Over and Back: The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor

Over and Back: The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor

Over and Back: The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor

Over and Back: The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor


Ask the average American anywhere in the country to answer the association question "Staten Island" and you get "Ferry" in immediate response. what is regularly billed as "America's favorite boatride"- not least because a round trip still costs an astonishing twenty-five cents- is the last public survivor of New York Harbor's once immense fleet of those doughty double-ended ferryboats. Dozens of ferryboats in a myriad of liveries crossed the harbor's waterways as recently as one generation ago Most have vanished as though they never were, leaving in their ghostly wakes only fading memories and a few gorgeously restored ferry terminals. The handsomest of these terminals, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, is probably the one dubbed by Christopher Morley the Piazza San Lackawanna. Over and Back captures definatively nearly two centuries of ferryboating in New York Harbor, by a master narrator of the history of transportation in America. In stories, charts, maps, photographs, diagrams, route lists, fleet rosters, and in the histories of some four hundred ferryboats, Brian J. Cudahy captures the whole tale as concisely as one could hope. The transportation expert, the ferry buff, the model builder, the urban historian: each will find grist for his or her mill. The photographs capture a highlt significant footnote in America's past and present; the colored illustrations prserve some of the stylish rigs in which the owners garbed their boats, despite coal soot, oil smudge, and urban grime. Fully a third of the book comprises the most complete statistical compilation that the nation's public and private archives permit. The data show, among other things, that some of the former workhorses of New York Harbor are filling utilitarian or social roles elsewhere in the United States and overseas, and that the newest boats in the harbor began life along the Gulf of Mexico and in New England.


This is a book about the ferryboats of New York Harbor - their past, their present, their future. But it will treat present and future only briefly. Not that the future is bleak for such vessels; it isn't, it isn't. It's just that there is such interesting and largely unknown information from the early days of ferryboating in New York, material that helps add color and dimension to the story of the city itself, that more time will be spent talking about what's already happened than what's happening now or might happen in days yet to come.

Much, of course, has been written about other aspects of New York and its harbor - its general history, its role in national and even world economic developments, its immigrants, its ocean-going ships, its railroads, its politicians. And New York has even recently begun to revive a once- more-common willingness to celebrate events and anniversaries related to its port: Operation Sail in 1976, the centenary of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983, the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. (All of these, it should be noted, being very much in the tradition of the grandest party the port ever staged, the Hudson-Fulton Centennial of 1909!) But the doughty little double-ended ferryboats that were once the only, then the principal, and now just a vestigial means for people and their vehicles to travel over and back across the area's rivers and bays - why, they've been largely ignored, and haven't been properly celebrated since the middle of the last century when Walt Whitman put pen to paper. For it was Whitman who confessed "I have always had a passion for ferries." It was a passion he rendered most artistically in Book VII of Leaves of Grass with a poem entitled "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":

Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Manhattan! stand up, beautiful hills of

But that was Whitman in the years before the Civil War. By the time a later New York writer, O. Henry, happened on the local scene in the early 1900s, any passion for ferries had decidedly cooled. In his story "The Ferry of Unfulfilment" the heroine, Miss Claribel Colby, is identified . . .

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