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.
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.
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.
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.
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.