Lest the unimaginative stranger gain the idea that the island of Manhattan is only a few acres of land in a large bay the ordinary island that one sees in almost every harbor perhaps it is worth while saying that one must travel some thirty miles to circumnavigate it; and lest, again, it be thought that the Greater New York is not a sea city, it may be said that there are five boroughs in it and only one of them (the Bronx) on the mainland. It is a city of islands, if we allow our fancy some play; but a city sea-worn rather than sea-born. Venice with its hundred islands was filled in, made by deposits of river silt; whereas New York was cut out, hewn by the waters from the native rock, separated from the mainland by its tideways. They are both cities of the sea, but not at all alike either physically or commercially.
In fact, any comparison between Venice and New York must emphasize the differences rather than the likenesses. For her hundred islands we have but three, but any one of ours outbulks all of hers put together. Again, the commerce of Venice was once considered very large, and, when the city was “towering in her pride of place,” there were thirty-five hundred sails in the service of the republic a goodly showing for the Mediaeval Age; but though New York has no great merchant marine of its own, there are twenty thousand craft a year that come into the port, and perhaps any thirty-five of its “tramp” steamers could carry all the goods and chattels of the Venetian thirty-five hundred. The seven-mile circumference of the Venetian islands, the hundred or more canals with their many wharves, seem again large in capacity; but New York has already over four hundred miles of docks and not one-half of its available shores are occupied. Venice, past or present, must be multiplied many times to reach up to New York; and even Liverpool with its one hundred and London with its two hundred miles of docks are out of the reckoning.
There is a fly in the ointment, however, about these docks. They are not of stone like those of London or Liverpool; they have not the massiveness of the quais of Havre nor even the solidity of the fondamenti of Venice. The majority of them are affairs of wood, propped up on piles driven in the mud, and have nothing to commend them except their cheapness and their convenience. Their lengths and heights vary considerably; some have sheds upon them and some have nothing at all; and their state of neglect or repair varies also.
The new docks of the Chelsea Improvement have two story sheds of structural steel, are eight hundred feet or more in length, and are, all told, great improvements on the old ones. The docks keep growing in size, and extending around the islands more and more each year; but even so, the demand seems greater than the supply. To meet this demand there is just now a prepared plan for eight docks along the Brooklyn water front from Twenty-Eighth Street to Thirty-Sixth Street, that shall be from twelve to eighteen hundred feet in length. Besides this there is a great project afoot for the utilization of Jamaica Bay by building docks on the bay islands, and dredging a channel in from the sea that shall accommodate the largest steamers. The cost of it is figured to be somewhere in the fifty millions, and the capacity is said to be something quite inexpressible in figures.
But neither the new nor the old docks are very beautiful. They are quaint enough when old and water-worn, and in connection with ships and colors they make a good back-ground for pictures; but New York is not very proud of them (except possibly the Chelsea ones) and would rather they did not occupy so conspicuous a place at the city’s entrance. Perhaps there is a similar feeling about the life along these docks. And yet the people by the water’s edge are always unique in color and movement if not in intrinsic worth. They furnish variety in uniformity the variety of many nations, for all the world gathers on the New York docks.
The early gathering place was no doubt the lower end of the East River. The Battery (which, by the way, never battered anything, at any time) was the first landing-place of the Dutch, and it was the region about South Ferry that afterward became an anchorage for their flat-bottomed, high-pooped ships. After the Revolution the large sailing craft that came into the harbor required deeper water to make landings; so the shallows were filled in from Front Street, the docks were pushed out into the stream, and South Street came into existence. In very recent years the docks have been extended still farther, and the shipping offices and storage houses along South Street are now some distance back from the pier heads. Some of the old buildings with new fronts are still standing; and, even to-day, there are huge schooners and square-rigged ships lying at the piers with bowsprits reaching over into the street. Some reminders of the days of clipper ships and the China trade linger, but are gradually being elbowed out of existence by newer enterprises.
