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New York, The Greatest Port in the World (1907)

By Charles H. Cochrane

Illustrations from Photographs

Editorial Note.— For the plates from which this most interesting article is printed we are indebted to the "Broadway Magazine." The article so clearly portrays so many interesting features of New York City that we believe even New Yorkers themselves will find it as instructive as it is interesting— and we are sure that out-of-town readers will heartily welcome its reproduction here.

The New Custom House, New York

The New Custom House, New York

Kurd and Polack and Lett and Hun, Wallachian gypsies in their red sashes, strange people babbling a hundred languages, cargoes of spice from the Indies, sugar and coffee and ivory from the hot, lazy ports to the south, teas from China, milk from Denmark, rugs and drugs and silks from Singapore, fully one hundred million dollars' worth of merchandise a month — all cast in heterogeneous confusion and tumult by a thousand ships into that hungry, eager mouth, the port of New York.

War ships, heavy with menace, steam slowly up the Narrows, visitors from Russia, Germany, France, from the yellow Eastern Seas ; ferry-boats splashing their smooth way across river and harbor; tugs plying crisscross like clucking, crazy hens in the choppy waters.

A string of freight cars, ten strings, fifty strings, go floating by. A big liner, black with travelers, docks at its North River pier; oyster-boats bob in the Gansevoort Market basin. Massachusetts fishermen in the East River cluster about the Fulton Street slip; coastwise steamers back away from their moorings and float outward. There, on the Brooklyn shore, the greatest warehouses in the world welcome the commercial booty of the earth—thirty million tons of it a year.

And wheat from the great Western prairies moves through these Narrows to supply the whole world with energy, and cattle by the tens of thousands and provisions by the tons! Oil from the Texas and Kansas fields, bound for London and Amsterdam ; machinery for digging ditches in Arabia and Panama ; typewriters for Persia ; phonographs for the idle lords of Mozambique ; cash-registers for the Boers ; threshing machines for Cape Town. Here is the sally port of the American invasion.

For this, the port of New York is the greatest in the world. More than twice as many vessels clear the port of London, to be sure, — one every fourteen minutes as against one every half-hour for New York but the average cargo value is only $47,242, whereas that of New York is $92,307.

In The Hands of The Inspectors

In The Hands of The Inspectors

In point of tonnage, New York exceeds London by one million. This is due to a difference in the character of the ports that must be borne in mind in comparing them. London is England's one commercial center and. aside from Liverpool, its only great place of export and import.

It has, too, practically a monopoly on the coastwise trade of the kingdom, for practically all manufactured articles come to London either for export or for distribution to other parts of the kingdom. Cotton goods are shipped by water from Birmingham to London; from London, they are shipped by water to other parts of England, Ireland and Scotland, or to foreign ports.

On the other hand, New York is not the commercial center of America. When the manufacturer of shoes in Boston sends his goods to Baltimore, he either sends them by rail or by vessel direct, without entering New York. If he wants to send his goods to France or Germany, he sends them from the port of Boston. That is, the chief ports of the Atlantic seacoast, New Orleans, Charleston, Mobile, Norfolk, Philadelphia and Boston, engage a coastwise and foreign trade in entire independence of New York.

Ellis Island, The Receiving Station for Immigrants

Ellis Island, The Receiving Station for Immigrants

Less than twenty-eight per cent, of New York's tonnage is represented in coastwise trade, whereas fully fifty percent, of London's is coastwise. In other words, of London's commerce, amounting to $1,370,000,000 annually, only $685,000,000 represents foreign trade, whereas of New York's $1,200,000,000 annual commerce $864,000,000 represents foreign trade, or an actual excess over London of $179,000,000.

"Come Aboard"

"Come Aboard"

To accommodate this enormous trade, New York has four hundred and four miles of improved water frontage; that is, four hundred and four miles of docks. This is half the distance between New York and Chicago. London has less than two hundred miles of similar water frontage; Liverpool has less than one hundred miles, while Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam or Havre has each less than Liverpool. Practically all the available water frontage of these foreign ports has been absorbed by their docks, while New York has improved only a little over one-half of its available shore. When all the available coastline is improved, as it must be rapidly, it will measure nearly as many miles as lie between the Atlantic seaboard and the Mississippi River.

