The History of the Greenpoint Ferry

The New York Waterways Ferry from India Street is the second Greenpoint Ferry. The original Greenpoint Ferry went to Tenth Street and Twenty-third Street in Manhattan from the foot of Greenpoint Avenue. The ferry closed in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression.

The first ferry was started by a Greenpoint carpenter, Alpheus Rollins,  in about eighteen forty when there were only about a dozen houses in the entire area. Rollins wanted to make a little extra money so he built a rowboat and charged three cents to be rowed to tenth street in Manhattan. His business was so good that he soon built four larger catboats to ferry passengers across the East River. Greenpoint was still quite verdant then and many Manhattanites came to the area for picnics. Soon Rollins had so many passengers that he had to hire a steamboat to bring the people across.

One of Rollins’ passengers was Neziah Bliss who always insisted paying double fare. Eventually, Bliss got the legal right to run the ferry and he soon sold it off to a man Sheppard Knapp. In 1852 Archbishop Hughes had a ferryboat called “Martha” built so that Manhattanites could travel by ferrry first, to Greenpoint and then to nearby Calvary cemetery in Queens.

A steam ferry running between Greenpoint Avenue & 10th Street, N.Y.C., was established
on May 7,1853, KNAPP. The first boat was a tub like affair, about 75′
long with a amall cabin on the flush deck. This was an old boat which had formerly
plied between New York & Dutchess Junction on the Hudson River, her name was Kate.
A regular slip could not be secured on the New York side until 18 months later, but it finally was and the Greenpoint Ferry service thrived for years. In 1921 the City of New York took over the ferry thanks in large part to the non-stop badgering of Alderman Pete McGuinness who so often berated Mayor Hylan that Hyland told him that the city would take over the ferry if Pete would only keep quite. McGuinness did and the city began to run the ferry.

McGuinness became the great champion of the ferry. Perhaps as a result of the motorcar and the East River bridges the ferry became unprofitable.  As Alderman, one of his top priorities was preserving the money losing Greenpoint Ferry, which he kept running for thirteen years despite being a prime target for budget cuts. For more than seventy-five years the ferry service provided Greenpoint with its only direct communication with Manhattan, but because many people worked locally, the ferry’s ridership declined to a point that no longer justified its cost. Nevertheless, McGuinness was determined to keep it running and every year he appeared before the Board of Estimate, successfully appealing for its continuance in outlandish fashion.

Once, addressing himself to Jimmy Walker, who as mayor presided over   the City Board of Estimates meetings and cast three of the Board’s eight votes, he concluded a long speech by saying, “Please don’t take away the old ferry, Mr. Mayor. It would be like separating an old couple that has been together for years to divorce Manhattan and Greenpoint. There would be tears of sorrow In the eyes of the old ferryboats as there would be tears in the eyes of the people of Greenpoint if them splendid old boats were put to rot in some dry dock or sold at public auction. Tell me, Mr. Mayor, now tell me, that you will love them old ferryboats in December as you did in May.” Referring to a cheesy song Walker himself had composed “Will you love me in December as you did in May?” “I do love them, Peter, and I love you Walker said. The ferries kept running that year.

The next year McGuinness invented the fiction that the boats were valuable relics; claiming they were used as Union troop transports on the Mississippi in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, he said, “Would turn over in the sod” if the ferries were discontinued. Another year he said that the ferries would be the only means of escape from Greenpoint, in the main a community of frame buildings, in the event of fire. “Listen, pal,” he told Mayor John P. O’Brien, who replaced Walker. “I f somebody set fire to Greenpoint and them old boats weren’t there, we’d all be roasted alive.” Again, Pete’s blarney saved the ferries, but in 1933 at the height of the depression not even Pete’s charm could not save the ferries whose service was terminated. The melancholy event was noted in the Weekly Star:

THE OLD FERRY

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down

For fifty years it’s flown

And many a heart in Greenpoint

Will raise a heartfelt moan.

Upon her decks on many a morn

The crowds have rushed to work,

To reach Manhattan’s dingy isle

In fog or rain or murk.

Her pilot oft has gripped the wheel

To breast the river’s tide,

While Pete McGuinness, glad, looked on

It was his greatest pride.

On many a summer’s evening

It took the kids in tow,

The little ones of Greenpoint

Who had no place else to go.

O better that her aged hulk

Should ne’er be seen again

Brave Peter fought to save it

But all alas in vain.

Dry-dock her somewhere down the stream

And strip her to the keel.

You can’t imagine anyhow

How sad the people feel.

McGuinness spoke at the final sailing of the ferry. He made a speech and quoted Walt Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry.” For eighty years there would be no ferry service to Manhattan, but the ferry returned and now plays a vital role in Greenpoint’s transportation.

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