When the weary transatlantic traveler hears the lynx-eyed lookout cry, “Ambrose Light abeam, sir!” he begins to realize that he is near his journey’s end.
“Ambrose Light” marks the entrance to the great Channel leading from the trackless deep of the Atlantic Ocean to the harbor of New York City. While “Ambrose Light” and “Ambrose Channel” may suggest home to the incoming traveler, it is a question whether he could tell how this waterway and the sturdy little light-ship, bobbing about on the waves “outside,” came by their names.
We are living in a busy age, amidst never-ending and kaleidoscopic changes, when the happenings of today may be forgotten by tomorrow.
Not a few of our better-informed citizens may recall however, that “Ambrose Channel” was named by Congress in honor of the late John Wolfe Ambrose of New York City, who devoted the last eighteen years of his life to securing Federal appropriations amounting to $8,000,000 for the improvement of New York harbor, so that vessels of the largest size and deepest draft might be accommodated at its wharves.
Mr. Ambrose was born January 10th, 1838, at New Castle, near the city of Limerick, Ireland. He came to the United States with his parents as a young child, and, although obliged to earn his living at an early age, he prepared himself for college by studying far into the nights, after days of strenuous toil and fatigue. He finally entered New York University, later going to Princeton University, with a view to preparing himself for the ministry. He came of a family that had produced a long line of clergymen and physicians. On the completion of his college course in 1860, he changed his plans, taking up newspaper work as a member of the staff of the official organ of the Citizens Association, which in those early days was one of the first civic organizations devoted to municipal reform. Though so much of his subsequent life was spent in the engrossing activities of a business career, he always found time to cultivate literature. He was an admirable Greek scholar, and during the lifetime of Dr. Howard Crosby, who was his friend and former preceptor, they frequently read together some of the classics in that ancient tongue. His natural aptitude and education made him a lover of books, and his happiest hours were spent in the quiet of his library, where he had a valuable collection of rare editions of his favorite writers. In the same year that he left college he married Miss Katharine Weeden Jacobs, a daughter of George Washington Jacobs, of the well-known family of that name from Hingham, Mass. Her maternal ancestors were descended from Jonathan Weeden, a colonial settler of New York City.
Early in his business career Mr. Ambrose engaged in construction work on a large scale, and among his many accomplishments in this line were the building of the Second Avenue Elevated road, the Sixth Avenue Elevated road from Seventy-second Street to 158th Street, the laying of the first pneumatic tubes for the Western Union Telegraph Co., and the making of numerous up-town streets, particularly in the Harlem section. During the building of the Elevated roads his firm employed as many as 7000 men at one time, establishing a record for rapidity of construction seldom, if ever, equaled. He was wont to observe with commendable satisfaction that he never had a strike on any work in which he was engaged. The few threatened strikes he had always been able to avert by a frank and equitable treatment of the points at issue.
His genius for accomplishing whatever he undertook, no matter how difficult, soon became universally known, and on several occasions he was urged to accept public office. Mayor Hugh J. Grant offered him the Street Cleaning Commissionership, and although he declined the position, he drafted, at the suggestion of the Woman’s Health Protective Association, a bill for the reorganization of the Street Cleaning Department. It was so practical and complete in all its phases, that it at once met with popular favor. The late Colonel Waring was quick to recognize its merits and was the first to put into operation many of its features.
In 1880 he became interested in the development of Brooklyn waterfront properties. He was the organizer and president of the Brooklyn Wharf and Dry Dock Company, and the founder of the 39th Street South Brooklyn Ferry, and president of it until his death. Soon after the formation of these companies his attention was directed to the inadequate channels of the port of New York, especially along the Brooklyn shore. The long stretch from 28th Street to 65th Street, South Brooklyn, which to-day is a seething mass of shipping activity, representing investments of hundreds of mil-lions of dollars, was an undeveloped, swampy section, the shore line, a succession of mud flats, with an aver-age depth of 8 feet of water at high tide.
With prophetic vision, Mr. Ambrose recognized in advance of his fellows the danger of New York being handicapped through inability to supply port accommodations to ships which within a few years would surely be built.
