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The Port of New York: An Overview of the Operations and Problems (1921)

From a paper read before the New York Chapter, American Society of Civil Engineers, by B. F. Cresson, Jr. Consulting Engineer to the New York, New Jersey Port & Harbor Development Commission.

MANY phases of the New York port problem have been under public discussion almost since the port attained its pre-eminence. The geographical conditions which themselves made New York the logical gateway of this country by reason of its great expanse of waterfront, its favorable tide conditions, its deep channels and its ready access to the ocean, caused a. growth that has no parallel in history. New York has been an easy and cheap port through which to pass commerce and with its natural facilities has grown without the necessity of careful planning until the very volume of its business is choking it.

In more recent years this condition has begun to be appreciated and for the past decade particularly the necessity has been felt for a reorganization along administrative as well as physical lines in order that the increase in commerce flowing through the port may be properly taken care of and with its railroad lines and its steamship service brought into an economic whole.

New York has grown to be the focal point of practically all of the transcontinental railroad lines; those not reaching it direct with their rails are connected by coastwise lines and ports. It is the great port of liner steamship service. New York is pre-eminently the World port, its hinterland is the United States; it is the banking and commercial metropolis of the New World.


New York, taking the whole port district, is unique among ports in that it lies within two states; the State line between New York and New Jersey passes down ~he Hudson River, New York Bay, the Kills and Raritan Bay, separating the port as far as legislative and political lines are concerned into two separate parts. This separation, however, is solely a political and legislative one as neither portion could operate without the other and the future of the port is dependent on the co-operation of all parts of the port and the organization of the port into one administrative and operative unit.

On the easterly side of the port there is the City of New York comprising the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Richmond, a single political unit with a population of some 5,900,000; other important communities such as Yonkers lie in the easterly part of the Port District.

On the west side of the port are many independent municipalities; such important cities as Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne, Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, Paterson and Passaic, are among the most important, and in the westerly portion of the port there is a population of some 2,100,000, making a total population of the Metropolitan District at the Port of New York of some 8,000,000 persons.

The convenient waterways within the port are among its most important assets-the Hudson and East Rivers, New York Bay, Newark Bay, Jamaica Bay, the Arthur Kills and Kill van Kull, Long Island Sound and the Harlem River, Flushing Bay and Raritan Bay, the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers and many of the waterways and bays give the port a waterfront of some 800 miles-all of which should properly be considered to be in the Port of New York District.

While the most available waterfront at the port has been taken up and developed there are great sections of waterfront still undeveloped and available for use as commercial or industrial frontage. There is no truth in the statement so often made that New York is developed to the fullest possibility of its waterfront.


The government of the waterfront of New York City is under the Dock Commissioner, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment and the Commissioners of the Sinking Fund of the City. New York has had jurisdiction over its waterfront since 1871 and has invested more than $150,000,000 in building docks and piers and harbor facilities-but there is no continuity of administration in the City, each municipal election means a change in City government and federally a change in the policy of developing and administrating the waterfront of the city.

In the New Jersey portion of the port the jurisdiction over the waterfront is divided between perhaps forty municipalities and there is no general control over the waterfront save only that exercised by the New Jersey State Board of Commerce and Navigation, which acts as trustee for the lands of the State lying below high water line and is clothed with power to pass on all plans for public or private development on navigable waters within or bounding the State.

The condition leaves the waterfront of the port without any central authority having jurisdiction and power to lay out and carry out or cause to be carried out any general port plan.


It is fair to say that in view of the volume of business that passes through the port, the various parts of the port and the carriers themselves have gone to unmatched lengths to provide facilities. But there has been no general comprehensive plan of development; New York as well as various New Jersey Communities have prepared plans for their own individual development; commercial organizations, transportation agencies and individuals have prepared plans but they have for the most part been made to meet the particular local needs and have failed for the most part to reach the full consideration of the problem as a whole. They have been local plans to meet local situations within the Port District.

New York has tried to develop and operate as an individual part of the port, and so has New Jersey, and the result has been an effort to create a number of individual ports within the district which must be considered the Port of New York and planned as such with each section put to its best uses as part of a great financial, commercial and industrial whole.