First in importance of the seriously considered improvements is Jamaica Bay, east of Coney, on Long Island—six hours nearer New York than any other available point outside the immediate harbor. The long channel trip is avoided, the route to sea is shorter and more direct, and more than enough time is thereby saved to make the train trip to Manhattan inconsiderable.

Improved railroad1 facilities, by tunnels under the city and rivers, and the tremendous railroad development of western Long Island, already under way, make Jamaica Bay as near the center of the city as South Brooklyn or Jersey. By these improved facilities, passengers and freight can be carried directly through or about the city to or from any portion of the North American continent.

Twenty years from now, the tourist to Europe may cross the continent and never leave his car until the train draws up on a Jamaica Bay dock. The saving of time in mails is of even greater importance to the commercial world. With four-day boats, daily mails and quick transmission through the post-office, the time now taken for a letter mailed in London to a New York address will be reduced one-half.

A Typical Crowd of Immigrants

A Typical Crowd of Immigrants

A year ago, Mayor McCIellan, co-operating with business organizations of the city, appointed a commission to examine the feasibility of the Jamaica Bay project and to suggest plans for its realization. The Jamaica Bay Improvement Commission has recommended the purchase of 9,000 acres of shore land around the bay at a cost of $36,000,000, draining and walling it at a cost of $27,000,000, and then spending $50,000,000 more for buildings and docks.

Governor's Island, In New York Harbor

Governor's Island, In New York Harbor

The city would cooperate with the Federal government in dredging the bay itself to a depth of fifty feet, the sand removed being utilized to build up the shore land. The Federal government, it is suggested, would build a long jetty out into the ocean and dredge a channel to the bay. The route suggested would bring ocean steamships to New York along a channel running up around by Coney Island and Manhattan Beach.

Part of New York's Four Hundred and Four Miles of Docks

Part of New York's Four Hundred and Four Miles of Docks

The bay is dotted with numerous small islands. It is proposed that two large new islands with a deep channel between be constructed in the center of the bay, and a third near its entrance. These islands would furnish additional docking and warehouse space and would be connected with the mainland by drawbridges, allowing the portage of freight by train to the wharf where a vessel was loading.

Meanwhile the water frontage of Manhattan Island is practically taken up.

Type of Coastwise Passenger Steamer

Type of Coastwise Passenger Steamer

Improved docks will merely facilitate the handling of the merchandise already passing over the piers, and that merchandise, coming in and going out of the port of New York in a single year, represents enough money to build six Panama canals.

The Harbor Ferry

The Harbor Ferry

It is almost equal to the stock of gold held in the United States, and more than double all the British gold above ground. It is worth more than half the silver money of the world. It would pay off our national debt and leave enough surplus to buy a score of such archipelagoes as the Philippines.

The Ocean Ferry

The Ocean Ferry

Fourteen great transatlantic steamship companies, comprising a fleet of eighty-seven mammoth liners for transporting passengers and fast freight between the old and the new worlds, handle in part this enormous trade. Over two hundred other steamers ply regularly between New York and cities on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico and South American ports. The cargo steamers and freighters are legion.

Freight Trains Afloat

Freight Trains Afloat

The figures given represent only foreign or custom-house business of the port. The railways handle far more freight in the waters around the city than the total of this foreign commerce, vast as it is. No less than seven thousand freight cars are daily floated over the harbor or the rivers around Manhattan Island. One railroad company alone, the New York, New Haven and Hartford, floats two thousand cars daily, carrying the hundred and fifty million pairs of shoes and other manufacturing products that Massachusetts contributes to the country, including a hundred million dollars in hardware and metal goods and three or four times that value in textiles.

Where the Tramp Steamers Dock on the East River

Where the Tramp Steamers Dock on the East River

Then there is the passenger business of the harbor. Thirty-two ferry companies operate over two hundred ferryboats and carry over half a million people daily in and out of Manhattan. The coasting steamships, the river and Sound boats, totaling about one hundred and fifty steamship lines, carrying their millions also — the full amount has never been figured.

