The East River in 1853. Brooklyn Historical Society collection.

Path Location: 10

A Nation’s Waterway

In the 19th century, the East River facing Brooklyn Bridge Park became one of the world’s busiest waterways. By 1810, New York City# was the nation’s leading seaport. By the 1850s and 1860s, New York harbor was one of the world’s vital ports, mentioned in the same breath with London, Liverpool, Hamburg, and Marseilles.

As Manhattan’s South Street on the opposite bank of the East River filled with piers and warehouses, so did the shoreline at the foot of Brooklyn Heights.

An Array of Vessels

Between the two shores, this expanse of river became one of the most trafficked and crowded bodies of water in the world, filled with a dazzling variety of vessels.

In the 1850s, for example, one might see clipper ships bound for California and China; packet ships carrying cotton to England and returning with Irish immigrants; schooners bringing lumber from the south and fishing boats heading for the Fulton Fish Market; ferryboats crisscrossing the harbor; steamboats carrying businessmen between Manhattan and Brooklyn; and many others.

Vessels also lined the shores. Over the course of a few typical days in 1888, 23 steamships and sailing vessels arrived at Brooklyn wharves from the Caribbean, South America, and Europe.

Exhilarating – and Dangerous

For some, the medley of ships was exciting. The protagonist of Ernest Poole’s 1915 novel The Harbor, a boy living in Brooklyn Heights in the 1870s, thrilled at the “hoots and shrieks from ferries and tugs, hoarse coughs from engines along the docks, the whine of wheels, the clang of bells, deep blasts and bellows from steamers.”

For others, the crowded harbor was a headache and a hazard. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle warned in 1855: “The East River has become as great a thoroughfare on water as Broadway is on land, and consequently is at all times navigated at a certain risk…It is thronged with vessels of every class and description… and the dangers of collision are thereby imminent and daily increased.”

Scores of accidents — some causing injuries and deaths – occurred in the 19th century. Ferryboats crashed into other ferries or tugboats, schooners, or sloops moving about the river.

The East River Transformed

In the early- and mid-20th century, the river remained crowded. But by the 1960s and 1970s, waterborne traffic dwindled on the East River. Shipping moved to cheaper and more convenient harbors elsewhere, in part because large container ships needed more space than the East River provided. Meanwhile, more and more cargo traffic traveled by air, not by water.

Today, the river is the setting for a revived traffic of commuter and pleasure crafts, tankers, and other vessels, even if this modern cavalcade is only an echo of past centuries.