Atlantic Dock, circa 1860. Brooklyn Historical Society collection.

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A Working Waterfront

The waterfront that is today Brooklyn Bridge Park was a bustling work zone in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thousands of longshoremen, boatmen, drivers, clerks, and U.S. Customs inspectors labored on ships and piers, in warehouses and manufactories.

Manpower and Machine Power

A broad back, strong muscles, and a sharp eye (to dodge tumbling cargo and swinging cranes) were the main tools needed to load and unload ships.

Machines, however, increasingly lightened that labor: steam-powered hoist engines to lift freight in the mid 19th century, motorized trucks and forklifts that replaced horse-drawn wagons in the early 20th century, and the New York Dock Company’s railway along Furman Street that linked shoreline warehouse with piers and vessels. “Men are shouting, steam whistles are screaming and great derricks are groaning as they slowly hoist bales and boxes from the hold of some great ship and then swing them around to be deposited on the dock,” a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter noted of the scene in 1881.

Freight from Around the Globe

Workmen moved, stored, and inventoried freight arriving from all over the world. “The docks are covered with long rows of barrels of sugar and molasses while the ground is almost sticky with the spilled sweets,” a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter observed in 1873. “Through the low doors of the warehouses you catch glimpses of piles of boxes, tiers of hogsheads and bales of goods.”

Exotic cargo like live animals often arrived along the waterfront: Latin American and African monkeys, parrots, and reptiles imported by dealers for sale to zoos, museums, and private collectors. If animals escaped their crates, dockworkers were charged with finding them, although some refused. “Not for Joseph,” replied “old Joe the veteran stevedore” when asked to recover a large snake destined for the Smithsonian Institution as it slithered through the hold of a South American ship docked at the Empire Stores in 1868.

Labor battles

Strikes occurred frequently along the Brooklyn waterfront. Dockworkers and warehouse owners often clashed over wages. In 1883, longshoremen at Woodruff & McLean’s Stores, a warehouse complex at the foot of Joralemon Street, successfully struck to raise their pay from 20 to 25 cents an hour#.

Four years later, 10,000 Brooklyn longshoremen organized by the Knights of Labor joined a six-week general strike to support the wage demands of laborers across the harbor in New Jersey. The strike was ultimately broken by warehouse owners and other employers.

By the mid-20th century, most waterfront workers were members of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the union fictionalized in the movie On the Waterfront. The rise of container ships docking in New Jersey left many Brooklyn longshoremen out of jobs in the 1970s. But workingmen continued to unload and load arriving vessels at the Port of New York Authority’s Brooklyn Marine Terminal (on the site of Brooklyn Bridge Park) until its closure in 1983.