It is matter of common geographic knowledge that the borough of Manhattan is surrounded by water; that the water is furnished by the Hudson, the Harlem, and the East rivers; and that these same rivers also make channels through the Upper and Lower bays to the sea. Three rivers would seem to be a sufficiently large endowment for one city at least the claim is large enough, especially as two of them are not rivers at all but, for once, it appears we have not claimed enough. A former mayor of the city’ assures us that there are thirteen rivers emptying into New York Bay, not including the Croton that comes to us through the water mains; and, of course, they all belong to the city, or at any rate help on its commercial importance in one way or another.
The figure, however, is somewhat unfortunate because it requires such a stretch of the imagination to realize it. Presumably the Hackensack, the Passaic, and the Raritan are included in the thirteen; but New Jersey would certainly object to New York claiming them, even though their waters do flow seaward past Sandy Hook a New Jersey sand spit, by the way. Presumably, again, the Bronx and the East Chester, with Newtown and Flushing creeks, and some of the creeks flowing into Jamaica Bay, are on the list. They are, however, rivers only by courtesy. The citizens who live near them, and the watermen who navigate them, no doubt enjoy the larger designation; but the titles are not to be taken seriously except when a proud New Yorker goes forth to make a speech to the people of an inland city. Commercially, the creeks do not “launch a thousand ships,” nor anywhere near that number. They are still in the creek stage of commerce as of water. New York really has only one river, but that one is “the lordly Hudson,” a sufficient water-way for any city, however large.
The East River is merely a tide-arm connecting New York Bay with Long Island Sound, but it flows between Manhattan and Brooklyn and is a very important water-way. Perhaps it is the most-traveled stretch of water for its length and breadth that the city possesses. It is usually supposed to begin where the Harlem River comes out; but, legally, it has been decided that it starts near Throggs Neck, some ten miles farther up, where the tide-waters of Bay and Sound meet. It practically ends at the Battery twenty miles below. There, at ebb tide, it goes bumping into Governor’s Island, and is shunted around the western end of the island into the waters of the Upper Bay. A small part of it passes through Buttermilk Channel a narrow reach of water between the island and lower Brooklyn, through which came small boats loaded with Long Island buttermilk in the ancient days, and across which the cattle used to wade at low tide.
From start to finish the East River is a rapid stream. Even clown near Wall Street or South Ferry, it goes by with a twisting, swirling current that makes the tugs wheeze and snort in pushing a ship or schooner into dock. The ferry-boats to Brooklyn that still ply backward and forward (more from force of habit than as a paying industry since the tunnels have been opened) have their worries with this same current, heading up well against it, coming into the slip diagonally, and often with a heavy jar against the pilings. When wind and tide are dead ahead there is a great deal of effort on the part of craft for little progress. The surface is hardly ever smooth except at flood tide. Little eddies and tide-rips, with geyser-like currents that occasionally seem to boil up from below, are frequent. Besides, there is the night-and-day churn of tugs and wash of steamers, with rolling swells that swash against the pier heads, rush through the pilings, and keep the little craft within the slips, pitching, rolling, dancing.
Under the Brooklyn Bridge as one looks down on the surface there is the same uneasy flashing water. And it is darker in hue than that which flows in the Hudson.
Presumably, this is due to the greater admixture of salt water coming, more or less directly, from the sea or the Sound. Salt water is always deeper in tone than that which is fresh or merely brackish. And yet the East River is not a sea-blue or a sea-green, except in the wake of a steamer. From the bridges looking straight down one gets its local hue in a dark slate or olive color, with some-times a blue-steel hue, something more like the water of the Black Sea than that of the near-by Sound. The Hudson, too, has a deep tone to it under certain lights; but with full sunlight there is in it a pronounced jade-color an indefinable gray-green peculiar to harbor waters that are half fresh and half salt.
