Before Ferry Service Returns to Bay Ridge, A Look Back at Local Ferry History

The 69th Street Pier and Ferry Terminal
69th Street Pier and ferry terminal, late 1930s. Wired New York. (Some kind of composite?)

Ferry service will return to the 69th Street Pier in spring 2017 for the first time in two decades, when new Citywide Ferry Service completes a planned (no longer “proposed”) South Brooklyn route to lower Manhattan. The ferry will stop at Bay Ridge, then the Brooklyn Army Terminal (at 58th Street), Red Hook, Atlantic Avenue/Pier 6 (Brooklyn Bridge Park), and DUMBO/Pier 1 (Brooklyn Bridge Park) before it crosses to Wall Street.

The full trip will last approximately 43 minutes, with an average of 8.5 minutes between stops. Rides, like bus and subway trips, will cost $2.75; there are no firm plans yet to offer reduced rates to regular users or to sync up fares with whatever system replaces Metrocards (though there may be in the future), and no word on whether the boats will operate only during rush hours. Construction could begin as early as fall. (UPDATE: “We are currently reviewing proposals, and we intend on selecting an operator in the fall/winter of 2015,” the EDC’s Kelly Magee writes by email. “Once an operator has been selected, we will have more information about the daily service hours.”)

Staten Island Ferry ad
From the Brooklyn Eagle, 1912

Bay Ridge has had a long history with ferries, especially at the foot of Bay Ridge Avenue. The 69th Street Ferry, as it was colloquially known, transported passengers (and their cars) from the pier across the Narrows to St. George in Staten Island for more than 50 years, from July 4, 1912, to November 1964. It “crossed the Narrows at an angle contrary to that of the freighters and ocean liners headed for Manhattan or the open seas,” Margaret Lundrigan Ferrer writes in Richmond Town and Lighthouse Hill. “On a hot summer day, traffic could be backed up to Third Avenue.” As the old story goes, when the Verrazano Bridge opened, the ferry stopped service the next day—or maybe it was a few days later, the following week.

69th Street Pier with Ferry
69th Street Pier with Ferry, 1939. Via Silly Puddy Gallery

The original wooden pier deteriorated after ferry service was discontinued, and a new concrete pier was built in the 70s, then rebuilt in the 90s. Today, it’s formally known as the American Veterans Memorial Pier, and it’s a popular fishing spot, also home to a 9/11 memorial and a new “eco-dock” (presently closed). But a generation ago it was part of an active waterfront. We get a picture, albeit a gruesome one, of a time when the waterfront was bustling from a short, early chapter (“The Scow”) in Bay Ridge-born-and-raised novelist Gilbert Sorrentino’s 2002 novel Little Casino.

The boy leaps from the slippery edge of the pier out toward the scow tied up alongside it. He’s done this dozens of times over the past few years, timing the slow heave and slide of the clumsy vessel as the swells carry it toward the pier and then away from it, but this time he misjudges and, in midair, his arms outstretched and his legs pistoning, realizes that he won’t land on the deck. His left foot touches the gunwale, but the scow is riding away from him on the water, glassy with oil. Some other boys stand in momentary silent terror, still, on the pier in the anemic sunlight and brisk wind of the October afternoon, knowing that their friend’s foot has not gained purchase. He falls between the hull and the pier just as the scow reaches its maximum distance from the pier, and is held, wholly still, by its huge, splintery hawsers. As the boy surfaces, the scow lifts and begins its terrible slide toward him, the swell carrying it silently, calmly, toward the pier. A deckhand hears the screaming of the boys on the pier and emerges, half-drunk, from a makeshift cabin of planks and tarpaper on the deck, and knows, instantly, what has happened, and that there is nothing to be done. He stands at the gunwale and looks into the space between the hull and the pier, sees the boy’s small, tough face white with shock and fear, and yells, in a voice high with rage and anguish, in a near-comic Norwegian accent, that the focking goddamn kid is focking goddamn crazy and to get the focking goddamn hell out of there, and then the boy is a soft crack and an explosion of gore and, weirdly, makes no sound as he is crushed to his filthy death.