The East River front of Manhattan is now a strange conglomeration of docks, trucks, shops, saloons, and warehouses. Many commercial interests are centered there, with many people and much activity. Everything is moving or being moved. At Coenties Slip, as one comes around from South Ferry, the activity is not at once apparent. There is a little park with bushes and trees (Jeannette Park) near by, which is usually well patronized by the unemployed; and across the street from it there are scores of canal-boats tied together in the dock, that seem deserted and decadent. But a few steps farther on brings a change. Long piers run out into the river and brown-red sheds are alive with milling men and pulling horses. Steamers from Spain, Porto Rico, Havana, Galveston, ships from many southern ports, are unloading or taking on cargo. The street is a tangle of trucks, the sidewalk a turmoil of people, the shops a bustle of business. Many of the old buildings are occupied as shipping offices, storehouses, or ship chandleries. Anything needed on shipboard can be bought in such places canvas, cordage, blocks, packing, pipes, tubes, oils, paints, lanterns, compasses, bells, swords, guns. Food and clothing supplies are near at hand; and the saloon along South Street, with its modicum of cheer, is never “hull down” on the horizon. When Jack or his captain comes ashore, there are plenty of opportunities offered him to get rid of his money before he reaches the Bowery.
As one moves toward the Brooklyn Bridge the interests become more varied. The different slips widen out to the docks and furnish room for many warehouses and shops in low brick buildings, some of them with gambreled roofs and dormer windows. The docks are piled high with odd-looking boxes, with green and blue barrels; schooners and ships are anchored beside car floats loaded with yellow freight-cars; ferry-houses are near by from which bright-colored boats are coming and going; tugs are pushing and hauling at tows; steamers rush by with a splash and a swash. From the piers, looking up and over the tangle of trucks, perhaps the stranger catches a glimpse of the Broadway sky-scrapers, resting serenely in the far upper air like a ridge of snow mountains, quite unaffected by the noisy worry of the water front. How stupendous in size, how superb in light and air they seem by comparison with the junk shops and the dock sheds! Perhaps he glances around to the east, and there sees the swooping span of the Brooklyn Bridge, still another contrast between the new and the old. Possibly later on he figures it out quietly by himself that the dirty docks and the greasy ships and the noisy trucks are after all not to be despised, for they made possible the beautiful bridge and paid for the immaculate-looking sky-scrapers. Commerce foots the bill, abuse it as we may.
South Street runs on under the Brooklyn Bridge, past Fulton Market with its fish stalls and tumble-down shops; past Peck Slip with its old houses; past Providence and New Haven steamers, the Manhattan Bridge, the little long park at Rutgers Slip; past warehouses, warehouses, warehouses. Scows are being filled with city refuse, cars are being unloaded with merchandise at the docks, factories and machine-shops are cropping out along the way, gas-houses and lumber-yards begin to bulk large. Right in the midst of this region (formerly a haunt of thieves) comes another surprise. This is Corlear’s Park with its Italian-looking loggia and its eight acres sloping down to the open river. There are no piers or sheds here, and the water view is unobstructed. Sound steamers, sloops, schooners, lighters, ferry-boats slip past on the tide, up and under the Williamsburgh Bridge; and occasionally a motor-boat with its put-put, or some pleasure yacht, careens and pitches on its way. Off in the background, across the river, are the battle-ships that are being repaired at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, or the old hulks that have had their day and are now rotting at the dock. It is a picturesque spot just here at Corlear’s Hook, where the river turns and where South Street comes to an end.
The North River, as the lower part of the Hudson is sometimes called, was not of much trade importance in the early days of New York. There were no docks along it be-cause all the ships went to South Street. Sailing craft came around the Battery and went up the Hudson without stopping. They were seen and admired by the New Yorkers who had residences on the ridge, for the ridge was then famous for the “view.” So late as 1800 old St. Paul’s, Columbia College, and the Hospital looked down to the river and beheld a practically unobstructed panorama. There was no West Street then.
