Posts Tagged ‘New York Harbor’

New York Harbor under a magical full moon

August 26, 2013

“New York Harbor by Moonlight” states the caption of this postcard, which probably dates to about 1900, when the harbor was all about industry and commerce.


The boats working the harbor are reminders of that—see the smokestack pumping out white smoke. But that moon sure casts a romantic, enchanting glow.

“Panorama from the Produce Exchange”

June 18, 2010

There’s something poetic about the phrase on this postcard. It matches the expansive, enchanting depiction of New York Harbor, with all those little boats bobbing toward Staten Island.

The postmark on the back reads 1909.

The Produce Exchange was a Victorian building with a tower at 2 Broadway from 1884 to the 1950s. It was replaced by a skyscraper.

How Buttermilk Channel got its lovely name

March 19, 2010

New York City neighborhoods and waterways have some wonderfully descriptive names—such as Hell Gate, Rat Island, and Dead Horse Bay.

But there’s something especially poetic about Buttermilk Channel, the narrow tidal strait that separates Governors Island from Brooklyn (at right, in a 1766 British map).

So how did such a lovely name stick?

One theory has it that the waters were so choppy, liquid being ferried from Brooklyn to Manhattan turned to butter in transit.

In the 19th century, Brooklynite Walt Whitman referenced the channel, stating that it was once so shallow, cows could walk across it at low tide to graze on Governors Island.

But a letter submitted to The New York Times in 1906 may have the most credibility. The writer mentions an 1832 book called Historic Tales of Olden Time and explains:

“As late as 1786, Buttermilk Channel was used for a boat channel, through which boats with milk and buttermilk, going to New York market from Long Island, usually made their passage.” 

[Governors Island, with Buttermilk Channel separating it from Brooklyn, above, in 1918]

The East River waterfront, 1906

November 30, 2009

Here is bustling, turn of the century Lower Manhattan, before skyscrapers. The Woolworth Building won’t be built for another seven years. The Williamsburg Bridge is just three years old; the Manhattan Bridge is three years away.

Shipping is still the lifeblood of the city, and probably no one can imagine that South Street will be just a tourist attraction before the century is over.

Things look dark, packed, and coated in grime. But the city radiates excitement and beauty.

The Civil War prison in New York Harbor

September 21, 2009

New York isn’t exactly known as a center for Civil War history. But just a half-mile from Battery Park lies the remains of a POW camp that once housed hundreds of Confederate soldiers.

CastlewilliamsmathewbradyIt’s called Castle Williams (left, in a 1860s photo by Mathew Brady), on Governors Island. Built in 1811 as a fort to guard the harbor, the castle welcomed its first group of POWs on September 4, 1861. 

High-ranking officers were taken to Fort Jay, on the island’s other end, where they enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Regular troops, however, went to Castle Williams—nicknamed the “Cheesebox” because of its circular design. Confined to small casemates, Southern soldiers passed the time playing games and reading secondhand newspapers and bibles, according to Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor, by Ann Buttenwieser.


Castle Williams in an early 1900s postcard

Conditions weren’t good. Within weeks, all three tiers of the castle were packed with more than 700 men, whose meager provisions included little more than a dirty blanket and one set of clothes. A measles outbreak killed at least 12 of them, Buttenwieser writes.

As prisoners left Governors Island—shipped off to other Union prisons—new captured soldiers arrived. Over the course of the war, 47 men died in Castle Williams. Eleven were buried on Governors Island.

The Brooklyn Bridge: not always so beloved

September 8, 2009

Well-dressed men and women circa 1890, suspended between the city of New York and the city of Brooklyn. Judging by all the smoke in the background, it looks like the camera is facing the Brooklyn side.

At the time this photo was taken, the bridge was only seven years old.


(Photo: B. Merlis)

And if the naysayers had their way, it would never have been built at all. When the “East River Bridge Project” was conceived in 1829, the sentiment was that a bridge would disturb the beauty of New York Harbor and the shipping industry that thrived there.

An editorial in The New York Mirror stated: “The mischief that would ensue, according to our view of the subject, from the erection of a bridge, would be little less than infinite.

“To allow a merchant ship to pass under it without striking her topmasts, it would be necessary to elevate it to not less than one hundred feet above the water. . . . Who would mount over such a structure, when a passage could be effected in a much shorter time, and that, too, without exertion or trouble, in a safe and well-sheltered steamboat?”

Obscure Manhattan phone exchanges

June 9, 2009

This one was spotted in a building on Park Place where some city agencies have offices. SW might stand for Swinburne—but why? The only Swinburne reference I’m aware of is Swinburne Island in New York Harbor.


On East First Street, a reminder of the East Village’s working class past, and the neighborhood’s proximity to GRamercy Park:


Taking a drive along The Narrows

May 20, 2009

Life is good in this circa-1930s postcard depicting The Narrows, the shipping lanes that mark the entrance to New York Harbor.

This must be Bensonhurst—or maybe Bay Ridge? One missing landmark: the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which won’t be built for another 30 or so years.


The Belt Parkway hugs the shoreline. The back of the postcard calls it “the most scenic motor road in all New York City.”

The quiet women’s prison on West 20th Street

November 10, 2008

If you’ve gotta do jail time, you could do worse than serving your sentence at Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea. This medium-security prison facing the West Side Highway is tucked away in a former YMCA called the Seaman’s Home.

Built in 1931, Seaman’s Home provided room and board to sailors during the decades when Chelsea Piers was a place to dock ships, not to work out. New York State bought the building in 1967 and turned it into a drug rehab center, then a prison in the 1970s.


The building has an institutional feel, sure, but if you look closely on the brick facade, you’ll see lovely ship and sea motifs, like these:

bayviewanchor bayviewlighthouse1