Finally, there are nearly a million emigrants who come in every year at Ellis Island, keeping company, so to say, with half a million tourists who travel in the first and second cabins of the ocean greyhounds.

The Lusitania Passing Hoboken on her Maiden Voyage

The Lusitania Passing Hoboken on her Maiden Voyage

Yet in only one direction has New York manifested an interest in the shipping, and that is the protection of its water-front from fire. In this respect New York has set an example for the world. Her harbor fire-fighters are models of efficiency and have demonstrated their worth conclusively.

The fire department maintains a fleet of ten fire-boats, so distributed that no one of them is more than ten minutes away from any important dock. In case of a serious waterfront fire, all of them may be called on.

The newest of these boats is equal in throwing capacity to about seven modern steam fire engines ; combined, the entire fleet can throw seventy-five thousand gallons a minute, or as much as a moderate-sized river could discharge. These fire-boats represent an investment of three-quarters of a million dollars, and the harbor fire department costs the city almost a fourth of a million annually.

Fort Pond Bay, The Port of the Future, at the Extreme End of Long Island

Fort Pond Bay, The Port of the Future, at the Extreme End of Long Island

But it took a quarter of a century of constant agitation to stir the city to make over at least a bit of its archaic wharf age, and when the cost of the Chelsea Improvements was announced, $12,000,000 to build a stretch of seven modern docks from near Fourteenth Street to Twenty-third Street, along the North River, a spasm of economy seized the city government.

Luckily, the mayor and the civic officials behind the movement displayed a callous disregard of these conscientious scruples and the money was appropriated. The work has been very slow, and while the new docks will be a boon, a little forethought would have made them of far greater value to the port. The piers are 850 feet long and of corresponding width, slit with a water stretch between each of two hundred feet.

Commodious warehouses will occupy each pier and a system of freight transference will facilitate the handling of cargoes. These piers will not be completed and ready for use for several years. Meanwhile one eight hundred foot liner has already entered the port and the air is thick with rumors of the thousand-foot vessel. When ships of this size enter the port, the Chelsea docks will be hardly more adequate than a ferry-slip.

Unloading the Christmas Mail of an Ocean Liner

Unloading the Christmas Mail of an Ocean Liner

But in the main, private enterprise has, as usual, blazed the path for civic improvements. Traffic tendencies have long pointed to South Brooklyn as the inevitable freight-shipping district of Greater New York.

Recognizing this, a private corporation, the Bush Terminal Company, acquired water frontage along the South Brooklyn shore and has erected a huge ocean terminal, comprising about one hundred large warehouses, together with seven large piers, the largest in the world, each 1,340 feet long, 150 feet wide and with a water space between piers of 250 feet, affording dock room between each pier for two of the largest ocean liners ever floated. The wisdom and fore sight of the company has been amply proved by the fact that twenty-five steamship lines are already using these piers.

The Coastwise Fishing Trade

The Coastwise Fishing Trade

Realizing the success of the Bush Terminal, a long strip south of Twenty-eighth Street, South Brooklyn, is being considered by the city, and if purchased will cost $7,000,000 for land alone, besides another strip on the same shore two miles farther south in contemplation. Plans drawn for these new docks call for an expenditure of $23,000,000 and specify that the work be completed in two years. In fact, plans already under way indicate that in the course of the next three years the city will spend at least $60,000,000 on harbor improvements.

The Federal government has always regarded New York as its most important naval station. Of the sixteen frowning forts that guard the southern and northern approaches to the metropolis. Fort Wadsworth, whose guns sweep the Narrows, is regarded as the most modern and powerful maintained by this government.

From the Wharf to the Market

From the Wharf to the Market

The harbor bed is protected by a network of wires, several hundred miles in length, so that on short notice the government could mine all approaching waters so effectually that no hostile fleet would hazard an attempt to enter the harbor. In short, governmental authorities assert that New York has the best protected harbor in the world, and the cost of creating and maintaining this formidable system of defense runs into the hundreds of millions.

The Brooklyn navy-yard, which occupies about two hundred acres along the East River is the most important of the eight navy-yards in the country, and furnishes employment for five thousand men. The North Atlantic Squadron depends mainly on this yard for its repairs and supplies.

