Except perhaps for spelunkers and scuba divers, most people prefer gliding over a river to crossing under it. The trip across the Hudson on a brisk, sunny day, or on clear evening with the dazzling curtain of lights to the East, is a tonic to a stressed-out soul.
Since December of last year, the crossing has been improved on the Hoboken side with a fitting gateway: After a gap of nearly 45 years, ferries are once again gliding into the restored slips of the Beaux Arts-style Hoboken Ferry Terminal, connecting commuters to the heart of the historic Erie-Lackawanna Terminal and to its storied past.
Built in 1907 to replace an outdated terminal that burned down in 1905, the sturdy building designed by architect Kenneth Murchison is as functional as it is beautiful. For over a hundred years, it has been a model of intermodal integration, connecting five different modes of mass transit: commuter rail, underground rail, ferries and buses and light rail (formerly trolleys). The terminal, listed on both the national and state registries of historic places, continues to serve about 60,000 commuters per day.
The oldest service of all is the ferry, which, except for a two-decade gap from 1967 to 1989, has served commuters from Hoboken’s earliest incarnation as a pastoral resort, shortly after the Revolutionary War.
When he bought the land known as “William Bayard’s farm at Hoebuck” in 1784, Colonel John Stevens III wanted to develop the land around his family home into a recreational playground for New Yorkers. But in the late 1700s, the vagaries of wind and current could extend a short ferry trip to nearly a half-day. Col. Stevens quickly understood that a fast, reliable ferry service could make his Hoboken resort the most popular getaway in the region.
By about 1878, inventor Jim Fitch was demonstrating an experimental steam-powered boat in Philadelphia, and other versions were being demonstrated in European capitals. Col. Stevens and his son Robert Livingston Stevens were talented inventors in their own right, and they competed neck and neck with Robert Fulton to produce an efficient and safe steamboat. Fulton claimed the bragging rights in 1807 with the voyage of the Clermont, and secured the exclusive rights to steamboat service in New York harbor. Col. Stevens’ own steamboat, the Phoenix, was forced to relocate to serve Trenton-Philadelphia traffic.
In 1811, the Colonel purchased a commercial ferry license and brought a new steam ferry, the Juliana, into service from New York to Hoboken, but Fulton’s and his influential New York sponsor, Robert R. Livingston, shut Stevens’ service down until 1821.
From that point until 1904, the Stevens family owned and operated the Hoboken Ferry Company, before selling it to the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad. Their vision was broad: Stevens’ father had owned a merchant fleet and was commissioner of turnpikes for the colony of New Jersey before the war. Colonel John himself was a planner and later president of the Bergen Turnpike Company, which incorporated in 1802.
The year 1821 marked the beginning of the first major real estate boom in Hoboken’s history, as the Stevens family sold lots on the wide but still-unpaved streets fanning out from the ferry terminal. He invested more capital in improving the land north of street, and along the “River Walk,” which wound from the ferry around the cliffs and up to the smooth sporting grounds of the “Elysian Fields” in the northern part of his estates, from approximately where 11 Street is today to the Hoboken Cove. They even built a hotel and opened “Sybil’s Cave,” and sold water from its spring. To move more lots and to make his ferry and turnpike more profitable, the colonel advertised his estates as a healthy rural resort for New Yorkers. Imagine!
On his own estates, he cultivated some of the most beautiful gardens of his day, importing the Camellia and Chrysanthemum to the New World and inspiring the Hoboken Historical Museum’s Annual Secret Garden Tour in June. On major holidays and weekends from the 1820s through the 1830s, an estimated 20,000 people crossed the Hudson to shop for real estate, to compete in cricket or base ball games or just to enjoy the views. A second Hoboken ferry terminal opened at 14th Street in 1882, and operated there until the 1940s.
John Jacob Astor, among other prominent New Yorkers, bought lots in Hoboken to build on, and joined Edwin Stevens and his brothers in forming the New York Yacht Club, with a clubhouse on the Hoboken riverfront. In 1851, they sailed their ship America to England to capture the trophy that would become the prize of the America’s Cup Race.
