For three centuries ferries have crossed the Hudson River, Spuyten Duyvil Creek and Harlem River with great frequency. They have been the backbone of commerce and movement of people to and from this part of Manhattan to other parts of the New York Metropolitan Area.
The first ferries consisted of canoes, row boats, rafts and flat-bottomed scows. There were seasonal hours: In the summer the hours were 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., and in the winter the hours were 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. During off hours the fares were usually doubled. The crossing time varied from 15 minutes to 3 hours, which was due to weather conditions, tide and current. Ferry traffic was usually cancelled during snow storms, fog or other adverse weather conditions.
It all started in 1669 when a Dutch landowner by the name of Johannes Verveelen — who had an operational ferry from 125th Street at the Harlem River going to the Bronx — petitioned the town of New Harlem to operate a ferry at Spuyten Duyvil in addition to the present ferry. His reasoning was that people were going north and wading across the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. The petition was granted and the new ferry was started.
During the American Revolution, Burdett’s Ferry proved as an important asset to the Patriot cause. Etienne Burdett, a merchant from Manhattan, bought property on the shore of the Hudson River near Fort Lee, New Jersey, and started the family-run ferry service in 1658. Originally used for transporting goods and people, the ferry was pressed into service for the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776 as a link between Fort Washington and Fort Lee. The ferry also had the distinction of being involved in two military engagements in the Battle for New York during that year.
Another ferry that gained notoriety during this period was Holland’s Ferry. It was a rope-drawn ferry that operated on the Harlem River from Sherman’s Creek to the Fordham section of the Bronx. In 1781 American raiders attacked the Bronx terminus of the ferry. During the attack the rope was cut and the ferry’s hut was burned. It was not known who Holland was, but it was generally accepted that the ferry was operated by someone of that name who lived in the area. The Manhattan terminus of the ferry was later occupied by the Con Edison Plant, which was built in 1904. The plant was recently demolished to make way for park space and a marina.
Over the years there had been many ferries crossing the Hudson River, one of which had crossed the river between Dyckman Street and Englewood, New Jersey. Another traveled between Ross Dock in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and 129th Street in Manhattan. A third traveled between Edgewater, New Jersey, and 152nd Street in Manhattan.
The Dyckman Street Ferry commenced operating in 1915. The fare was three cents, and in time it was increased to five cents. There were three to four side-wheel double-ender boats that were used. They carried such notable passengers as tea magnate Thomas Lipton, circus owner John Ringling and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller Sr.
While the ferry was operating with passenger and automotive traffic, the George Washington Bridge was being constructed and opened in 1931. Initially it had not affected the Dyckman Street ferry or the others that plied the Hudson River. On May 21, 1942, one of the float bridges collapsed at Dyckman Street pinning the ferry to the pier, resulting in the cessation of service.
The Hill Bus Company, the forerunner of the Red and Tan Lines, operated from Englewood to Tenafly. The term “over the hill” was coined by the company because it got the passengers to the top of the Palisades. In time the Hill Bus Company combined their operations with the Rockland Coach Company to go across the George Washington Bridge from Washington Heights to New Jersey and upstate New York.
The ferries from Fort Lee and Edgewater went to the 129th and 152nd Street slips in Manhattan, respectively. In 1882 the Fort Lee and New York Steamboat Company was organized and ferries between 22nd Street in Manhattan and the Fort Lee ferry dock. Ferry service was expanded in 1888 from Fort Lee to various points in Manhattan. The company was reorganized and renamed as the Public Service Ferry Company in 1894.
The Public Service Ferry Company was acquired by the newly formed New Jersey and Hudson River Railway and Ferry Company in 1900. The 129th Street piers were shared with the Dayline and Nightline steamers that sailed up the Hudson River. These ferries were also used by passengers to the Palisades Amusement Park near Fort Lee. The Iron Steamboat Company sailed from these piers to Coney Island. The schedule for this organization was timed in such a way that passengers could connect with the IRT at 125th Street when the Subway opened in 1904.
The Public Service trolley lines from the Edgewater terminal to other parts of New Jersey had been cancelled in 1938. Public Service lost interest in the system and sold out to the Electric Ferry Company on August 1, 1943. Seven years later the ferry closed due to lack of ridership, but the trolleys to and from the marina to the top of the Palisades remained.
On the Manhattan side, the Dyckman Street, 129th Street and 152nd Street ferry slips had rail connections with the New York and Hudson River Railroad Company. Trains ran from 30th Street to the Bronx and beyond. On the New Jersey side trolleys connected with the ferries and went inland to various towns and the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad.
The opening of the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the George Washington Bridge, and the bus routes created havoc for the ferry service. The toll for the automobiles on the Bridge was 50 cents whereas the ferries charges 25 cents. People were willing to pay twice as much to get over the Hudson in less time.
A new wave of ferry companies is now plying the Hudson River. New York Waterway has service from many points in New Jersey to Midtown and Downtown Manhattan. For more information please call 1-800-53-FERRY. For information on the George Washington Bridge log on to the Web sites of the Port Authority or Transportation Alternatives. Schedules for the New Jersey buses and trains can be accessed at the New Jersey Transit Web site.