Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Ferries have made a bit of a comeback lately with the East River Ferry, Governor’s Island Ferry, and even a ferry to Ikea in Brooklyn. The first ferry route between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, however, was established in the 1630s, just a few years after the settling of New York by the Dutch. While Cornelius Dircksen Hoagland may have been the first to run a ferry between the two boroughs, Robert Fulton and his brother-in-law William Cutting popularized it in more modern times.
Manhattan and Brooklyn have always been dependent on one another (a large percentage of Hoagland’s passengers were farmers bringing daily produce into Manhattan). Manhattan residents were moving to Brooklyn as far back as the 1600s, but the introduction of the Fulton Ferry, which opened in 1814, cemented Brooklyn as New York’s first suburb.
Unlike ferries in the past, the Fulton Ferry provided not only regular service, but steam vessels between the two boroughs. The result was a 12-20 minute passage, which was short enough to enable people to live in Brooklyn and commute daily into Manhattan. Population growth in Brooklyn expanded rapidly around this time; the population sprang from 1,603 in 1796 to 186,000 in 1854, of which 35,000 used the ferry daily. Not only did the population grow, but business did as well. As Russel Granger from Whitman’s Brooklyn wrote, “Coal yards, hotels, oyster houses, an iron foundry, a marble yard, a wood yard, a flour mill, an ice house, banks and distilleries provided the ancillary businesses to make the Fulton Landing one of the most thriving ports on the eastern seaboard before the Civil War.”
With these numbers came the chance to make big money, which is exactly what the ferry aimed to do. The Fulton Ferry (now renamed the Union Ferry) slowly reduced its fare to knock out its competition, only to double its rates once its competition was destroyed. New Yorkers are no strangers to fare hikes, but doubling the rate caused significant outrage.
The ferry eventually fell victim to changes in technology, with the Brooklyn Bridge striking a severe blow to its popularity. Although it survived another 40 years after the Bridge’s construction, the ferry finally ceased operation in 1924. Brooklyn and New York wouldn’t be connected by ferry again until 2006.