By the 1860s, Central Park had opened, providing more convenient recreation for New Yorkers, but at the same time, the European shipping companies were buying up the waterfront to build piers for their passenger and cargo ships. Hoboken soon shifted into its next incarnation: as a major shipping and railroad hub.
By the late 1800s to the early 1900s, it became one of the hottest places to build a factory. Fresh labor poured off the ships, and freshly manufactured goods could be shipped almost anywhere by boat or by rail.
The Hudson and Manhattan Railroad (now known as the PATH system, for “Port Authority Trans-Hudson”) was opened in 1908 to relieve the increasing waves of commuters, but along with the ferries, it barely kept pace with the growth. Support for building either a bridge or a vehicular tunnel started to build before World War I, but became an urgent priority after two signal events. First, a record hard freeze in 1917 made the river impassable due to ice, creating a fuel and food crisis. Then marine labor strikes the following year showed civic leaders that something had to be done.
A bridge high enough to allow for large ships was deemed too expensive to build, and would have necessitated removing large neighborhoods in New York and Hoboken or Weehawken to make room for the massive supports. The tunnels were the obvious way to go, and despite the engineering, logistical and political challenges, the Holland opened a mere decade after it was approved.
To learn more about the tunnels, visit the Museum’s current exhibition, “Driving Under the Hudson: A History of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels,” before it closes July 1. The Museum is open six days a week at 1301 Hudson St. Check the website, www.hobokenmuseum.org, for a list of talks and other related events.
Once the Holland Tunnel opened, and then the Lincoln Tunnel, along with the Amtrak tunnel for longer-range trains, the ferries had a hard time competing. By 1967, the Hoboken Ferry service ceased operations. New York Waterways brought back ferry service in 1989 with new boats and temporary landings in Hoboken, Weehawken and Midtown and lower Manhattan. The tickets are more expensive than the PATH Train or a bus ticket, but they include bus transfers and save enormous amounts of time at peak rush hour.
A tangible relic of the heyday of Hoboken’s ferry service is the Binghamton, a retired “double-ender” ferryboat that operated from 1905 to 1967 transporting passengers across the Hudson River between Manhattan and Hoboken. Since 1971, it was converted to a restaurant and moored at Edgewater, N.J., but sadly it has closed and is suffering from neglect. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Besides the Hoboken Ferry Terminal slips, other traces of the ferries’ glory days remain: Docked at the Shipyard Marina between 12th & 13th Streets is a refurbished ferry boat from circa 1907, the Yankee ferry.
Now owned and colorfully decorated by Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs, the ferry began its service in Portland, Maine, and later carried immigrants from Ellis Island to lower Manhattan. Pressed into military service in both World Wars, the Yankee has operated between Block Island and Providence, and circled Liberty Island with tourists. Its present owners graciously invite the public onto their lovingly restored boat for occasional “open boat” events, usually benefiting a local nonprofit.
Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs gained national prominence with a popular line of housewares they designed mixing bold black-and-white patterns in checkerboard, polka-dots or stripes with bright colors—always in unexpected ways—on lamps, china, candlesticks, furniture and more. Though they sold that business years ago, that aesthetic is carried through on the Yankee – in the living quarters, at any rate. The small quarters on a boat feel surprisingly spacious as the eye is led here and there by a riot of colors and patterns.
Other parts of the boat feel little changed from its service days. The gangplank leads into a large, utilitarian room that serves as a workshop or showroom for their new business: Brightly colored, intricate jewelry designs and a new line of housewares under the new business name, Victoria and Richard Emprise.
The upper deck has been restored with many of the wooden benches and chairs that would have been installed on the boat in its days as a dayliner. The main exception is the 12-seat dining table cleverly suspended near the ceiling, which can be lowered for large group events. Because it sways with the movement of the boat, it keeps dishes relatively safe when the river rocks the boat.
The top deck affords amazing views of Manhattan, and a captain’s quarters and wheelhouse, also carefully restored, which is occupied by their captain and boat-minder. In the rear deck of the boat, there’s enough room for the couple to raise chickens for fresh eggs, and a spacious kitchen, where Victoria whips up amazing food for their bake sales and guests.
All photos courtesy of the Hoboken Historical Museum.