Past and Present: The Montague Street to Wall Street Ferry

Wall St. composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Brooklyn had everything it needed to be a great city on its own, and it certainly was, and still is, but let’s face it, its proximity to Manhattan was always a great selling point. From the first day someone stood on the Heights of Brooklyn, and looked across the East River to the counting houses, piers and warehouses of Lower Manhattan, and said, “I can work THERE, and live HERE?” industrious entrepreneurs have been figuring out the best and easiest way to cross the river. Of course, the most obvious is by boat. Private boats could take their owners back and forth at will, but that wasn’t going to be all that efficient or possible for most people.

In 1630, even before there were all that many counting houses, and jobs in Manhattan, a hardworking ferryman by the name of Cornelius Dircksen began his ferry service from one side to the other. It was just him – one boat, and one man’s skill and strength navigating the river. He set out from Joralemon Street and ended his trip at Broad Street, connecting the village of Breukelen with New Amsterdam. As the years went by and both towns grew, subsequent ferry services moved their berths to what is now Fulton Street, Brooklyn, and Maiden Lane, in Manhattan.

Everything changed in 1814, when Robert Fulton’s Fulton Ferry Company introduced steam powered boats to traverse the distance between Manhattan and Brooklyn. His first boat, the Nassau, cut the commute from twenty minutes to twelve, and the Brooklyn to Manhattan commute became a practical reality for more people. He set up his Brooklyn terminal at what was called “Old Ferry,” and his Manhattan terminus was moved as well. Both streets would be named after him, with the Fulton Ferry going between Fulton Street in Manhattan, and Fulton Landing in Brooklyn. It was now quite possible to work THERE, and live HERE. Brooklyn began to grow as a commuter suburb, with many men making the daily commute to Lower Manhattan.

As the 19th century progressed, other ferry lines were established, taking people in Brooklyn from various parts of the East River shore to various parts of Manhattan. There was a niche for everyone. Brooklyn Heights grew into a wealthy neighborhood, with many of the great merchant dynasties establishing homes overlooking the harbor. The streets of the Heights became home to financiers, lawyers and all kinds of wholesale merchants and importers, but many of the houses in the Heights, even on the “nicest blocks” were soon turned into boarding houses or apartments, as the money made by renting to those who worked across the river as middle management and clerks was too good to resist.

In 1852, a new ferry company called the Wall Street Ferry Company was established. They planned to make the East River run from a new terminal at the base of Montague Street, over to Wall Street. They got their charter, and began construction of piers and a terminal building. The first ferry left the new Montague St. terminal in June of 1853, and they were an immediate success. All of their boats were soon full and quite busy taking commuters to their jobs on Wall St, and back home at night.

They were so successful that only a few months later, they were petitioning to open a second terminal at Fulton Street, as the Montague Street ferries were already overcrowded. This caused great grumbling and complaining in some quarters, as some feared that too many boats on the river would cause a collision, especially on the Manhattan side. There was also some justified griping that the Wall Street Ferry Company was unfairly gouging Brooklynites, as it cost two cents to take the ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but only one cent to take it from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

In spite of any drama, the Montague Ferry was an immediate boon to businesses on Montague Street. Residential hotels were built on Montague Street to accommodate both transient businessmen and permanent lodgers, with advertisements touting a “three minute walk to Wall Street,” a gross exaggeration, but it worked. Real estate has ever been thus. Large brownstone mansions began to replace freestanding wood framed villas, and by 1856, the large mansions for the Low and Pierrepont families were being built, steps from the road down to the ferry.

In January of 1857, it was so cold that people walked across the river from the Wall St. Ferry terminal. The ferries were obviously not running. That’s incomprehensible today. Just had to throw that little piece of trivia in.

In spite of all of the ferries that crossed the River, it soon became obvious that the growing metropolises of New York City and Brooklyn needed a bridge. People were literally dying to get to Manhattan; several people a year were crushed in the rush to get on the ferry boats, especially at Fulton Landing. By this time, the Wall Street Ferry was still going strong, and had begun to ferry goods such as produce across the river, as well as people. In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, but that didn’t stop the Wall St. Ferry. In 1884, the city aldermen voted to build a cable car that ran down Montague Street, which could haul people and small goods down to the ferry terminal. The steep hill from the Heights to the harbor had always been the hardest part of the commute.

In 1892, one of the cable cars, with an engineer and six passengers, snapped from its cable and raced down the hill, crashing into a bumper designed to stop such accidents. Only the engineer on the cable car was seriously hurt. The accident was deemed the fault of a hansom cab driver, a regular, who took his employer to the ferry every morning, and always drove his rig on the tracks, just ahead of the cable car, always going slow enough to cause the engineer to have to sit on the brakes. The driver had been spoken to by the engineer, but he continued to drive in the path of the car at his own pace, and was seen looking back, purposefully doing what he was doing. After constant braking, one day the cable just snapped. Luckily, no one died. The coach driver was arrested. He was the driver of a very prominent Columbia Heights merchant.

The ferry ran until 1912, done in at last by technology. It had lasted as long as it did because Brooklyn Heights Wall Streeters liked the relatively uncrowded ferry, which was nowhere as chaotic and crowded as the el trains across the Brooklyn Bridge, which were soon replaced by the new subway service. Plus it left them at their office doors. But in the end, a five minute ride on the subway doomed the twelve minute ride on the ferry, and it was closed. Later in the century, the face of Montague Street would be forever changed by Robert Moses’ BQE, which cut off the piers from the street, replacing it with the cantilevered highway that created the Promenade. Today, this area is being developed as part of the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Wall St. Ferry terminal at Montague St. Pre-1884. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

Wall St. Ferry terminal at Montague St. Pre-1884. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

Pier 4 near Montague St. Photo: Photo from 2012. Brooklyn Heights Blog

Pier 4 near Montague St. Photo: Photo from 2012. Brooklyn Heights Blog

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