Before that time the water front was even more primitive. From Warren to Desbrosses Street was the “bouwerie” of Anneke Jails, whose many descendants still dream of untold wealth coming to them when the law finally gives them their due. On either side of Canal Street was Lispenard’s Meadows, where almost anything could be docked except a ship, and where nothing was trucked except loads of hay. Beyond came Greenwich Village with no vast commercial interests, though ships sometimes lay at anchor in the stream off from it. * After this the shore line as far as Spuyten Duyvil Creek was unbroken and untrodden Fort Gansevoort, which stood near the present market-place, and Fort Washington at One Hundred and Seventy-Fifth Street, being latter-day works.
But a great change has taken place since the days of the Dutch, or the English, or even the American occupation. Less than a hundred years has transformed the North River into a water-way for the ships of the world, the meadow front is now a broad street with the unceasing reverberation of traffic; and the waters’ edge, from the Battery to the Riverside Park, is occupied by long piers and sheds where ocean liners are docked and unloaded. The ocean-carrying trade of New York is now located there. Practically all the important lines of passenger steamers have their docks there, or across the river at Hoboken.
Along the Chelsea region of the North River, scattered like the sky-scrapers on Broadway, are the huge transatlantic liners with sharp noses pushing in toward West Street. With them and near them are the smaller steamers plying to Havana, Mexico, South America, Spain, Italy, Greece; the immigrant steamers coming up from Naples, Palermo, or Trieste; the coasting steamers from New Orleans, Galveston, Boston, Providence; the white river steamers running to Troy and Albany. In the foreign passenger trade alone there are some three hundred or more of these craft coming and going to this port; and the number of coasters that creep into the harbor at odd times and in strange ways mounts up into the thou-sands.
The “tramps,” fruit carriers, cattle and tank steamers are of all kinds and descriptions, come from all over the seven seas and beyond,’ and fly the flags of every nation having a merchant marine. Besides these there are ships and sails of old-time merchants, perhaps, that have no regular sailings, casual ships with strange cargoes that come up from the underworld of China or Peru when they can, and go out again with grain, iron, or coal for distant seas when they must.
They make graceful combinations on the water, with their fine lines and colors, their smoke and steam, their gliding motion these ships and sails. In fact, the North River, with its fleet of big and little craft and its many-colored flags, funnels, and hulls, makes a harbor view more lively and more imposing than Backhuisen or Willem van de Velde ever imagined. Not the least important values in the picture are the fore-and-aft sails of the huge six and seven masted schooners or the square sails of barks or brigs or full-rigged ships. Even the little spots of steam and color in tugs, fire-boats, car-floats, yachts, help out the picture by giving it brilliancy. When the red and green and olive ferries, the yellow revenue-cutters, the blue canal-boats, the white island-boats, with an occasional white and buff war-ship, are added to the scene, and the whole moving mass has the towering lower city at sunset for a background, the color of it becomes startling, bewildering, quite dazzling.
The piers on the North River where the big steamers are warped in and the little ones touch or are unloaded, are at least capacious; and capacity is, after all, an absolute necessity. Huge cargoes have to be handled upon them in short spaces of time, and many donkey engines, der-ricks, and hoists, with scores and scores of longshoremen, are in requisition. Hand trucks, horse trucks, auto-trucks, rumble here and there with boxes, bales, and barrels containing goods from everywhere bananas from Jamaica, coffee from Mexico, tea from China, wine from France, macaroni from Italy, spices from the Indies, sugar from Cuba, woods from Brazil, pulp from Norway, cloths from England, cutlery from Germany. This freight handling is always more or less complicated, because the docks are the distributing places where goods are sorted over and re-shipped to different points throughout the country. Moreover, for every cargo coming in there is perhaps a larger cargo going out. Silks and rugs and works of art may be arriving at one side of the pier; and beef, machinery, shoes, be departing by the other side. Add to this foreign trade, the domestic trade by river, Sound, and shore, by railway and tramway; add further the passenger traffic along these piers from ferry and steamer, the come and go by car and cab and carriage, and it can easily be imagined that the North River piers and docks are places of activity, centers of energy.
