By Peter van Alfen for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
The half-hour that I spend every workday morning and evening on the ferry traversing the five miles of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor from my home in Staten Island to Manhattan and back again affords plenty of time to enjoy the views, catch up on reading, or simply ponder the history of the city and its port. The Staten Island Ferry remains the best public transportation option around: free to all passengers and plenty of space to socially distance on the 300-foot-long, multi-decked vessels.
Long before the consolidation of Greater New York City in 1898, Richmond County, as Staten Island is officially named, was home to farmers, oystermen, and wealthy Manhattanites who built hill-top estates as getaways. John Anthon bought such an estate in 1838 atop Grymes Hill. There he entertained friends and family including former New York mayor Philip Hone, who recounted in his famed diary an enjoyable day (July 8, 1839) spent with the Anthons. John’s son Charles (fig. 2), who was American Numismatic Society (ANS) president 1867–1870 and 1873–1883, also became enamored with Staten Island, spending a great deal of his time exploring its hills, valleys, shores, and villages compiling notes for a history he intended to publish. He never did, but even after his father sold the estate, he still regularly took a ferry back to the island to continue his historical research. Charles Anthon’s historical notes now are in the collection of the Staten Island Museum.
A mile or so to the north of Anthon’s place, but down on the waterfront, was the estate of John Quentin Jones, president of The Chemical Bank from 1844 to 1878, who wiled away a good number of hours in his Manhattan office signing banknotes (fig. 2). His Staten Island garden received praise in the September 1856 issue (p. 402) of the influential Horticulturist, a journal of rural art and taste founded by the father of American landscape design, Alexander Jackson Downing.
Throughout the 19th century, the ferry service between Staten Island and lower Manhattan that Anthon and Jones regularly used lay in the hands of private companies, each of which generally serviced just one part of Staten Island. Before Robert Fulton’s launch of the steamboat Clermont in 1807, ferry service around the harbor moved at a snail’s pace entirely at the whim of wind and current, or the endurance of men rowing or poling the boats. In the best of circumstances a trip from Manhattan to Staten Island might have taken an hour or two; in the worst the better part of a day. Staten Islander Cornelius Vanderbilt (fig. 3) initiated his sailing ferry service on the east shore facing Manhattan in 1810 at the age of sixteen, but as quickly as his fortunes and the Robert Fulton-Robert Livingston monopolies on steam ferry service would allow, he switched over to paddlewheel ferries that could reliably make the trip in 30 minutes. The origins of Vanderbilt’s enormous fortune lay in this ferry service, which was lucrative enough to attract competition. Former New York governor and US Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins (d. 1825) was one such competitor; he owned a great deal of land in Staten Island including what is today Tompkinsville where he built a ferry landing a mile or two from Vanderbilt’s for the paddlewheel ferryboat Nautilus he partially owned.
By the 1850s, as Vanderbilt moved on to other pursuits, George Law became a central figure offering an east shore ferry service using both Vanderbilt’s and Tompkins’ old landings through his New York and Staten Island Steam Ferry Co. (fig. 4) and was also buying up tracts of land formerly owned by Tompkins elsewhere along the eastern waterfront.
Law had other interests as well that lay well beyond Staten Island. With two other financiers, he founded the U.S. Mail Steamship Co. in 1848, which transported passengers and cargo from New York to Aspinwall (today Colón), Panama, where they crossed the isthmus to board the San Francisco-bound ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., founded by William Henry Aspinwall, who incidentally also owned an estate on Staten Island. In 1852, U.S. Mail launched the sidewheel steamship SS George Law, which five years later was renamed SS Central America. On a return trip to New York in 1857, Central America foundered in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina. The loss of the ship and its cargo of tons of Californian gold spurred the financial Panic of 1857. Since the shipwreck’s discovery in 1988, the legal battles over the recovery of the gold, including coins, have been endless (fig. 5).
Yet another maritime tragedy haunted George Law. In 1871, his company’s ferryboat Westfield suffered a catastrophic boiler explosion that killed scores and injured hundreds as the boat was docking in Manhattan. This event dramatically underscored just how awful the service had become after the Civil War with its decrepit and unreliable boats, something Staten Islanders had already been grumbling about for years. Law sold his interest in the ferry in 1873.
Salvation for ferry costumers eventually came some years later, or so it seemed, with a Canadian named Erastus Wiman, who settled on Staten Island in a house a short distance from John Q. Jones’s old estate. Wiman sought his own fortune in a scheme to combine the east and north shore ferry services under the banner of the newly formed Staten Island Rapid Transit Co. (SIRT) and build a new landing halfway between the east shore Tompkins and north shore New Brighton landings, which would also serve as a railroad terminal. The key to Wiman’s scheme was connecting SIRT’s terminal to a major railroad by bridging Arthur Kill, the narrow waterway between Staten Island and New Jersey, thus providing an alternative train-ferry service for travel between Manhattan and Philadelphia, which at the time the Pennsylvania Railroad all but monopolized. Wiman knew the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad was looking for a toehold in New York and so formulated a plan to realize his scheme with the help of two major players: George Law and Robert Garrett.
