Empire Stores, circa 1880. Brooklyn Historical Society collection.

Path Location: 4

Warehouse Way

The waterfront of Brooklyn Bridge Park was once the site of warehouses that made Brooklyn a landfall, loading zone, and storage space for countless tons of cargo.

A Commercial Waterfront Emerges

By the 1810s, small manmade inlets, known as “slips,” permitted vessels to load and unload goods along the East River shoreline between what are now Fulton and Joralemon Streets. As New York City’s docks grew increasingly crowded, the ample spaces of Brooklyn’s waterfront attracted a bustling storage economy in the 1840s and 1850s.

Tobacco Inspection Warehouse and Empire Stores

After the Civil War, businessmen built new redbrick warehouses of a size and grandeur previously unseen in the harbor. In 1865 David Dows, a wealthy merchant, broke ground on his Tobacco Inspection Warehouse on Water Street. The building stored tobacco arriving by rail and boat from Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Midwest.

By 1868, Nesmith & Sons, a Manhattan-based firm, had begun to construct the Empire Stores warehouse complex on land between Plymouth, Main, Water, and Dock Streets. The Empire Stores held a wide variety of merchandise, including sugar and molasses from Puerto Rico, animal hides and wool from Argentina, palm oil from Liberia and Sierra Leone, rubber from Belize, and American manufactures awaiting shipment to England and Mexico.

Schooners and three-masted barks lined the Plymouth Street shore while workers loaded and unloaded them. The Empire Stores and remnants of the Tobacco Inspection Warehouse still stand as landmarks near the northern end of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Sugar, Coffee, and More

During the same era, a row of individually-owned brick warehouses opened along Furman Street (on the Park’s southeastern edge), built into the hillside that formed Brooklyn Heights.  Inspecting them in 1873, a newspaper reporter noted that “the interior of the warehouses is gloomy enough; low windows, covered with iron shutters, give a prison-like appearance to the buildings.” Yet the commercial lifeblood of Brooklyn passed through these warehouses: Caribbean and South American sugar, Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Sumatran coffee, Sicilian oranges and lemons, jute and linseed from Calcutta, and much more.

By the late 19th century, Brooklyn had become the nation’s coffee and sugar-importing capital.

Consolidation and Decline

In 1901, the New York Dock Company# — a monopoly denounced by some as “the Dock Trust” — consolidated control over all of the warehouses stretching from the Empire Stores and Furman Street south to Red Hook’s Erie Basin.

Though many of the Furman Street buildings were demolished in the 1940s to make way for the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the waterfront continued to serve as a cargo zone. In 1956, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey turned the Furman Street shoreline into part of its Brooklyn Marine Terminal, building Piers 1 – 6.

By the 1970s, however, marine cargo increasingly traveled on huge container ships that could not fit on the East River waterfront. In 1983, when most cargo landed at the container ports in New Jersey’s Newark Bay, the Port Authority closed down Furman Street’s dwindling dockside operation.

Today, Brooklyn Bridge Park stands on the site where the goods of five continents once entered and left Brooklyn, a waterfront that linked the “City of Churches” to the rest of the world.

Brooklyn Bridge Park site marker coming 2015