Though thousands are at work about these piers and are continually crossing each other’s path, there is usually little confusion. Everything moves systematically and everyone understands the law of traffic in the city,keep to the right and keep moving. In and out of these pier sheds all day (and sometimes all night), people, trucks, and carts move in files, loading and unloading, passing and repassing. West Street receives them and rejects them and receives them again. The wide thoroughfare seems always in an uproar (except on Sunday); and, of course, traffic occasionally gets into a tangle.
This is not to be wondered at, for the mass and the mix of West Street are something quite out of the ordinary. It is facile princeps the street of trucks in the whole city. Every conceivable kind of a vehicle dray, express-wagon, mail-wagon, furniture-van, butcher-cart, garbage-cart, beer-skid, beam-reach is there. Sandwiched in among them or dashing across them are cabs, carriages, hansoms, automobiles. Dozens of trolley cars run across this street to the different ferry-houses; two car tracks run the full length of it, and down these tracks, perhaps in the busiest portion of the day, will come a long train of freight-cars of the New York Central Railroad. Such a hurly-burly of traffic naturally produces the “jam” which sometimes re-quires the services of the police to straighten out.
The dock side of West Street is laid with asphalt, but the street proper, where the trucks and trolleys go, is paved with stone blocks Belgian blocks. The jar and jolt, the shock and rumble, arising from these stones is not pleasant. No one can hear himself talk during traffic hours, except the cabbies and the truck drivers. Even they are usually purple in the face from trying to outroar the rumble, though sometimes they get blue and green with wrath when a collision takes place, and they exchange compliments about each other’s driving.
The human voice, however, does not reach very far in West Street. A gong, a honk, or a whistle does better service. People, when they want to chat quietly, go inside. The “inside” is a saloon, a restaurant, a shop, or an office of the kind usually found along the sea edge of a city. The North River interior is newer than that of the East River but, in character, not essentially different. The shipping agencies, supply stores, warehouses, factories, mills, markets, lumber-yards, with all kinds of little dens that sell drink or food or clothing to the longshoremen, are also apparent. They are not cleanly-looking or inviting. The dust of the street and the habits of the crowd keep them grimy and bedraggled-looking. But they are picturesque. Even the blatant sign with its high-keyed coloring belongs here and helps complete the picture. Modern commerce in West Street, with its trucks and liners and dingy buildings, is just as pictorial, and far more truthful, than, say, Claude’s shipping and seaports, with classic palaces and quais smothered in a sulphur sunset. But it may be admitted that a proper angle of vision and some perspective are needed to see it that way.
And around the water front on West Street, as well as South Street, one meets with a soiled and unkempt-looking mass of humanity that is quite as picturesque in its way as the streets or the buildings. It is by no means made up of New Yorkers alone. The races of the earth seem to have sent representatives to it, each one speaking his own language. The waifs and strays that have been jettisoned violently from foreign ships, the stowaways from the liners, the tramps from the railways, all gather along the docks looking for something to turn up. Among them one can see blacks from Jamaica, browns from India, yellows from the Malay Peninsula, whites from Europe, and half-tones from South America. It is a colorful mass of humanity in both face and costume, and it has the further artistic element of repose about it. That is to say, it sits down in the sunshine whenever it can, and works only by fits and starts. Its color is oftener seen in conjunction with some convenient barrel or saloon bar than elsewhere. No doubt there are many hard-working, decent citizens among the longshoremen, but as a class they are given a rather bad name. Thieves and “dock rats” mingle with them, thugs like their company, derelicts from every sea, ne’er-do-wells from every shore, join them. The police do not hold them in the highest esteem.
Yet the longshoremen are as much a part of New York as the ship-owners, agents, clerks, commuters, and other well-dressed people that pass along West Street an interesting part at that. And West Street is a characteristic New York thoroughfare furnishing both color and contrast with quite as much vividness as Broadway. It is neither a soulful nor a sanitary belt, nor is it a place where one can rest body or mind; but it has swirls of motion, flashes of light, combinations of tones that are at least entertaining. The place and the people complement each other.