Above the Manhattan Bridge at Wallabout Bay there is a sharp turn of the river as though the stream had tried for a passage-way through at that point, and had finally given up in disgust, pitching off to the southwest on another tack. At Blackwell’s Island it is split in two and the divided waters pass on either side, the main-traveled channel being along the Manhattan shore. Farther up at Hell Gate comes a clash and a turmoil, for here the river makes a quick bend with Ward’s Island, Astoria, and Manhattan all pushing it different ways. It was considered a dangerous place for navigators previous to the blasting operations of 1876. Certain projecting rocks in the channel made eddies and counter-currents that often proved disastrous to small craft. There were further blastings at Flood Rock in 1885; but though the channel is now comparatively free of ledges there is still an angry twist and boil of the elements thereabouts. It is the meeting-place of several waters, and a struggle for right of way is the natural consequence.
Here, where the Harlem joins and Little Hell Gate, above Ward’s Island, cuts through, would seem to be the beginning (or the ending) of the East River. Just above there is a widening of the channel preparatory to the river’s disappearance in the Sound itself, and many islands Randall’s, Riker’s, and North and South Brother appear. It is quite apparent that this is really a bay of the Sound and not a part of the narrow strait. Beyond Throggs Neck and Willetts Point, however, there is no possible room for further doubt. The limits of New York City are left behind and the Sound is ahead the Sound where the great passenger boats go whistling hoarsely through the fog up to Fall River, where the yachts go cruising, and the coasting schooners come laden, and the brave winds blow, blow high, blow low, from Pelham Bay to Newfoundland Banks.
The Harlem, which comes out at Hell Gate, is a very tame affair after the deep swift water of the East River. It is a small mouth of the Hudson and is not unlike some placid little country stream shallow in places, slow of motion, low of shore, and somewhat dirty of hue. It does not boil or seethe. Usually its surface is flat and reflects very beautifully the evening skies over Fort George. No large sailing craft infest it, no ocean liners churn up its mud, no long docks push out from its shores. In their place one finds a superabundance of small piers and docks, with oyster boats, fishing smacks, catboats, and many boat-houses that are headquarters for rowing clubs. It is a famous stream for small craft to anchor in or dry-dock, and also a stream where the artist in search of the small picturesque finds ready material.
There is substantial traffic on the Harlem, too (in the aggregate it is considerable); but it is not precisely representative of New York commerce. It is the old New York we see there, not the new; and the general impression one gains is that the locality has not kept pace with other portions of the island. New York, like every other advancing city, pushes its small buildings, factories, and bridges ahead of it. Just at present they seem to be enjoying a momentary rest on the banks of the Harlem. Eventually they will be pushed over the stream or demolished to make room for larger things. As for the stream itself, it is only a bogus little river, though it may some day, by dredging, become a great thoroughfare.
But the river of which New York is the proudest is the Hudson. What a stream it must have been when the Half Moon first dropped anchor in its waters! Its discoverer found it so broad this Groot Riviere that he could not but believe it the long-sought passage-way to the Indies. He followed it to Troy before he was convinced that it was only a river of the New World. In those days the primeval forests grew down to the water’s edge even on the island of Manhattan; the Catskills and the Adirondacks were true enough wildernesses, and the Indian routes to the north were chiefly by the water-ways. Perhaps the rainfall in the summer and the snowfall in the winter were greater: perhaps they were held longer under the mosses and the shadows of the vast forests, and the stage of water in the tributary streams was more evenly maintained. In consequence the river was, no doubt, wider and deeper then than now, and its waters moved more calmly, without sound or breaking rapids, in a mighty flood, from the mountains to the sea. What a majestic river it must have been!
And how crystal clear the waters! In that early time there were no lands broken by the plough to muddy the small streams, there were no huge water-sheds of charred timber-stumpage and denuded ground to darken the brooks and discolor the lakes, there were no towns or cities to drain into the river or pollute it with factories or litter it with street refuse. Not even commerce stirred its silts or washed its shores. Its waters were “unvexed by any keel,” its banks were unslashed by railways, its mountain walls were unblasted by quarrymen. Nature, not commerce, reigned; and the river belonged as wholly and completely to the former then as to the latter now. What a marvel of purity it must have been! What a splendid sweep of translucent waters!
