Brooklyn Public Library

Mobile AppDownload our Mobile App

eNewsletterSubscribe to BPL eNews


Of Brooklyn Ferries

Apr 1, 2010 11:17 AM | 0 comments
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes!
how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;
Any you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations than you might suppose.
Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

Looking at an image like this makes me pine for the era when travelling by ferry was the norm.

     While we have reference materials that will give you a thorough history of the ferry system (the many stops and routes that were taken and the types of ferries that were used between certain dates), the educator and visual learner in me always drifts towards our print collection when considering the late 19th and early 20th century.  Luckily, ferry boats were a popular subject in illustrated newspapers.  This is not surprising since, until the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, the ferries were the only mode of transportation between the cities of Brooklyn and New York.

It's easy to romanticize the ferry system.  Today, travelling by boat is a luxury and the thought of trading underground subway travel with fresh air on deck is tempting.  But the image above, which was published in London, is the ideal.  Most of the images in our collection remind us that ferries were modes of mass transit, and therefore prone to overcrowding, safety hazards and poor weather conditions.  In "On the Ferry", from 1898, tired men and women of varying classes await their final destination.  One can almost feel the wear and tear of the day upon them.

   "The Homeward Rush" depicts a more anxious group of commuters crowded onto the evening ferry.  Through the fog and steam they push and shove their way to the exit before the boat reaches shore.  The ferry even begins to tilt to one side in response to their movement. 

   A busy harbor combined with foul weather could be downright dangerous.  In heavy fog, this ferry barely survived a collision with a tugboat. 

The caption for the drawing to the left aptly reads, "Don't Jump! - A warning oft repeated, little heeded."  I would criticize the young woman for foolishness, but I once ignored a "Don't Run to Catch the Subway" sign and ended up on crutches for a month.  Perhaps the commuter's wish to get home just a little sooner hasn't changed quite so much.

For those who could avoid travel during the rush hour, there may have been time for the quiet contemplation and fresh air that my romantic side dreams about.  I often find myself wishing my daily commute was similar to that of the "Twentieth-Century Woman on a New York Ferry-Boat."  I don't imagine she will be running to jump ashore.