A History of the Greenpoint Ferry

East River Ferry, via Facebooka
The East River Ferry, via Facebook

Starting this morning, the East River Ferry is no more—it’s transitioning into a new entity, NYC Ferry, to provide city-wide service. The good thing about the new city-subsidized service is that fares are being slashed to $2.75 for a one-way ticket (formerly up to $6). As Greenpoint’s waterfront transforms itself from industrial shoreline to “Dubai on the East River,” and greater numbers of people settle along the East River shore the importance of local ferry service becomes increasingly important. Let’s take a look at the history of the Greenpoint ferry.

The first Greenpoint ferry dates from the 1830’s when there were perhaps only a hundred or so souls living in this farming community. The first ferry was started by a Greenpoint carpenter, Alpheus Rollins, when there were only about a dozen houses in the entire area. Rollins wanted to make a little extra money so he built a rowboat and charged three cents to be rowed to tenth street in Manhattan. His business was so good that he soon built four larger catboats to ferry passengers across the East River. Greenpoint was still quite verdant then and many Manhattanites came to the area for picnics. Soon Rollins had so many passengers that he had to hire a steamboat to bring the people across. One of Rollins’ early passengers was Neziah Bliss who always insisted paying double fare. Bliss would later buy up a huge tract of Greenpoint land and develop the area laying out the areas first streets and lots. Eventually, Bliss got the legal right to run the ferry and he donated a piece of land at the end of Greenpoint Avenue so that the area could have a ferry terminal. He soon sold the ferry off to a man called Sheppard Knapp, and the Knapp family ran the local ferry for many years. In 1852 Archbishop Hughes had a ferryboat called “Martha” built so that Manhattanites could travel by ferry first to Greenpoint and then to nearby Calvary cemetery in Queens.

A steam ferry running between Greenpoint Avenue & 10th Street in Manhattan, was established on May 7, 1853. The first boat was a tub-like affair, about 75 feet long with a small cabin on the deck. This was an old boat which had formerly plied between New York & Dutchess Junction on the Hudson River, named Kate.
A regular slip could not be secured on the New York side until 18 months later, but it finally was and the Greenpoint Ferry service thrived for years. Four ferry boats provided regular ferry service connecting Greenpoint with Manhattan.

The city takes over the Greenpoint Ferry, from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 25, 1921
The city takes over the Greenpoint Ferry, from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 25, 1921

The ferry boat though often ran in the red, so in 1921 the City of New York took over the ferry thanks in large part to the non-stop badgering of Alderman Pete McGuinness who so often berated Mayor Hylan that Hyland told him that the city would take over the ferry if Pete would only shut up. Amazingly, McGuinness did (he was a chatterbox extraordinaire) and the city began to run the ferry. McGuinness became the great champion of the ferry. Perhaps as a result of the motorcar and the East River bridges, the ferry became even more unprofitable and calls arose for the city to kill the Greenpoint Ferry As Alderman, one of his top priorities was preserving the money-losing Greenpoint Ferry, which he kept running for thirteen years despite every year being a prime target for budget cuts. For more than seventy-five years the ferry service provided Greenpoint with its only direct communication with Manhattan, but because many people worked locally and did not use it, the ferry’s ridership declined to a point that no longer justified its cost. Nevertheless, McGuinness was determined to keep it running and every year he appeared before the Board of Estimate, successfully appealing for its continuance in outlandish fashion.

Greenpoint Ferry's final run - Bk Daily Eagle 2-12-1933
The Greenpoint Ferry’s final run, from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 12, 1933

Once, addressing himself to Jimmy Walker, who as mayor presided over the City Board of Estimates meetings and cast three of the Board’s eight votes, he concluded a long speech by saying, “Please don’t take away the old ferry, Mr. Mayor. It would be like separating an old couple that has been together for years to divorce Manhattan and Greenpoint. There would be tears of sorrow in the eyes of the old ferryboats as there would be tears in the eyes of the people of Greenpoint if them splendid old boats were put to rot in some dry dock or sold at public auction. Tell me, Mr. Mayor, now tell me, that you will love them old ferryboats in December as you did in May.” Referring to a cheesy song Walker himself had composed “Will you love me in December as you did in May?” “I do love them, Peter, and I love you,” Walker said. The ferries kept running that year. The next year McGuinness invented the fiction that the boats were valuable relics; claiming they were used as Union troop transports on the Mississippi in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, he said, “Would turn over in the sod” if the ferries were discontinued. Another year he said that the ferries would be the only means of escape from Greenpoint, in the main a community of frame buildings, in the event of fire. “Listen, pal,” he told Mayor John P. O’Brien, who replaced Walker. “If somebody set fire to Greenpoint and them old boats weren’t there, we’d all be roasted alive.” Again, Pete’s blarney saved the ferries, but in 1933 at the height of the depression not even Pete’s charm could not save the ferries whose service was terminated. The melancholy event was noted by a poem in the local paper, The Greenpoint Weekly Star:

THE OLD FERRY
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down
For fifty years it’s flown
And many a heart in Greenpoint
Will raise a heartfelt moan.
Upon her decks on many a morn
The crowds have rushed to work,
To reach Manhattan’s dingy isle
In fog or rain or murk.
Her pilot oft has gripped the wheel
To breast the river’s tide,
While Pete McGuinness, glad, looked on
It was his greatest pride.
On many a summer’s evening
It took the kids in tow,
The little ones of Greenpoint
Who had no place else to go.
O better that her aged hulk
Should ne’er be seen again
Brave Peter fought to save it
But all alas in vain.
Dry-dock her somewhere down the stream
And strip her to the keel.
You can’t imagine anyhow
How sad the people feel.

McGuinness spoke at the final sailing of the ferry. He made a speech and quoted Walt Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry.” For eighty years there would be no ferry service to Manhattan, but the ferry returned and now plays a vital role in Greenpoint’s transportation. Its importance will continue to grow in the near future along with the addition of new buildings and the neighborhood’s residential growth.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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