The same individualistic situation exists among the railroads entering the port. In the westerly or New Jersey section of the port are the railroads of the West Shore, Lackawanna, Erie, Pennsylvania, Lehigh Valley, Central of New Jersey, Ontario & Western and Susquehanna & Western railroads, each with the exception of the latter two having their own separate break-up yards, their own separate approaches to the waterfront, their own separate waterfront yards and facilities and their own separate marine equipment.

In the New York section of the port are the New York Central, the New Haven, the Long Island and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroads, one with its principal freight terminal in Manhattan, another with' its terminal in the Bronx, another in Long Island and the fourth in Staten Island or the Borough of Richmond, and each of these lines have their own separate and independent terminal facilities.

The terminals of the steamship lines are also largely individual, the principal lines building or leasing for long-term piers for their own individual use without the possibility of their being utilized by other ships or carriers should the conditions arise rendering that advantageous except with the sanction of the steamship line in possession.

The lighterage movements about the harbor waters are carried on as individual operations by the railroads, by private lighterage companies, by some of the steamship lines and by several of the private terminal companies.

Trucking also lacks co-ordination except that recently a large trucking combination has been formed and is seeking to reduce costs and delays by inaugurating some sort of trucking or drayage system.

The warehouses, instead of being properly along the waterfronts or at the railroad terminals, are scattered throughout the district without any particular relation to each other or to the water or land carriers.

There are some terminal companies within the port which have organized and constructed along lines of joint operation performing a uniform service, and these companies have shown in their operation economies that can only be secured through a co-operative service in transportation, warehousing and industrial facilities.

In many other respects the individualistic character of operations at the Port of New York are shown, and it appears clear that so large a machine as the Port of New York cannot properly function except through a co-ordination of its parts. The co-ordination must be administrative, physical and operative and the very fact of the division of the port by political lines, of the cutting up of the waterfront and its supporting backland into private units must be apparent to all students of port problems and city problems, and this individuality must be set aside for the benefits of the communities and of the port as a whole.


In the main the principal railroads reach the port on the New Jersey side. The railroad rate for most commodities and most destinations covers a delivery within what is known as free lighterage limits which now embraces the active commercial frontage of the port; this rate applies to piers in New York and Brooklyn, as well as to piers in Hoboken and Jersey City, and as a result of this flat rate and the greater initiative and progressiveness of New York most of the steamship piers have been built in the New York part of the Port. New Jersey's frontage is mostly devoted to railroad and industrial occupation, while New York's is largely commercial.

The principal passenger steamship lines dock in Manhattan, the freighters in Brooklyn and Staten Island, the coastwise and New England lines in Manhattan; but perhaps 80 percent of the railroad business for the support of New York's local business and needs and for the foreign and coastwise commerce of the port reaches and leaves the harbor by way of the New Jersey railroads.

The development industrially of Queens and the Bronx has been held back by lack of quick. and convenient access to the principal railroads of the port. New piers are under construction by New York and Staten Island and the steamship uses of the New Jersey frontage, now mostly limited to the piers at Hoboken, are to be added to by installation of great magnitude as represented by the projected Cunard Terminal at Weehawken.

There are no all rail connections for freight service between the New Jersey side and the New York side of the Port.


New York is reached by the rails of the principal transcontinl1tal railroads and each conducts its own individual operations.

The general method of conducting inbound business is as follows: Break-up yards are located back from the waterfront, where trains are received and cars dispatched to the waterfront to be delivered to pier stations or their contents placed into lighters for delivery to steamships or to piers, or the cars may be transferred either by rail or carfloat to other rail lines and pass through the port district on their way to other destinations. The operations are many and various and the delays to goods and to cars and the cost of the operations have been said to be very great. But how great these delays and costs are is at the present time unknown.


Pier cranes are not used to any extent in loading or unloading ships at New York, but there is a large equipment of cranes at the port which are used principally in loading and unloading barges at railroad piers.

New York has been accused of being deficient in modern freight-handling machinery. The general method of handling steamship freight at New York is that in use at practically every large port of the world, and the operation which is called "burtoning" is well known and understood by shipping men, stevedores and longshoremen.

The great number of cranes at foreign ports has been referred to as a reason why those ports are cheaper and quicker than New York, but it is not at all certain that the general class of cargo which is handled at New York can as a whole be more economically handled by the wholesale provision of pier cranes. These cranes represent a large investment and their overhead and carrying charges when not in use would run into large amounts.