If Place on Broadway, The Lusitania Would Extend From Twenty-Third Street to Twenty-Sixth Street

If Place on Broadway, The Lusitania Would Extend From Twenty-Third Street to Twenty-Sixth Street

There are several dry-docks of medium size, and one large dry-dock is building, capable of holding our largest battleship. Many colliers and small naval vessels are built here, although Congress has seen fit to authorize the construction of only one battleship—the Connecticut—at this yard in several years. Its machine shops are the largest and most complete maintained by the American government.

On Governor's Island, the United States Army has a post. Here the Department of the East has its headquarters, under Major-General Frederick D. Grant. The largest military prison in the East, and the most important arsenal in the country are located on this island, garrisoned by twelve hundred men.

Sectional View of the Lusitania, Biggest Ship Afloat

Sectional View of the Lusitania, Biggest Ship Afloat

The government is spending $1,000,000 in building a reef on the southeast side of the island, which will almost double its acreage. From this little island off the Battery is governed all the forts that protect the sea approaches, as well as the Sandy Hook Proving Grounds, where all our big field and coast defense guns and much of our armor-plate are tested.

Bow View of the Lusitania

The system of harbor lighting is unequalled. The magnificent statue of the Goddess of Liberty is, of course, most conspicuous; but the electric lighting of the Gedney channel is far more useful. Every buoy that marks this channel is equipped with a powerful electric light, fed by means of heavily insulated wires stretching over the harbor bottom to shore, so that ships can enter the harbor almost as well by night as by day. The lighthouses and light ships that illumine the sea approaches by night, together with the steam sirens and fog-horns of daily guidance, make the roads of entry the safest of any great port in the world.

On the development of the harbor as a marine and naval station the Federal government has spent millions of dollars, but on its development as a commercial port, aside from maintaining a system of lighting, it has not paid out a penny, even while spending millions on the creation of a harbor at Port Arthur, Texas, a spot of earth that the vast commercial interests of the country had never even heard of and which, in the wildest dreams of its most enthusiastic promoters, could never become a port of vital concern to the country as a whole.

However, New York, the front gate of the nation, the greatest port in the world, could not get a dollar until what might have been expected happened. The Cunard Steamship Company announced the building of the twin passenger and freight steamships Lusitania and Mauritania, the largest ships afloat, each eight hundred feet long and drawing thirty-two feet of water.

How on earth could these ships enter New York harbor through a channel only thirty feet in depth? Congress puzzled over this problem. Doubtless, many ingenious devices were suggested in the committee rooms.

Finally, the construction of a new channel was authorized. That was four years ago and the new Ambrose channel is practically completed. This channel is seven miles long, two thousand feet wide and forty feet deep. It leads directly across the shoals through which the main channel winds its way and saves a distance of six miles and from three to five hours in passage.

The task of digging this ocean lane has been titanic; millions of tons have been removed and dumped far out at sea. A depth of thirty-five feet is now maintained throughout its entire length for a width of less than one thousand feet.

Another year will be required to complete the work in detail, and its cost, originally estimated at $4,000,000, will probably exceed that sum by at least a million. At night this channel will be illumined by buoy lights, even more brilliantly than is the Gedney channel now.

As in the case of the city, once having set to work, the Federal government promises to carry it on with skill and energy.

Huge Smokestacks of the Lusitania

Huge Smokestacks of the Lusitania

A deeper channel is already being constructed in the Kill von Kull around Staten Island, to enable freighters to use that section, opening up the west coast of the island and the Jersey shore for commercial development. Additional work is being performed by harbor engineers under the Secretary of War in clearing and deepening Buttermilk, Bay Ridge, Red Hook and other channels. The most important part of the New York water front for the immediate future lies along the shores of South Brooklyn, and recognizing this, the government is deepening the approaching channels which eventually are to have a depth of forty feet.