It is still a majestic river. At ebb tide, deep and strong and nearly as wide again as the East River, it comes down by the Palisades, down by the Riverside Drive, down by the city wharfs and docks, an unconquered, uncontrolled force. What sublimity in its volume! What dignity in its measured movement! Without twist or turn into indentation or bayou it moves serenely on. In the Upper Bay much of it spreads out and is disintegrated by the tides. It loses its riverine character; it becomes a part of the Bay and eventually floods out through the Narrows, through the Main, the Swash, and the Ambrose channels, out to the distant ocean.
What philosopher or theologian was it that discovered a special providence in every great city being furnished with a great river at its doorstep for a water supply? If we allow this amusing exchange of place in the proverbial cart-and-horse, we may conclude that New York was, indeed, fortunate in its Hudson. And, since civilization and commerce were destined to follow the discovery of the New World, possibly the Hudson was fortunate in its New York. The less philosophical and the more sceptical may, however, see in the conjunction something that inevitably “happened.” Such a river and harbor were destined to have just such a city. Both river and city are alike in scale; and, in some respects, not unlike in nature. The breadth and the length of the one are the height and the reach of the other. The very swirl of the stream, and the worry of the waters about docks and piers and bridges, seem to repeat the fret of the street and the uneasy movement of its long lines of people. And again, the ceaseless come and go of current and tide, with all the power and the push of them, are once more suggested in the energy of the city that never rests save for the momentary lull betwixt ebb and flow. They complement each other the river and the town.
The city is more fortunate in its water-ways than perhaps many of us imagine. Of course, its commercial up-building has derived from its harbor, but how many of us realize that much of its beauty and grandeur come from the surrounding waters? I mean now not only that picturesque beauty that derives from sea hazes and mists, from water-reflections upon wall and tower, with that wonderful blend of color known only to island cities; but the imposing appearance of the city as a whole, as you approach it from the water. If the city were flung down upon a flat piece of ground and the only approach to it were by railway, how much of an impression would it make? And who would marvel over the line or light or color of the down-town mountain ridge? If our foreign acquaintance came to the city by way of Harlem and the Bronx, rather than by Sandy Hook, would they be shocked or grieved or astonished or delighted at the first appearance of the city? The water approach to New York is more than a commercial asset: it is a superb avenue leading up to the temple.
It is not possible to reach Manhattan without crossing water either above it or below it. This is, no doubt, something of a bother and a nuisance to the commuter or the business man. He is always in a hurry to “get down to the office,” and ferries and bridges take up too much of his time. He much prefers the tunnels under the rivers. The electric cars go through the tubes with a rush, and, though he sees nothing but the glitter of passing lights, he gazes steadily ahead of him and thinks about business, knowing very well that he will “get there” in a few minutes. Such an approach is certainly practical and convenient, but just as certainly not pleasurable. Yet no one need lament the coming of the tunnels. They will supersede the ferries; but the bridges will remain. The approach from the west may not in the future be made by boats, but the great bridge, now planned for the Hudson, will be followed by others, and the view from them two hundred feet in air will be even more imposing.
It is so now. What more astonishing approach could one ask than that from the Brooklyn Bridge? The outlook to any and every point of the compass is wide and wonderful. Up the river it reaches to the Sound with bridges and boats and towers and tall chimneys all swimming in a purple-blue haze. Down the river you overlook the Battery and Governor’s Island, to the Upper Bay, to the water-ways leading out by the Narrows, and in the distance lost in mist, Staten Island. Around to the northwest your eyes follow the Hudson with the Palisades beyond; and against them, in partial silhouette, are seen the towers and tall buildings of upper New York.
