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Historical Context: The Port of New York

Ann L. Buttenweiser, Urban Planner

By the time of the Civil War, New York City had become one of the three top port cities in the world, in terms of dollar value and weight in tons of goods entering and leaving the port. In 1860, only London and Liverpool had higher values and tonnage. New York had also surpassed the once-larger ports of Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Two-thirds of all the nation's imports and one-third of its exports now flowed through New York City. It handled more textile imports and grain exports than the formerly dominant port cities of Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia combined. 

A number of factors made New York City a prime national port. It had a superb, natural, deep-water harbor and landings on the East River that were protected from winds and ice floes. It had the necessary infrastructure, or basic facilities and equipment, needed to store vessels and cargo. And, after the opening of the Erie Canal, it had what the rival ports of Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia did not have: a geographic location that gave it direct, inexpensive access to the interior of the United States. 

The opening of the Erie Canal introduced a new type of vessel to take advantage of these geographic resources. The horse- or mule-driven barges of the canal boat lines, such as Black River and others, transported large quantities of raw materials, including food, fuel, and hay (New York City's army of horses had to be fed every day), from the hinterlands. Manufactured goods were transported from abroad to the city by ocean going vessels and were eventually carted on canal boats up to Albany, Canada, and the American Midwest. In 1824, the year before the opening of the Erie Canal, 157,000 tons of goods moved down the Hudson River into New York Harbor. Twelve years later, the eastbound tonnage from the West had nearly quadrupled. 

Excellent natural advantages do not necessarily guarantee good port facilities. Arriving in the city under tow by steamboat, the canal barges needed a place to tie up. Their layovers might last for weeks while they waited for a full load before returning to the canal. Or they might last the entire winter, as the bargemen waited for the ice in the Hudson River and the Erie Canal to break up. Warehouses and grain elevators were also needed on shore to store the flour, grain, and apples coming from upstream and the household goods and textiles waiting for the return trip. The increasing barge traffic of companies such as the Black River and New York Line of canal boats stimulated the building of improved port facilities. 

The city had always left dock and warehouse construction to private landowners. Anyone who bought a waterfront lot from the city was required to build a street along the water, a bulkhead to keep the street from falling into the water, and a dock to accommodate shipping. The bargemen settled along the East River in lower Manhattan in what became known as the "Flour District." This was the oldest part of the city, and so the piers and bulkheads were already in place. Photographs from as late as the early 1900s show barges tied so close to one another that they resemble a floating village. Since the canallers lived on these vessels with their families, animals, and other possessions, it actually was a floating village. 

The canal boats' success caused severe overcrowding along already old and deteriorating East River piers. To address these problems, Daniel Richards, a landowner, constructed a brand-new barge terminal in Brooklyn, between Red Hook and Atlantic Basin, in 1839–1846. There, out of marshland, Richards created a 40-acre basin capable of holding 100 ships at a time. He also erected the port's first steam-powered grain elevator. Other developers soon enhanced the docks with 20 acres of four-story red brick and stone warehouses and grain elevators. By the mid-1800s, this became the main terminus for Erie Canal boats. Erie Basin still exists today, but it is only a shadow of its former glorious self. A few of the brick structures still stand, and barges still find safe harbor here. The pier currently houses a police tow pound and a public esplanade with a magnificent view of New York Harbor.