A History of Greenpoint Piers

 

Aerial view of Bushwick Inlet and Greenpoint 1982 (courtesy of NYCEDC)

There is no more important geographical feature of Greenpoint than our waterfront defined by piers, wharves and docks, so let us take a moment and examine in more detail the history of our local docks.

In 1845, David Provost, a scion of one of the five ancestral families that farmed Greenpoint, built the first pier at the foot of Freeman Street. Around 1850, the Federal Government also built a dock and a gunpowder storage facility at the foot of Milton Street that was used more for swimming than anything else.

In the 1850s, 12 shipyards lined the East River shore, building wooden clipper ships. Shipbuilding combined with the demand for wooden barrels for the sugar and oil refineries required huge amounts of wood, so Greenpoint became New York’s center for lumberyards. Lumber often arrived on three-masted ships where it was unloaded by brawny Irish-American longshoremen like Peter J. McGuinness who was the head stevedore at Orr’s lumber yard at the foot of Green Street.

The first pier was built at the foot of Greenpoint Avenue for the local ferry in the early 1850s, which made two stops in Manhattan- one at 10th Street and the other at 23rd Street. A fleet of ferries ran the East River until 1931 when the ferry service was closed in the money-strapped Great Depression.

In 1888, the Noble Street pier was built by the city for the use of the many industrial concerns that covered Greenpoint, but it was not alone. Piers also stretched out from Quay, Oak, Kent, Java, India and Huron.

Greenpoint Weekly Star archives

As Greenpoint industrialized, the swimming holes that once served as pools for kids were filled up and kids began to use the piers to swim in the East River, despite the fact that raw sewage was dumped right into the river. A number of local boys drowned in the swift river currents until the 1930s when Peter McGuinness succeeded in opening the McCarren Park pool, thus providing local kids with a far safer way of cooling off.

Greenpoint never had a commercial railroad that could supply local factories, so the local docks and wharfs played a central role in the local economy. Tugboats like the McAlister fleet also left from local docks, so hundreds of local families were dependent on the longshoremen who worked the East River shoreline.

Aerial view of Newtown Creek looking east over Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Queens 1982 (Courtesy of NYCEDC)

The French government built a $4,000,000 facility with its own dock during World War I at the foot of DuPont Street to load massive supplies of munitions onto ships heading back to war-ravaged France. Later, the area would turn into a park.

With so much heavy industry, especially with so many oil refineries, the threat of fire was a constant danger. Old time Greenpointers recall with fondness the John Purefoy Mitchell, a local fireboat that for many years was anchored at the Noble Street Pier.

The local docks increasingly became a point of conflict and corruption. A violent strike took place in 1919 where unionized local stevedores fought pitched battles against scabs that were trying to take their jobs. Union corruption on the docks was so notorious that one of the lines in the classic Marlon Brando film “ On the Waterfront “ featured a scheming longshoreman to “ Go back to Greenpoint.”

The docks were also the scenes of much alcohol smuggling during Prohibition. In June 1928 the New York Times reported that a ship called the Halcyon docking at Green Street secretly contained $100, 000 in champagne that was being smuggled into New York.

Greenpoint 1949 (courtesy of Forgotten NY)

Corruption and theft by organized crime became so prevalent that it drove local shipping out of the area. By the late 1970’s, the docks were mostly idle and many had become unsafe as the wood in the piers was degraded and eaten by crustaceans. Although the docks were abandoned by industry, they were still used by locals who exploited them to fish, sun themselves or even as lovers lanes. In March 1981, the New York Times reported that a loose barge knocked two local couples parked on the pier in cars into the frigid waters of the East River, but the docks continued to be a recreational area, even after barbed wire was strung up to prevent locals from entering the India Street pier that was in danger of collapse.

Aerial view of Greenpoint and WNYC Transmitter Park (undeveloped) 1985 (Courtesy of NYCEDC)

Finally, in 1996 six locals had to be fished out of the river when the dock finally collapsed. In 2011, the India Street pier was rebuilt to accommodate the renewal of East River Ferry service to our area. In 2105, Transmitter Park opened, which features a beautiful dock that stretches out into the East River. A marina and other docks have been seriously considered and it is only a question of time before other docks re-establish themselves on the riverfront. These new docks and piers though will really only mark a return of one of the defining features in local history.

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."

7 Comments

  1. Martin says:

    Thanks Geoff , a wonderful piece. Growing up in Greenpoint I do have many memories of the piers.
    I do recall something called the Bicentenial barge being docked India St. Pier in the summer of 1976. Also having day excursions on what I believed was called the Hospital Boat which docked at Noble St Pier. The tickets were obtained at the Health station on the corner of Greenpoint and Franklin. The boat would tour around the harbor while got our teeth and general health checked did arts and crafts , played on the lower deck and did sightseeing from the top deck. Also included was a box lunch consisting of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
    One of my best friends pop worked at the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal. As that went abandoned it became our go to hang out spot in the summer. many a summer BBQ was had at the end of N.12st pier.
    As we grew older and we could drive our cars onto India and Huron St piers that became our gathering place. Many friends , girls, beers and of course became a lover in those lanes at the night on those piers.

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  3. Dan says:

    Great article, as usual. We used the Noble Street pier for years, for swimming and partying. Even after it started to fall apart.
    It always bothered me that after American Manufacturing (AKA The Jute Mill) moved to Pennsylvania the new owners threw a fence across the street and closed off Noble street south of West Street. There was public access for nearly 100 years. Always assumed it was illegal, they stole a city street in broad daylight. But they got away with it.

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  4. Mary Anne Nabet says:

    Thank you for the memories. I lived at 54India St until 1951.

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  5. Diane Oyola says:

    Great article as always…look forward to them. So much impressive history.

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  6. Mary Korba says:

    Started my life on Huron st following moves to Freeman Oakland Eagle streets and then a long stint on Noble street . Went to St Cyril and Methodius catholic elementary school on DuPont st. . Played on the barges docked at the DuPont st pier. Had an adventurous fun filled childhood

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  7. Ken says:

    I lived at 44 and then 47 India street from 1958-1969. I played at the lumber yards along the ‘river’ and even went swimming along the piers of India street. We had to swim in our underwear and dry off so not to get caught by our moms. The huge warehouses that were once on top of those piers we’re burnt down by a local named Walter W.

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