Today’s Lower Manhattan Waterfront Bears Little Resemblance to the Past
As this map from a 1915 guidebook shows, today’s Lower Manhattan waterfront bears no resemblance to the past, with the exception of Battery Park and the ferry terminals at the southern end of the island.
In their parallel progression up and down the riverfronts, the shipping and railroad piers in these photographs from the early 20th century recall what was once an astonishing hive of maritime activity that would be nearly unimaginable to today’s waterfront joggers and bicyclists.
The world came to our watery doorstep: the coastal, Caribbean and South American traffic steamed up the Hudson and East Rivers; the Atlantic liners put in at Chelsea. Upriver from the Hudson & Manhattan (PATH) tunnels one found the Providence Line, Maine Steamship Line, and Virginia’s Old Dominion Line.
Look closely at the map above, and just below the railroad tunnels you will see the Fall River Line at Pier 14, Fulton Street, and the Providence Line at Pier 15, Vesey Street. Near Rector Street you’ll find the Seaboard & Gulf Steamship Co., while on the East River, just above Wall Street, one can see the United Fruit Company pier and the romantic sounding New York & Cuba Mail Steamship Line.
This kaleidoscopic maritime endeavor serving the needs of New Yorkers, or carrying Americans and American exports to faraway places, is but a distant memory, replaced by esplanades, parkland, highways and parking lots, and the occasional cruise ship. Over on the cobblestones of Fulton Street, the South Street Seaport Museum reminds us that New York City grew into worldwide prominence over the centuries because it was a vital hub of shipping and waterfront transportation.
Regular ferry service via NYC Ferry or NY Waterway still feels new. Standing at water’s edge, the relative silence is broken now and then by a helicopter or power boat, until New York’s ambient hum reminds you that the city is right behind you, its gritty shipping infrastructure having given way long since to a place for people: homes, schools, parks, and access to the waters into which European settlers dropped anchor four centuries ago.