Steamboat Nassau of the Fulton and South Ferry Company, 1846. Brooklyn Historical Society collection.

Path Location: 18

Mass Transit, Brooklyn Style

In 1814, Robert Fulton, inventor of the world’s first successful steamboat, established a steam-powered ferry to traverse the East River between what is now Fulton Street in Brooklyn and Fulton Street in Manhattan. Fulton’s steam ferry sparked an era of rapid growth in Brooklyn. Within less than 50 years, the sleepy village transformed into the third-largest city in America.

Traversing the River

This section of the East River had long served as a traffic corridor for Brooklynites. Lenape Indians used canoes to cross here centuries before European explorers arrived.

Cornelis Dircksen, a Dutch settler, established a rowboat ferry at the foot of present-day Fulton Street by 1642. Dircksen’s ferry allowed farmers to transport wheat, tobacco, and cattle from Long Island farms to New Amsterdam, the main Dutch outpost at the tip of Manhattan. But the small boat was often at the mercy of the weather; on a bad day the trip could take up to an hour and a half.

America’s First Suburb

On May 10, 1814, Fulton launched the steam ferryboat Nassau, revolutionizing ferry travel. The steamboats offered a five-to-twelve minute passage for hundreds of passengers plus cargo.

By providing a quick, reliable, and inexpensive# ride, Fulton helped Brooklyn become one of the world’s first “commuter suburbs.” Merchants, professionals, workers, and immigrants soon moved their families to Brooklyn and steamed to their daily jobs in Manhattan.

A Ferry Empire in Brooklyn

By 1853, the Union Ferry Company of Brooklyn, the successor to Fulton’s business, purchased several smaller ferry companies and consolidated power over the ferry business in Brooklyn. Dozens of lines crisscrossed the East River. Four# had terminals in or adjacent to what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Riding the Ferry

Each day, commuters and travelers poured on and off these boats, which contained separate “ladies’” and “gentlemen’s” cabins. By 1870, East River ferries were carrying 50 million passengers annually. So busy had river traffic become by mid-century that between 1841 and 1860, ferries serving the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront were involved in at least 49 collisions, causing 3 deaths and numerous injuries.

The Decline of the Ferry System

Population growth and technological change caught up with the ferries by the early 20th century.
The Brooklyn Bridge (1883), Williamsburg Bridge (1903), and Manhattan Bridge (1909) allowed for continuous transport of people and goods.

The BMT and IRT subway tunnels that crossed under the river in 1908 struck yet another blow at the ferry system. In 1912, the Montague Street-Wall Street and Main Street-Catherine Street ferries went out of service, followed by the Fulton Ferry in 1924 and the Atlantic Avenue-South Ferry line in 1933.

A new generation of commuters no longer took to the water to get to and from work.

Ferries Reborn

Renewed interest in the waterfront and increasingly crowded subways have sparked a new era of ferries. In 2011, the East River Ferry launched service with stops along the Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn waterfront. Its passengers include tourists and leisure-seeking residents as well as commuters. The East River Ferry stops at Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park near Fulton Ferry Landing – the very place that Robert Fulton launched his steam ferry 200 years ago.