69th Street Pier in 1933
Men and boys fishing off the 69th Street pier in 1933. From The Brooklyn Eagle, Via the Brooklyn Public Library

The end of my favorite Hubert Selby short story, “Liebesnacht” (collected in the book Song of the Silent Snow), gives readers a sense of contrast, of postclosure nostalgia, when the main character ends a rowdy Bay Ridge night by himself.

He walked to the end of the pier and sat down. He was heated from the walk, but there was a breeze, faint but refreshing on his face and arms. He sat quietly and allowed his body to cool down, enjoying the breeze and looking across the bay at the splotches of light on the shore lines, and the little dots of lights of the small harbor craft. He could only make out two ships anchored. Only two. And not much happening on the piers. Not like it used to be. He could remember when the harbor was always active and full of all kinds of ships but now there aint much goin on. Even the 69th Street ferry is gone. Even the old slips are gone. He looked down the pier where the ferry slips used to be, then at the Veranzanno Bridge that made the ferry a memory. Krist, what a gasser that was. Especially on a night like this. Ride to Staten Island, then over to the Battery and back all the way around again and just lean on the rail and feel the breeze and watch the water roll away from the sides of the ferry… Jesus that was great. Natures air conditioning. And they had the guy playing the accordion and singing songs and that bootblack. Jesus, he mustta been there for ever. Wonder what that son of a bitch is doin now. Shit. Aint the same anymore. All changed. […] He shrugged and looked again at the shorelines of Manhattan, Jersey, and Staten Island, watching a ferry going to the Battery. They should bring back the ferry for the summer. Everybody and his brother would want to ride it on a night like this. Just for July and August. Ah well, at least the piers still here. For now. Good ol 69th Street pier. Wonder how old the son of a bitch is? Had a lot of fun here. Right around this spot too. Learned to fish here. Tommy cods, eels, some crabbin. Had a lot a fun here when we were kids. Yeah, some good times…

Yeah, good times.

Ferry service returned to the pier in the 1980s, but this time to ferry passengers to Lower Manhattan. “The 1980s saw the first attempt to revive ferry service, partially prompted by gasoline shortages,” John B. Manbeck explains in his book Brooklyn: Historically Speaking. This service operated into the 90s, until the pier was closed for repairs; this was the start of years without a pier, when businesses on Bay Ridge Avenue suffered; the two bars just west of Ridge Boulevard closed, and the lot on the corner of Narrows that’s now a large condo complex sat vacant. There was no bodega steps from the pier, no café, no sushi restaurant. A reminder of that relatively briefly reborn ferry survives in the neighborhood as a sign directing passengers to 69th Street. The closest the neighborhood has come since to having ferry service is the occasional commuter line coming to Pier 4, in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, most recently in 2013, when the R train wasn’t running to Manhattan.

Ferry service is almost as old as Brooklyn itself, the easiest means of conveyance to and from Manhattan in the bridgeless past, and it became a quintessential part of the borough’s history and identity thanks to Walt Whitman’s iconic poem. Back then, people also ferried as far as Bay Ridge. In the late 19th century, the Bay Ridge Ferry made trips between Whitehall and 65th streets. In the early 20th century, the Miramar, a boat from Sea Gate, used to stop at the Crescent Athletic Club, the present site of Fort Hamilton High School, until the club moved to Long Island and closed its dock. “The high locked gates does not permit perspective passengers to meet the Manhattan ferry in the morning,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1931.

Denyse Wharf
Denyse Wharf. Via Derek Stadler

Denyse Denyse, from one of early Bay Ridge’s prominent families, operated a ferry to Staten Island in the 18th century from approximately right below where the Verrazano Bridge is today. It’s around here that the British landed, kicking off the Revolutionary War with the Battle of Brooklyn; it’s also from where they left when they lost the war. A concrete jetty survives here, with a small beach cleaned annually by Fort Hamilton high school students. “The old ferry landing survived as a pier, becoming little-used especially after the Belt Parkway was built here in 1940,” according to Forgotten NY. “By the time I saw the ferry pier in the 1960s, it was a dilapidated T-shaped structure; at low tide, there were wrecked small vessels and discarded tires. A small remnant is still there; there’s talk of landmarking it as the spot where the British entered and left New York during the Revolution.” And maybe even its significance as the first ferry in a neighborhood rich with ferry history? And soon, rich with actual ferries, too!

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