the last boiler was extinguished.
When the 'Nautilus' steamed its way across the harbour in 1817 it cost 12 1/2 cents to buy a one-way ticket. This exorbitant sum ensured that only the wealthiest could afford to settle along the north shore of Staten Island. In 1897 the fare was lowered to 5 cents where it stayed at this increasingly inexpensive rate for 75 years. In 1972 the fare was doubled to 10 cents. In 1975 it was more than doubled to 25 cents and in 1990 it was doubled again to 50 cents.
Just as the powers of geometric progression were really about to exert themselves, on 4 July, 1997, the City of New York decided that, since Staten Islanders had no way to get off their island without paying a toll, unless they wanted to get wet, the ferry would be free. There has been no charge for pedestrian passengers ever since.
In 2001, automobiles were charged $3 to make the trip, however, in response to growing security concerns since 11 September, 2001 automobile traffic has been ‘temporarily’ suspended.
Today, The Ferry is operated by the New York City Department of Transportation and has a 96%3 on-time performance record. The service runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Rush-hour boats run every 15-20 minutes, daytime boats are every half hour, and nighttime boats are every hour.
Approximately 20 million people take 33,000 trips on the ferry each year. On an average weekday, the ferry makes 104 trips shuttling 70,000 people back and forth across the harbour 4. Traveling at an operational speed of 16 knots, each 5.2 mile trip takes 25 minutes.
Oh, The Places You'll See
One of the remarkable things about The Ferry is that the simple acts of waiting for and then taking the ride provide you with several wonderfully framed views of many other New York attractions.
On the Manhattan side, the ferry leaves from Whitehall Terminal at 1 Whitehall Street at South Street. This bright and spacious, $150 million, state-of-the-art facility was rebuilt and opened to the public on February 2005. From inside the terminal, your position over the water and the enormous glass walls permit you a panoramic view that includes New York's magnificent skyline, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Battery Park and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Once you are under way, off the port side, as you travel from Manhattan to Staten Island, you can get a closer look at Governor’s Island. The island was originally called Pagganck, or Nut Island, by the Indians, for its abundance of oak, hickory and chestnut trees. The Dutch renamed it Nutten Eyelandt for the same reason. In 1698, it was named The Governor’s Island by the New York Assembly and set aside 'for the benefit and accommodation of His Majestie’s Governors for the time being'. The Island’s strategic location resulted in its use as a military facility for over 200 years – the ensuing wear denuded the island of almost all of the trees that inspired its original name.
As you face the northern shore of the island, you will see a large grey modern-looking structure. This is the ventilation tower for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel which runs under the harbour and connects the Red Hook section of Brooklyn with Battery Park in Manhattan. This marvel of engineering opened on 25 May, 1950 at a cost of a $90 million.
On the north western corner of the island you can see Castle Williams. This imposing three-tier, 200-foot diameter masonry fort was built in the early 1800s. You can still see most of the 102 gun ports which, when armed, had made the fort one of the most effective American seacoast defenses of its time.
The island was an Army post from 1794 to 1966, a Coast Guard installation from 1966 to 1997 and was essentially closed in 1997. Then in 2003 the federal government sold Governor’s Island back to New York State for $1, with large sections of it declared a National Monument. Since then it has been open to the public for tours.
As you make your way to the opposite side of the ferry from Governor’s Island, you can get a good view of Ellis Island. This small body of land just north of the Statue of Liberty served for over 60 years, from the late 19th to the mid-20th Century, as the port of entry to America for over 12 million immigrants.
Originally, local Indian tribes called the island Kioshk, or Gull Island. It was subsequently renamed, Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and Anderson’s Island until it was purchased by Samuel Ellis in 1770 and given its current name. During its rich history prior to being a Federal immigration station, the island was a hanging site for pirates, a harbour fort, and an ammunition and ordinance depot. Over the years the island was enlarged with landfill from its original 3.3 acres to its current 27.5 acres.
