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Crossing New York by Ferry in 1900


By 1910, there were more than a dozen bridges and tunnels crossing the East River of New York. But in 1900, there was just the Brooklyn Bridge. It carried a staggering amount of traffic, but clearly it wasn’t enough.

The first steam ferry service across the East River was initiated by Robert Fulton in 1814. By 1900, numerous ferries crossed from half a dozen ferry terminals on Manhattan to terminals in Brooklyn and Queens. In the Google map I created for my book Crossings, I added most of their routes. 

The ferries carried both people and horse-drawn carriages and wagons. There were three cabins on the modern ferries of 1900. On the main deck, a cabin was provided for each sex. Most likely it wasn’t modesty that necessitated providing a women’s cabin, but rather the appetite for cigar smoking among men. It was taken as a given that women didn’t smoke. But if by chance a woman did, she could go to the unisex upper-deck cabin. 
Between the two main-deck cabins, an open area ran the length of the ferry. This is where horse-drawn vehicles made the voyage. You can see horses in the first image.

Most of the freight that moved in and out of New York went by water. There was just one railroad freight line into Manhattan, and no line at all between Brooklyn and Queens on Long Island and the mainland. But there were small freight rail lines that served their factories. To move their freight cars to and from rail heads on the mainland—most often in New Jersey—they used barges laid with track known as car floats. These were loaded and unloaded at specialized docks. Then a tugboat would haul the barges to a similar dock at their destination.

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