As travelers, we like to poke around in cities and look for the less-seen sights—but it’s easy to forget we have them at home, too. New York from the water is an example. In this century, we New Yorkers tend to forget how important the sea and the rivers have been in our history. Some of that history can be seen at the South Street Seaport Museum includes several large sailing ships, the sloop Pioneer, the Ambrose Lightship, and more. The Museum is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, so check HERE for current information.
So, when my wife noticed that the South Street Seaport Museum was running harbor cruises on a retired tugboat, we jumped at the opportunity. I grew up in love of tugboats anyway. So, on a sunny September afternoon, we (and the maximum 20 others) set off from Pier 16 to view the harbor. Here’s what it looked like as we headed down the East River toward the Bay.
The tug, the W.O. Decker, was built in New York in the 30s to move barges in and out of the creeks and kills that run into New York Harbor—so she’s small, and can go almost anywhere. Right now, in late 2013, Decker is undergoing restoration work and is not going anywhere, but keep watching the Museum’s site for news of new tours.
The tour of the harbor includes both spectacular vistas, with expanses of water and different-than-usual views of Manhattan’s skyline, such as the one above, or the ones below. The first shows Manhattan and Brooklyn buildings, foreshortened, behind the Red Hook waterfront in Brooklyn; the second is looking up the Hudson River from a point near the Statue of Liberty, with New Jersey on the left.
Moving around the harbor also gives you an opportunity to see a wide variety of other vessels, from past and present. Of course, there’s the Staten Island Ferry, seen leaving its Manhattan terminal, and crossing in front of Brooklyn and Governors Island.
And reminders of the distant past: a clipper ship, Clipper City, that also provides harbor tours. Here, it poses with another New York landmark, the Brooklyn Bridge. The sailing sloop Pioneer also does harbor cruises; like the Decker, it’s operated by South Street. Clipper City is run by a commercial operator.
But these cruises are not the only kind that visits the harbor; Manhattan and Brooklyn both have cruise-ship terminals that play host to ships that bear almost no resemblance to the liners I used to watch from along the West Side Highway in my childhood. These are giant resorts, only incidentally mounted on a hull, it seems. Here’s the Caribbean Princess—once aboard is there anything you need to travel for?
On the back side of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, in Erie Basin, is the “parking lot” for the New York Water Taxi service, that ferries passengers to various points around the harbor, including a couple of special routes from Manhattan to Brooklyn’s giant IKEA store, which is near Erie Basin.
The Erie Basin is named for its history…it was the Brooklyn port where canal boats bringing grain and other products from the Midwest trans-shipped cargo to larger vessels. A remnant of that trade, which lasted into the 20th century, can be seen in this now-abandoned grain elevator on the waterfront, its shape an eerie echo of the new buildings a short distance away in Downtown Brooklyn, seen in background.
There are other signs of decay in the harbor. The ship below is the source of many stories, dating it to World War II, and that’s the one our tugboat guide told us. Turns out, it was built in 1966 to carry cement, sand and aggregates by an Arabian company; when the trade became unprofitable and the company discontinued operations, it just walked away from the ship. In recent years, it’s been used as cement storage by a company operating nearby.
Near the ship, we pulled up for a close view of rush-hour car traffic on the Gowanus Expressway and rush-hour barge parking below it, before returning to South Street.
Just before turning back up the East River to our berth, we passed the elegant 19th-century Staten Island Ferry terminal, next to the new one. It's too small for current service and is used by the Governor's Island Ferry...but it's a beautiful contrast to the stark and graceless new terminal next door. One man's opinion, but....
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