In 1965, President Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Liberty National Monument, but it was not opened to the public until 1976. Starting in 1984, the island underwent a $160 million restoration, funded primarily by private donations. The Main Building was reopened to the public on 10 September, 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
Just south of Ellis Island is Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty. The statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of America to commemorate an enduring friendship and a common love of liberty. Designed by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the statue has a total height, including pedestal, of 305 feet and was once the tallest structure in New York.
The funds for the statue were raised by ordinary French citizens primarily from a lottery and the sale of clay models. The funds for the grounds and pedestal were raised by American citizens in large part in over one-hundred thousand tiny donations.
28 October, 1886 was a public holiday which celebrated the unveiling of the great lady with a 20,000 participant procession watched by more than 1 million spectators and which, with the spontaneous help of Wall Street office boys who were among the few who did not get the day off, was turned into the first ticker-tape parade.
Through the years the statue and grounds have been maintained by various branches of the United States government, but each time that major repairs or improvements were needed the funds were raised largely through private donations. In 1916, $30,000 was raised for floodlights and a redesigned glass torch. In 1981, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation was formed to raise more than $295 million which was used for much needed repairs to both monuments.
Among the memorable changes to the statue was one in 1903 when a brass plaque displaying the words that had helped raise funds for the construction of the pedestal was quietly fastened to the interior wall:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Emma Lazarus, 1883
St. George Terminal, Staten Island
When you reach Staten Island you can usually just stay on the ferry and wait for the return trip. But if you have the opportunity, you might want to take a walk around the newly redesigned terminal. The St. George Terminal at 1 Bay Street was reopened to the public on 20 May, 2005 after a $130 million renovation. The new terminal is built with floor-to-ceiling glass walls which provide a panoramic view of the harbour and the Manhattan skyline. It also has an 18,000 square-foot garden roof. Though not completed at the time of this writing, visitors will eventually be able to view two salt-water aquariums in the waiting room, compliments of the borough's taxpayers and the Staten Island Zoo.
Depending upon the timing of your visit, you might consider taking in a ball game. The stadium for the Staten Island Yankees, a minor league team associated with the more famous New York Yankees, is just a short walk from the ferry terminal. There are worse ways to spend a breezy summer evening than watching live baseball in a friendly little stadium with a commanding view of New York Harbor.
After your return to lower Manhattan, its worth keeping in mind that you are within walking distance of Wall Street and the famous financial district. You can also stroll over to the South Street Seaport to sample one of its great seafood restaurants, do a little shopping, see the maritime museum or explore the small fleet of historic sailing and steam ships that are permanently anchored there.
If your taste for ferry rides is not yet sated, you can stroll over to the ferry for Governor's Island, or over to Battery Park where you can pick up the boat that will connect you to both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
As of this writing, the Staten Island Ferry fleet is composed of four classes of ten boats5. All the boats are coloured a distinctive 'municipal orange', the better to be seen in heavy fog. Each class of boat exhibits a unique set of characteristics reflecting the design imperatives at the time of commissioning.
The Kennedy Class of ferries began service in 1965 and represents the first diesel electric boats in the fleet, prior to this, all ferries were steam-powered. There are three sister vessels in this class, the 'John F. Kennedy', the 'American Legion', and the 'Governor Herbert H. Lehman'. Each boat carries 3,500 passengers and up to 40 vehicles, with a crew of 13 plus one female attendant. The boats are 297 feet long, 69 feet, 10 inches wide, with a draft of 13 feet, 6 inches, weight of 2,109 gross tons, service speed of 16 knots, and the engines are capable of 6,500 horsepower.
The Kennedy Class boats are slated for retirement sometime in 2005. It’s interesting to note that Staten Island Ferries very often get second lives after leaving the fleet. Back in the 1860s several boats were loaded with cannon and used on the Union side in the Civil War. In more modern times, one boat is a restaurant in New Jersey and two are serving as administration facilities for the prison at Riker’s Island in the Bronx.
This class began service in 1986 with two sister vessels, the 'Alice Austen' and the 'John A. Noble'. Each boat carries 1,280 passengers, with a crew of 9 plus one female attendant. The boats are 207 feet long, 40 feet wide, with a draft of 8 feet, 6 inches, weight of 499 gross tons, service speed of 16 knots, and produce 3,200 horsepower. These are the smallest boats in the fleet and are generally used for off-hour trips.
