Fulton Ferry: a brief history

Babylon had her hanging garden, Egypt her Pyramid, Athens her Acropolis, Rome her Athenaeum; so Brooklyn has her Bridge.

–sign in a Fulton Street (Brooklyn) storefront, May 24, 1883

Because I love transit, I’m going to devote an entire post to the history of the ferry. I’ll be back tomorrow with a recap of today’s visit and some of the other points of historical interest.

Undated photo, probably from the 1870s – note the lone caisson of the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. (All images on this page courtesy Brooklyn Public Library unless otherwise noted)

Fulton Ferry was Brooklyn’s connection to New York for hundreds of years, until that honor – and the associated prosperity – was usurped by the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. There are records of the local natives, the Lenape (a.k.a. Canarsee) tribe, using the area as a crossing to Manhattan. (Fun fact: a Lenape sold Manhattan to Peter Minuit for 60 guilders – basically nothing – in 1626.)

The first grant for a commercial ferry was given to Cornelis Dircksen in 1642, although local waterfront land-owners were free to make their own crossings of the river (for themselves or for others), so it wasn’t a true monopoly. The town of Brooklyn, headquartered around the ferry area and neighboring Brooklyn Heights, grew slowly: from 300 or so in 1675, to 1,603 in 1796.

The ferry played a large role in cementing the Manhattan-Brooklyn rivalry. Two charters – the first in 1686, the second in 1708 – gave to Manhattan ownership of the ferry-lines and essentially all of the Brooklyn waterfront. In 1745, Hendrick Remsen brought a lawsuit against New York; after thirty(!) years, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, awarding him his original five shillings plus court costs of nearly 2,375 shillings (475 times his original request). The city appealed to the crown. “During the course of the proceedings, however, King George [III] had the bad luck to lose his jurisdiction,” as my favorite line from all of my readings put it. This threw the case into legal limbo, and allowed the City of New York to retain its claim to the Brooklyn waterfront.

The Revolutionary War (check the introduction for a recap of Washington’s retreat after the Battle of Brooklyn) shook up the complexion of the area, as it did elsewhere: those who had fought for the new United States were hailed, while those who remained loyal – including many of the older families in the area – were chased off, with their land often seized. One such hero was the ferrymaster Adolph Waldron, who retained sole control of the ferry after the war by virtue of being the only Whig with a claim to it. He experimented with barges with little success, although his hold on the ferry was very profitable for him. The City refused to renew his lease in 1789, opting instead for a second major charter in 1795, establishing the Catherine Ferry (or, popularly, the “New” Ferry), a stock-based company.

Fulton Ferry, 1791. (Courtesy The American Cyclopaedia)

A different sort of revolution came in 1814, when Robert Fulton, at the behest of Brooklyn magnate Hezekiah Pierrepont, secured a 25-year lease on the ferry, using his steamboat Nassau. The first trip was made on May 10, 1814, and brought with it the first predictable passage between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Trips took no longer than twelve minutes, and there was no chance of the ship being swept upstream or downstream, or held to the whims of the wind.

Brooklyn was also finally seeing explosive growth: from 1,603 in 1796, to 186,000 in 1854, of which 35,000 used the ferry daily. Annexation of Williamsburg and Bushwick came in 1855, adding more people to the fold.

The shareholders of this line, now called Union Ferry, were mostly based in Manhattan, so when forced to choose between improved service for Brooklynites and improved returns for themselves, they tended to favor the latter. (The stock paid a generous 7% dividend.) Fares started at an absurd four cents; this led to rival services being started up at Red Hook and elsewhere. Eventually, Union Ferry reduced its fare to one cent in stages between 1842 and 1850, bankrupting the competing lines and allowing Union Ferry to purchase their rights.

With the competition destroyed, Union Ferry raised its rates again. There was outrage when, in 1854, it doubled its rate back to two cents – an additional 10% of the typical worker’s salary. The working-class sentiment is captured in this cartoon, which one might find relevant today:

Fat Cat: “Please give me two cents. I have not had a dividend for 6 months.” Sign: “I am blind to my own interest”

The ferry continued to be successful until the 1883 opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. It stayed in service for another 41 years, ceasing operations in 1924, with Manhattan-bound ferries not returning until 2006. Demand was still sufficient to require the building of an elevated track to the hub, in use from 1888 to 1940. (The eastern end of the line is now used by the A and C.)

Detail of a 1910 subway map. Fulton Ferry (Fy) is one western terminus on the Fulton Street Line, the other being Park Row across the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan.

Getting to Fulton Ferry today is not as easy as it was a century ago. The only direct route now is the B25 bus, which has been in the crosshairs of recent MTA cuts. One can also walk to the historic district from High Street (A/C) or Clark Street (2/3).

There’s a lot here: old-fashioned capitalism, heroism, inter-city-turned-inter-borough rivalry. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Rowboats to Rapid Transit: A History of Brooklyn Heights by William R. Everdell and Malcolm MacKay (Brooklyn Heights Association, 1973).

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