When in 1881 he first went to Washington to ask appropriations for New York harbor, he bent all his energies to the education and conversion of successive river and harbor committees, so that they would fully under-stand the pressing needs of New York in this respect. He met with stubborn resistance, and at this distance of time it seems incredible that men elected to enact the nation’s legislation should have shown such partisan bias. The statement was made by several Congressmen that New York got $4.50 out of $5.00 appropriated by the Federal government for river and harbor improvement. By investigation (representing incalculable labor on his part) the following year he was able to show that although 66 per cent. of the nation’s foreign imports and 47 per cent. of the exports, or an average of 56 per cent. of the total commerce of the country, passed through the port of New York and 69 per cent. of the total revenues were furnished by New York, yet only one dollar out of every hundred dollars expended for river and harbor improvements in the five years ending 1896 had been al-lotted to New York.
With untiring zeal and persistent endeavor he obtained from 1881 to 18% successive appropriations amounting to $1,478,000 for the Bay Ridge and Red Hook Channels, making them 1,000 feet wide and 40 feet deep, where formerly there had been 8 feet. To his indefatigable initial efforts is directly due the great development which in recent years has taken place on the Bay Ridge water front, for without deep channels this shore would have been useless for commerce. When he had secured the necessary appropriations for upper New York Bay, he turned his attention to the ocean approaches to the harbor. In 1891 Sandy Hook Channel was dredged to a depth of 30 feet at low tide, ten feet less than the Brooklyn shore channel. He felt that to properly impress Congress with the necessity of granting permission for a real deep sea channel was a work of such magnitude that no effort should be spared. He therefore organized a large delegation composed of prominent and representative citizens from the Chamber of Commerce, the Produce and Maritime Exchanges, the Board of Marine Under-writers, and the Merchants’ Association, of which he was a director and which he represented. On December 22, 1898, the delegation appeared before the River and Harbor Committee of the House of Representatives strongly and extensively advocating a channel 2,000 feet wide and 40 feet deep, Mr. Ambrose making the principal address of the occasion.
Notwithstanding the intrinsic merits of New York’s claims in this matter, which meant larger vessels and reduced rates to producer and consumer, the Commit-tee of the House of Representatives absolutely denied the plea of the petitioners, and cut the appropriation from the River and Harbor Bill. In his long fight for a deeper channel to the sea Mr. Ambrose had met with discouragements that would have daunted a less deter-mined man. He never once thought, however, of relinquishing a project so dear to his heart. In the face of the crushing defeat with which the citizens’ delegation had met, he went alone to the Committee on Commerce of the United States Senate (of which William P. Frye of Maine was chairman), and by his masterly presentation of the subject secured the appropriation which gave New York a suitable approach to its magnificent harbor. On his return to New York the great shipping and commercial interests of our entire city acclaimed his splendid success, and tendered him the compliment of a public banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 26, 1899. With characteristic modesty, he declined this attention, insisting that the guest of honor should be Senator William P. Frye, to whose staunch support he gave much of the credit for his success. Fifteen hundred of the leading citizens of our city and nation were guests at the “Frye Banquet,” and the late Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, introduced Mr. Ambrose as “a man who had worked successfully to make ours the finest harbor in the world, and whose crowning achievement was that he had procured for the port of New York an en-trance channel 2,000 feet wide and 40 feet deep from the Narrows to the ocean!”
In less than three weeks after this, on May 15, 1899, Mr. Ambrose passed away without seeing the fruition of that for which he had labored so long and unselfishly. Those who had organized the Frye Banquet of which the late Gustav H. Schwab was chairman, desiring in some way to honor the memory of their friend and associate, presented to his family a finely executed bronze bust of Mr. Ambrose, by Andrew O’Conor, the sculptor. In the same year the legislature of New York State passed resolutions honoring his memory, setting forth in detail all that he had done to advance the interests of his well-beloved and adopted city, and in the session of 1901-1902 Congress passed the bill naming the Channel after him.
Mr. Ambrose was of commanding presence, standing over six feet in height, and very erect. He possessed a keen sense of humor, and was by nature genial and kindly. His giant intellect, coupled with his remarkable executive ability and constructive genius, conceived plans for public improvements so vast and comprehensive that he occupied a unique position among men in that he was far ahead of his time. He was one of our most public-spirited citizens, to whom New York owes an eternal debt of gratitude.