Law still owned the waterfront land that Wiman needed for his new ferry landing. He eventually convinced Law to sell by promising, among other things, to name the area, tucked in between Tompkinsville and New Brighton, St. George, the name it still has today. Garrett, on the other hand, was the new president of B&O, a position he held for only a few years after the death of his father in 1884. Robert’s brother Thomas Harrison was the well-known Baltimore-based collector. After T. Harrison’s untimely death in a boating accident in 1888, his coin collection, one of the largest and most significant of the time, was inherited by his teenage sons Robert (an 1896 Olympian) and John, a future U.S. ambassador and Trustee of the ANS. Most but not all of this collection was serendipitously saved from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 since Robert the Olympian had previously arranged for its temporary loan to Princeton University (fig. 6). Following his brother John’s death in 1942, the collection was bequeathed to Johns Hopkins University, which eventually sold it in a series of noted auctions in the 1970s and 1980s, while many of John’s papers along with those of his father T. Harrison came to the ANS’s archives.
On December 16, 1885, Erastus Wiman feted T. Harrison’s brother Robert at a special dinner at the Pavillion Hotel, Staten Island’s finest located near the future ferry landing, to celebrate their partnership (fig. 7).
By the time Robert stepped down as B&O president less than two years later, things were well underway: B&O held a majority stake in the SIRT, two new sophisticated steel-hulled ferry boats were being built in Baltimore, one named Robert Garrett (fig. 8), the other Erastus Wiman, and the Arthur Kill bridge was nearing completion.
The success of the plan, however, lay in Wiman’s ability to generate passenger ticket sales. In order to attract riders to Staten Island he launched a new venture, the Staten Island Amusement Co., that built a large waterfront stadium in St. George next to the ferry landing for baseball games and large-scale spectacles. Imre Kiralfy’s spectacular The Fall of Babylon was presented there with over 1,000 performers. Wiman also came to an agreement with William F. Cody (fig. 9) to set up his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show farther up the rail line closer to the Arthur Kill bridge at a spot that came to be known as Erastina, named after Wiman. Between 1886 and 1888, nearly two million people took the ferry to Staten Island to see the shows.
For a while, Wiman’s plan was such a success that it drove off some of the wealthy Manhattanites who had long sought refuge on the island. Anson Phelps-Stokes, for example, whose family had since 1868 enjoyed their hilltop estate in New Brighton soon sought new refuge in tony Newport, Rhode Island. As Anson noted in his autobiographical Stokes Record (p. 240):
I found my wife had been disgusted with some conditions at Staten Island, where the opening of the Fall of Babylon show and cheap excursion places had caused the ferry-boats to be overcrowded and had brought a rough element … we never returned to live at Staten Island.
Once re-settled, Phelps-Stokes, in the wake of the financial Panic of 1893, wrote a popular book, Joint Metallism, the first edition appearing in 1894, that offered a solution to the gold vs. silver monetary standard problems then plaguing the economy and politics in the US, which came to a head in the 1896 Presidential elections.
By that time Wiman had been disgraced. The 1893 panic helped bankrupt him, but soon he was also charged with forgery; in October 1894 his namesake ferryboat was renamed Castleton as a damnatio memoriae. In 1899, B&O bought out the faltering SIRT, including its ferry operations.
Sadly, however, B&O’s management also left a lot to be desired. When two B&O operated ferries collided during the evening rush of June 14, 1901, resulting in the Civil War-era ferryboat Northfield sinking with over 1,000 passengers on board, nearly all of whom were saved, Staten Islanders demanded change.
The solution ultimately was for the City to completely take over B&O’s ferry operations, instituting the City’s first, but not last, publicly owned and operated mass transit service. By 1905, the city had launched five new ferryboats, each named after the five boroughs of the recently consolidated Greater New York. The ferryboat Richmond was the only one of the five to be built in New York. Appropriately enough its keel was laid down on Staten Island at the Burlee Dry Dock Co., where it was launched on May 20, 1905 (fig. 10).
By October 25, all the new boats were ready and a celebration was held to officially initiate the new service, which was attended by Alderman Reginald S. Doull, a Tammany stalwart. Doull later donated the decoration he wore that day to the ANS (fig. 11).
Originally Published on the ANS Pocket Change Blog