Every ship is equipped with its own cargo masts and winches and must be so equipped in order to trade at ports where pier machinery does not exist. It may be admitted, however, that with suitable cranes located on suitable piers, properly designed and handling certain general cargoes, economies can be effected in the handling of freight and greater speed attained; one of the most important functions that machinery could perform would be to lessen the idle time of the ship at ports i the ship is earning only when it is traveling and every day in port that can be eliminated, even though the handling of freight may be slightly more expensive, will be of advantage to the ship and to the port.

While cranes may not be the cure-all at New York, they will be a useful part of the future equipment of the port, and there is little doubt that additional machinery within the piers is also n~ded. The various forms of conveyors, the gasoline or electrically driven tractor, the storage battery load-carrying truck, and the wheeled trailers have all been tested out in operation and suggest economies both in time and cost, and they are now largely being installed at piers, not only in New York but throughout the country.


In New York, as well as at most ports in the United States where the facilities have been provided either by public bodies or by the railroads or by the steamships, the terminals constructed have been deficient in warehousing and storage accommodations. Warehousing and storage is not directly the business of the public authorities, or of the railroad companies, or of the steamship lines.

It is rather considered as a separate business and the result has been and it is particularly so at New York that the waterfront terminals are limited in their operation by lack of facilities for the storage of freight which is subsequently destined for 'either railroad or steamship movement. The result is that piers and railroad terminals are clogged with slow-moving freight and the turnround of the ship has been slowed up and railroad cars have been held to act as storage for freight.

The warehousing problem at New York is a very important one, and it is possible that with adequate warehousing adjacent and convenient to the waterfront the turnaround of the ship can be speeded up and railroad rolling stock can be released for transporting goods.


There is a vast lighterage movement about the port variously estimated up to 60.000.000 tons per year, which is conducted bv the railroad companies, by steamship companies, terminal companies and private lighterage companies. There is the possibility of greater efficiency in the use of lighterage equipment by consolidation of equipment and unification of operation, and this is a subject worthy of the most careful study and analysis in connection with a more unified operation at the port.


There are very many other subjects which go to make up the New York port problem and which must be studied and understood in order to determine the future policy of the port. The place to begin in the solution of the problem of the greatest port of the world is in the administration of the district. The Joint Commission has already recommended the legislative enactment of a treaty binding together all parts of the Port District to be administered by a Port Authority.

Under this proposed treaty the municipalities are adequately protected in the investments that they had made and in the facilities that they had created. There is to be no pledging of public credit for the development of future facilities, but merely the creation of a central body with sufficient authority and power to encourage private or public initiative to construct modern terminals as part of an organic whole.

It wiII form a medium under which funds can be raised without respect to the debt limit or the borrowing capacity of any of the component parts of the Port District, and it will not only have local interest but of the port in general and of the commerce of the whole country. Neither New York nor New Jersey can work out the best plan for the port by itself.

New York's problem is not local. It passes under normal conditions half of the foreign commerce of the United States. It has in its immediate surroundings the greatest concentration of population and industry on the American continent, and as far as the port facilities are concerned they must be not only for local benefit, but for the benefit of the nation; as such they must be removed from the strife of political manipulations and jealousies and placed where they belong under a jurisdiction that will spread beyond political subdivisions and will resolve the many individual interests into an administration working along business and economic lines.

There is the danger unless the component parts of the Port cease wrangling among themselves and get down to the consideration of the development of the port as a business entity that the Federal Government may step in and the control of the port be changed from local to national.

It seems likely that such a situation which would surely be affected by political changes and by the jealousies of other ports and sections of the country, would not solve the problem so well as if the control and administration of the port were retained within the Port District where there is local knowledge and local pride, and under which it is probable that the best results could be achieved, not only for the port itself but for the entire nation.

The magnitude of the business at the Port of New York is so great, the problems involved in the operation of the port are so numerous and so complex that no physical plan of reorganization or operation can be effected unless the factors are ascertained and studied in detail and completeness, and unless it is supported by the economic proof of soundness.

“The Port of New York.” In “Nauticus” A Journal of Shipping, Insurance, Investments and Engineering, Volume 11, No. 140, New York, January 22, 1921, Pages 20-24.

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