Historic Hudson River Towns
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The History of Hudson River Ferry Service

By Lenore Person
hudsonriver.com Writer

More than 100 ferry routes have come and gone on the Hudson River during the past 300 years. Ferry service peaked in the early part of this century. But, if you watch the waters closely, you'll see Hudson River ferry service slowly coming back. Routes between New Jersey and Manhattan, limited service between Peekskill, Garrison and West Point, and some excursion routes up the Hudson are being restored.

Hudson River ferries played a critical role in America's war for independence and shaped communities along the river. They also fostered the invention of the steam engine, carried millions of immigrants on the first leg of their journey west, and in the final years, decorated with such luxury that they were termed "floating palaces" - were gone.

People under sixty simply have not experienced the vast capacity of the Hudson to move people, cargo and cars - inexpensively, conveniently and enjoyably.

For those who remember them, the slow and steady increase of ferries over the past ten years has been encouraging, yet expected, like the tides on this mighty estuary.

Early Hudson River Ferries

All along the Hudson, from north of Albany to its mouth at Staten Island, there were informal ferries almost as soon as there were settlers. They were row boats, two masted sail boats called periaugers, and horseboats, where from two to eight horses or mules walked a treadmill which was connected by a gear to paddle wheels. The right to run a ferry at a certain location was initially granted by royalty, in later years, operators would buy ferry rights.

In 1700, the First Earl of Bellomont granted a charter to Samuel Bayard for a ferry between Weehawken, N.J., and Manhattan. This primitive service lasted 100 years, with the crossing taking anywhere from 15 minutes to well over three hours, depending on winds and tides. The advent of the world's steam ferry route out of Hoboken, N.J., put the Weehawken route temporarily out of business. It's interesting to note that the Hoboken Ferry operated continuously for 145 years, until 1967. At the time it closed, it was the last steam ferryboat on the Hudson.

The Weehawken route operated sporadically for several years, and was purchased by the New Jersey Midland Railway in 1871. They and three other railroad companies opened the Weehawken Terminal in 1884, which boasted five ferry slips and sixteen passenger tracks. As well as being a good example of railroad-controlled ferries, this grew into one of the largest ferry operations on the Hudson. The peak year for traffic was 1927, when about 27 million passengers were carried between New Jersey and Manhattan. Traffic declined steadily thereafter: the Holland Tunnel opened in 1930, the George Washington Bridge in 1931, and the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937. New York Central Railroad, the final owner of the ferries from the Weehawken Terminal, discontinued service in 1959 - closing out 259 years of service.

NY Waterway and the Resurgence of Ferries

Arthur Imperatore, Sr., a New Jersey trucking magnate, wanted to change that. This businessman acquired the former New York Central rail yards along the Weehawken waterfront in the early 1980s. His memories of the thriving ferries of his youth inspired him to pioneer the restoration of several historic and still needed ferry routes on the south Hudson.

I walked across town to visit New York Waterway's Manhattan terminal, at West 38th Street. (Because of the long, vacant blocks between 10th Ave. and the West Side Drive, I don't recommend walking - there are free ferry buses running continuously from various points in Midtown to their station. Like New York Waterways' literature says, if you see one of their buses, just hail it.) There, at Pier 78, formerly owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, is the new and clean New York Waterways Terminal. Although I was there at noon, not rush hour, dozens of commuters were coming and going. Brand new, high speed passenger boats inaugurated this five-minute trip 10 years ago. The service proved to be very popular, and Imperatore developed feeder mini-bus lines both in Manhattan and New Jersey, which are included in the price of the ferry ticket. In 1989, under the sponsorship of the Port Authority, Imperatore's company restored service from the Hoboken Terminal to Battery Park City. They now operate lines from West 38th Street to Lincoln Harbor in South Weehawken, and to Liberty State Park and from Battery Park City to Exchange Place, Jersey City, Liberty State Park as well as excursion services.

I sailed with New York Waterways one fine Saturday in early fall on a round trip from Tarrytown to the Bear Mountain Bridge. Our boat, the Garden State, was about 10% full of its 399 person capacity - European tourists, retired couples, and my mother and I. Sailing north under Captain Bill Schuppman, our tour guide Ben Royce filled us in on the history, the present, and the legend of what we were looking at. He pointed out the two other ferry boats we passed as oddities to take notice of. They were the Commander, the oldest boat in continual use in the U.S., dating back to 1919, and the River Rose, a diesel powered paddleboat which sails out of Ossining (the River Rose stopped operating in Ossining in 1999 - ed.).