It is usually at the city, however, that the man on the bridge looks. He watches the line of sky-scrapers grow from day to day; he sees the plying steamers beneath him, the new work on the docks, the moving lines of trucks along the wharves, the peopled decks of the ferry-boats. The human interest is his. The hum of the hive over there where the high buildings cluster the closest comes to him with a strange lure. He is drawn toward it irresistibly. The zeal of his business bath eaten him up.
Yet he is not indifferent to the broader outlook. Ask him questions and you will find that he has seen the stupendous beauty of the lower water-ways set with green islands under sunset skies. He has seen many times the long sweep of the rivers by the rounded shores, and the far glitter of the Upper Bay flecked with steamers, sails, and hurrying tugs. He knows the graceful lines of the new suspension bridge, the charm of the morning light striking upon the white walls of the Metropolitan tower, the wonderful shadows cast by the high buildings of the lower city in the evening light. He may even see some color charm in the advertisements that roof the tenements of the East Side. Perhaps he is more impressed by the “bigness” of city, land, and sea, than by small patches. of beauty in the scene; but then who is not? Who can fail of being awed by such vast proportions? The man on the bridge is not so sadly out of focus. He appreciates what he sees and, poor mean money-grubber that we may contemptuously think him, he may even nurse dreams of the running water and the splendid ship that will some day bear him out to Europe or Far Cathay, away from business and “the Street,” away from the hum of the hive, away from the worry of the money-world.
Just so with the commuter from New Jersey who is rushed through the tube in the morning but, perhaps, returns home by the ferry at night. He can spare more time in the evening and possibly goes down the river from Twenty-Third Street or up the river to the Erie or West Shore railroad station. The ride is restful, and he likes to sit out on the deck and see the distant city in the sunset light with the window-panes of the sky-scrapers flashing fire, and the high walls suffused with pink and rose and lilac. He has seen it many times be-fore, but it is always interesting. It is his city, and he is proud of it at heart, though he sometimes speaks slightingly of it. And he never wearies-of the great river. Whether he crosses it by ferry, or glides down it by day-boat, or pushes up it by ocean-steamer, it is always the majestic river serenely sweeping downward to the sea the river that flows by the first city of the New World, his city, the great New York.
Quite as impressive as this sunset scene is the Hudson by night when the brilliant ferry-boats ply forward and backward from shore to shore, when a vast circle of lights along the water line seems to surround one, reaching from Fort Lee to Gowanus Bay a Milky Way more piercing than the stars and set with blazing constellations of electricity at many pier heads. Al] sorts of lights are burning there, and all sorts of colors are showing red, yellow, green, blue, lilac. They burn on boats and barges, on docks and buoys, on mast heads and Liberty statues, all in a far panorama flung around one in a ring. The thousands of lights high above the water, glittering in rows against the eastern sky, are more obvious but still somewhat illusive. Each year the mass of lighted windows grows, until now at night the illusion of a city set upon a hill has become quite marked. The ridge of the hill appears, of course, along Broadway, where the highest sky-scrapers are set.; and right in the center of it rises the illuminated tower of the. Singer Building, blazing with edgings of light, fretted. with golden fire,a gigantic arabesque of electricity set against the heavens.
Down past the lighted city, by flaring docks and flashing ferries that are reflected from its broken surface, flows the great river. By night as by day, by sunlight or moonlight or starlight, it is always beautiful. Storm makes it less agreeable, as fog and ice more dangerous, but its beauty is not obliterated. Snow from the north and the lights of the city seen through it dimly and distantly, wind that seems to drive the water fiercely down the bay and turn the ferry-boats from their courses, waves blown into whitecaps by the gale and driven with a slash against the pier heads, are often more beautiful than the weave and ravel of moonlight on the water, or the stars mirrored and reflected from the blue-black floor.
In all moods and in all seasons the river is the majestic river. It is the wide tideway of the city bearing the fleets of passenger steamers, the long black hulls of commerce, the sails of pleasure, the despised lines of scows and lighters, even the dredgers of commercial necessity. As a water approach to a city it has few rivals. It might even be doubted if it has an equal.