There are two sister craft in this class, the 'Andrew J. Barberi' and the 'Samuel I. Newhouse'. The 'Barberi' entered service in 1981 and the 'Newhouse' in 1982. Each boat carries 6,000 passengers, with a crew of 15 plus one female attendant. The boats are 310 feet long, 69 feet, 10 inches wide, with a draft of 13 feet, 6 inches, weight of 3,335 gross tons, service speed of 16 knots, and are capable of 7,000 horsepower. These boats have the largest passenger capacity in the fleet, but they carry no cars.
Spirit of America Class
The newest class of boats in the fleet is composed of the 'Guy V. Molonari', the 'Senator John J. Marchi' and the 'Spirit of America'. The class entered service in 2005. Each vessel is 310 feet long, 70 feet wide, with a draft of 13 feet 6 inches, weight of 3200 tons and a service speed of 16 knots. Each carries 4,440 passengers and 30 cars.
These new ferry boats exhibit a return to the ‘old style’ with the presence of outdoor seating on the hurricane deck, not seen since the Kennedy Class was commissioned.
From the Manhattan side, the ferry leaves from Whitehall Terminal at 1 Whitehall Street at South Street in Lower Manhattan. The 4, 5, N, R subway lines all get you within a short walk of the terminal, the 1 and 9 lines actually drop you off inside the terminal. If you prefer above ground transportation, the M1, M6 and M15 bus lines all stop at Whitehall Terminal as well.
The Staten Island Terminal is served by the Staten Island Railway and the S40, S42, S44, S46, S48, S51, S52, S61, S62, S66, S67, S74, S76, S78, S90, S91, S92, S94, S96 and S98 bus routes.
In order to get the maximum enjoyment from your trip there are a few things to keep in mind. First, try to avoid taking the ferry during rush-hour in the direction of traffic. This means avoiding going from Staten Island to Manhattan on a weekday morning between the hours of 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM and staying away from Manhattan to Staten Island trips from about 4:30PM to 6:30 PM.
If you find that you have to take your trip during the rush, stay towards the back of the boat. It’s a little less crowded here and since everybody is in a hurry, the closer you get to the destination the more room you’ll have as people start crowding the front. Finally, if you are outside on deck, the back of the boat is always less windy.
The best views are from the outside, but, except on the warmest of days, it can get chilly, so dress appropriately. Again, stay towards the back where it’s less windy.
The most spectacular views are at sunrise and sunset, especially sunset since you can catch the sun going down behind Liberty Island (nice photo opportunity). The Manhattan skyline at night from the harbour is also magnificent.
So, there you are, out on deck in the back of the boat on a warm summer evening as the setting sun paints the sky behind the Statue of Liberty – perhaps the torch and crown are already lit. The buildings in Manhattan are starting to light up too. You can feel a gentle, refreshing mist on your face and the smell of sea-air fills your lungs. The rush is over, so most of the people taking the trip with you are there because they want to be. You can see lovers arm in arm enjoying the sunset and children giggling as they crowd the railing for a view of the Great Lady. At this confluence of natural splendor and the pleasing products of human activity, both grand and mundane, as you view a unique icon, the gift of one great nation to another, the symbol of an ideal that perhaps neither's people achieves completely, but that both honestly aspire to, at this moment, if you are open to it, you just might be overcome with a sense that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Not bad for a free commuter ride.
www.siferry.com - This web-site is full of interesting trivia and statistics about the Staten Island Ferry. The site is not affiliated with the city and appears to be a labour of love by a private organization.
www.nyc.gov - This is the official NYC web-site. It has a lot of useful visitor information and is also a good source of interesting trivia.
www.nypl.org - The New York Public Library web-site, a great source of online info of every description, but especially useful for New York historical information.
www.ellisisland.org - This site is run by The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.
www.governorsislandnationalmonument.org - This site is maintained by the National Park Service.
www.americanparknetwork.com - This site has information about many different US parks, including some great history on the building of the Statue of Liberty.