In other words, after a quarter-century of sloth and negligence, both municipal and federal authorities have awakened to the necessity of providing for the port of New York those commercial facilities which are the legitimate cares of government. Undoubtedly, the next five years will see the condemnation of the hundred miles of antique and archaic wharf structures that now cumber the shores of Manhattan Island and that portion of Brooklyn lying opposite Manhattan, to make room for modern, adequate and commodious piers and warehouses.

The Lusitania is "Back From Europe," Waiting to Welcome Returning Tourists

The Lusitania is "Back From Europe," Waiting to Welcome Returning Tourists

No man can estimate what the future commerce will be, but if the port grows at the pace set during the last twenty years, New York will be doing in 1930 exactly twice the business it is doing today.

Briefly, adequate facilities must be provided for an annual trade of $2,500,000,000. Already the greater steamship companies, the modern arteries of transatlantic trade, are preparing for such development as experience has taught them to expect.

Transatlantic steamship trade, so far as America is concerned, began to be a thing of importance with the first screw-propelled ship, the Great Britain, which entered the port in 1845, twenty years after the first steamship, the Savannah, crossed the ocean.

Since then steamships have multiplied until today the Hamburg-American Line maintains a schedule of three European sailings a week, and fully fifty liners clear the port every seven days.

The builders of steamships, to meet trade necessities, have sought steadily two things, great size and great speed. In 1862, the Scotia made the trip from New York to Liverpool in nine days; in 1894, the Lucania made the same passage in five and one-half days. In 1871, came the first monster ship, the Oceanic, a little over four hundred feet long. Last August came the Adriatic, 726 feet long, nearly double the length of the Oceanic.

The record-making ships, hitherto, have not been the biggest ships, but in September there entered the port a ship that combined speed and capacity, the Lusitania, the largest ship afloat, 790 feet long, which made the passage from Queenstown to New York in five clays and fifty-four minutes. The commercial world regards the Lusitania, as the ship of the next decade— and then the thousand-foot, four-day boat will take its place!

But the ship of the decade is certainly wonderful enough for the lay mind. If she were laid down on Broadway, her nose touching the Flatiron building, her stern would extend beyond Twenty-sixth Street—three blocks distant—and her bulk would be a third as wide again as the street. Her decks would tower above the top of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, her stacks exceed in height the twelve-story St. James building, and the twenty-two story Flatiron would exceed the height of her masthead by only a few feet!

Huge as this vessel is, however, the thousand-foot ship, which will reach a European commercial port in three to four days, is swiftly becoming a commercial necessity. In planning facilities for the port of New York, the municipality and the Federal government must face this certainty just as it must the necessity and certainty of a Jamaica Bay or even a Montauk Point transoceanic terminal.

But while the greatest port in the world will have developed all its shore-line in a generation, the commerce of two continents still awaits American exploitation, and this can only be accomplished by our own merchant marine.

Of the three hundred ocean steamships that ply regularly in and out of New York Harbor to-day, only four of those that cross the Atlantic fly the American flag. The showing as to cargo steamers is little better. America really has no merchant marine outside of the Great Lakes and the coast-plying boats. The 430,000 tonnage built last year was almost all for home service, while the 2,000,000 tonnage of Great Britain was nearly all for foreign service.

When the above facts are realized, our merchant marine created and New York becomes the market-place of the world, even its thousand miles of improved waterfront will be unable to handle the traffic. New York must go without its limits for increased facilities. Already speculation is rife and the commercial world is looking to Montauk, the easterly end of Long Island, one hundred miles from the Battery, as the port of 1950. Here is a great bay, perfectly sheltered and 150 miles nearer Europe than New York. It is, too, nearer South America, the Panama Canal and Africa.

Construction on a great railway system is already beginning to this point; in other words the tracks are being laid for the traffic of half a century hence when Montauk shall be part of the port of New York—the port whose tonnage will run into the billions, and commerce into the tens of billions, the port that will serve the world and use London, Hamburg, Sydney, Cape Town, Buenos Ayres, as relay stations, when New York will be a city of fifteen millions, the greatest city and the greatest port in the history of the world.

Tugboats in New York Harbor

Tugboats in New York Harbor

Cochrane, Charles H., “The Greatest Port in the World,” in The Business World, Volume 27, Number 11, December 1907, P. 1228-1240

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