When I told Ben, our guide, of my interest in ferries, he told me that there were two old-timers onboard that I should speak to. On his description, I went hunting two gray haired fellows in khakis and baseball jackets, and found Bill Macguire and Bill Salter. Both grew up in North Tarrytown, and had been friends since they were kids. Bill S. had been transferred to Tennessee, and was up visiting his friend and his valley. They and their wives planned a river outing out of habit. "We used to take boats from Tarrytown to Coney Island, and Far Rockaway. They were excursion boats - churches and schools chartered them regularly."

"When we were kids, back about 1938, Main Street Tarrytown used to be lined up with cars on a Saturday, waiting for the Wyoming or The City of Keansburg ferry to go across to Nyack. We'd spend a nickel on the trip, and a quarter to see a first run movie in Nyack: the Wizard of Oz, westerns, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney.''

My new friends had ridden the last steamboat to be built on the upper Hudson: The City of Keansburg. She was launched in 1928, worked the Nyack-Tarrytown route until it closed in 1941, and then operated until 1971 on the bays and lower Hudson. This line was one of the last to continue stopping midriver for connecting service with the Hudson River Day Line on its north-south trip. There continues to be talk about reviving this line to bring passengers to the commuter trains at Tarrytown.

Just south of where we launched was one of the earliest ferry routes on the Hudson: between Dobbs Ferry and Sneden's Landing, operating between 1698 and 1955. This ferry played an important part in Revolutionary War espionage, and carried famous figures of Aaron Burr and Martha Washington. The ferry was run by Molly Sneden, a Tory, in the mid-1700s. The story goes that she hid a British soldier from some patriots in a wooden chest upon which she had set out some cream to rise, then later transported him across the Hudson.

Upper Hudson Valley Ferries

Just north of the Bay of Haverstraw, we motored across one of the major ferry routes during the Revolution: Kings Ferry, between Verplanck and just north of Stony Point. British Major John Andre used this ferry in his flight with the plans of West Point. Washington crossed here, as well as battalion after battalion of British, American, and French troops, for it was the main crossing. While this is at the narrowest point of the Hudson, neither end was a populated area and after the war, it fell into disuse.

As the boat turned around under the Bear Mountain Bridge, I thought of the myriad ferries that had run north of us, and how directly the six bridges built since the 1930s had affected ferry service. At one time, Albany had three different ferries, and as early as 1637, there is mention of "the ferry at Cawlier (Fort Crailo) over against Albany."

The most major ferry route just south of Albany was the Newburgh to Beacon ferry. King George II granted a ferry charter to Alexander Colden in 1743. This ferry served both sides during the American Revolution. George Washington was a frequent passenger, as it was the main link in Patriot communication. And after the British were defeated at Saratoga in 1777, General Burgoyne and his army crossed over the ferry. This line served well in peacetime as well: the scenery, the railroad, and the Day Line brought millions of city dwellers up for the day. Unfortunately, this historic line stopped running in 1963, the day after the Newburgh Beacon Bridge opened. Bells were tolled in mourning during the last crossing after 220 years of service.

Our New York Waterways boat returned to Tarrytown two hours after we had left. We had traveled 20 mph, about as fast as the steamboats of the mid-1800s. Before Robert Fulton made his successful steamboat trip up the Hudson at 5 mph in 1807, travel time was far less dependable. While the 150-mile trip from the southern end of Manhattan to Albany could be done in 24 hours with ideal weather, it usually took anywhere from 4-7 days. Washington Irving, who lived in the early days of steam boats, pokes fun at the days of wind-dependent travel: "A prudent Dutch Burgher would talk about such a voyage for months, even years beforehand; and never undertook it without putting his affairs in order, making his will, and having prayers said for him in the Low Dutch Churches."

Back to the Future

The Garden State docked just south of County Asphalt, at the river's edge in Tarrytown. Seeing it, both Bills grumbled that the town of Tarrytown was reluctant to renew their lease because it "didn't look nice." General Motors had just closed down, and they were skeptical that tourism could ever bring in the dollars that industry does.

The New York Greenway thinks differently. In 1995, it was directed by a New York State mandate to focus on tourism in the Hudson Valley. The Greenway, in its Tourism Strategy Report, describes ferries as "transportation as an attraction. In the Loire Valley, in France, there is access to various attractions via ... waterbased transportation. This is an important component which offers great opportunities in the Hudson Valley."

Painting Credit

"Mary Powell," by artist William G. Muller is used with permission. His prints are available from Tidewater Prints, P.O. Box 425, Cotuit, MA 02635. Phone: 508-428-0324. In this painting, the Mary Powell, known as the "Queen of the Hudson," heads north past Storm King Mountain on a September evening in 1905.


In addition to the people interviewed for this article, additional source material includes:

  • The Hudson Through the Years, by Arthur G. Adams, Fordham University Press.
  • Over and Back, by Brian Cudahy, Fordham University Press.
  • Life Along the Hudson, by Allan Keller, Sleepy Hollow Restorations.

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