The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

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If only I could be laconic, if.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Sunday last, I conducted a tour for the NY Transit Museum onboard an NYC Ferry. The narrative was governed by the history of ferries in NYC, with a general historical overlay of the East River corridor. There’s a lot of information to pass on, and I will admit that it’s a bit of struggle to fit it all in. The tour left from Pier 11 in Manhattan, and we debarked the boat in LIC. Given that it’s a transit museum group, the last third of the tour focuses in on the former ferry services of the Long Island Railroad offered out of Hunters Point and then I take the group a few blocks into LIC. I can usually produce a LIRR engine sitting on a sidetrack thereabouts, and there’s always the Sunnyside Yards to talk about as well.

It was really, really cold for April last Sunday, in the 30’s when I left HQ.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This is the second time I’ve narrated this particular tour, and hopefully will be presenting it again in the near future. Saying that, now that it’s been spoken aloud a few times, I’ve got some rewriting to do in the name of brevity and clarity. It’s so easy to bog down in historical minutia when discussing the East River, you have to be careful when narrating lest you lose the audience’s attention in a swirl of details. I never structure what I’m going to say as a dry recitation of facts and dates, which is the worst possible way to relate historical data, in my view. It’s a story, so tell it like a story, with a beginning/middle/end.

The cool thing about the Transit Museum is that they outfit me with a little closed circuit radio microphone and all the tour participants get these little radio headsets, so I don’t need to yell the whole time. That took a bit of adjustment time for me, as I’m used to using a booming voice and certain style of pronunciation on tours. Speaking into a mike is more a “radio  situation” where you want to get all mellifluous in terms of vocalizations.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Suffice to say that shortly after the Civil War there were as many as 21 seperate “official” ferry lines crossing back and forth between Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan. Like a lot of 19th century industries, a politically connected monopoly emerged out of a company founded by Livingstone and Fulton which made regulation and inspection by Government officialdom go away, creating a lassez faire system whose excesses eventually led to the General Slocum disaster in 1915 1904 which made the idea of getting on a ferry rather unpalatable to early 20th century New Yorkers in the same way that entering a giant office building in the years following 9/11 was an unsettling experience. The Coast Guard was put in charge of safety matters, and they began to enforce strict safety regulations and practices on the ferry industry.

Then came Robert Moses…


Upcoming Tours and Events

April 14 – Exploring Long Island City – with NY Adventure Club.

Long Island City is a tale of two cities; one filled with glittering water-front skyscrapers and manicured parks, and the other, a highly active ground transportation & distribution zone vital to the New York economy — which will prevail?
Tickets and more details here.

April 15- Newtown Creekathon – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

That grueling 13 and change mile death march through the bowels of New York City known as the “Newtown Creekathon” will be held on that day, and I’ll be leading the charge as we hit every little corner and section of the waterway. This will be quite an undertaking, last year half the crowd tagged out before we hit the half way point. Have you got what it takes the walk the enitre Newtown Creek?
Click here to reserve a spot on the Creekathon.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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Written by Mitch Waxman

April 11, 2018 at 11:00 am

6 Responses

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  1. A couple of issues here:

    “…a politically connected monopoly emerged out of a company founded by Livingstone and Fulton…”,/b>

    Broken by Cornelius Vanderbilt during which steamship ticket prices were reduced placing steamship travel within the means of the common man all due to free enterprise. Here, in contrast, with politics involved the monopoly with rigged prices was created. So which is better here?

    “…which made regulation and inspection by Government officialdom go away, creating a lassez faire system whose excesses eventually led to the General Slocum disaster in 1915…”

    With the the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service established in 1871 which meant the usual corruption of the political/bureaucratic establishment most certainly had a significant role in the Slocum disaster.
    Lassez [sic] faire used in the pejorative sense to trash free enterprise as an idea clearly played less a part in the disaster than corrupt bureaucrats ostensibly charged with insuring the safety of these vessels.

    It might be noted here that in addition to having occurred on June 15th, 1904, that the General Slocum was a tour boat (or ship as it were) not a ferry and unless you have sources that say otherwise, nothing about this disaster had any impact on the economic viability of ferrries around the city.
    Blame bridges for that.

    In Service to the Pentacle
    Don Cavaioli

    Cav

    April 11, 2018 at 11:55 am

    • That’s what I get for pulling a date from memory rather than checking my notes while writing a post, thanks for rthe correction. I transposed the day date with the year. I count on you guys to keep me honest, but from a perception point of view – Slocum created a connection between death and the water which persisted for generations. During the narration on the actual tour – Roebling and Moiseff’s contributions as well as City consolidation and the assumption of private lines by the municipality (astoria ferry for instance, which is where Moses comes in) are discussed.

      Mitch Waxman

      April 11, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      • Not to belabor the point but still fires and boiler explosions on steamboats was not uncommon and the public of the time were more tolerant of risk in general.
        If the even more gory tale of the steamboat Sultana disaster in 1865 didn’t cause a decline in riverboat or ferry travel, nothing would.

        I still hold that cars and trucks (include trains and busses) crossing bridges and tunnels at higher speeds than ferries spelt their doom. Prosperity and economic growth were at the time held to be based in the free and rapid movement of goods and people. Hence the machinations of Robert Moses.
        Yes you have said as much as well but the mention of the Slocum really was just a diversion largely forgotten by the public.

        Also the newspapers of the time emphasized the corporate greed regarding the condition of the life vests, the owners refusing to buy new life vests and Capt. Van Schaick’s decision to run full speed to beach the Slocum at North Brother Island, fanning the flames from the bow aft while outrunning other vessels comming to her aid, rather than head to nearer docks along the Bronx. However I digress.

        I’m still not convinced that the latest generation of ferries are better or at least competitive to other forms of transportation public mass or private. Whereas I can empathize with your view that the waterways can be better commercially utilized, I’m not sure if the ferry is the way to go about it but we can agree to disagree.

        However, this issue is not finally settled until George the Atheist has weighed in on it.
        George, what say you?

        Don Cavaioli

        Cav

        April 11, 2018 at 3:59 pm

  2. Bridges and tunnels vs ferries. In ancient times, Charon ferried the dead laboriously across the Styx to the netherworld. Now he issues EZ Pass.

    georgetheatheist . . . the Capitol of Capitalism

    April 11, 2018 at 5:38 pm

  3. Hi Is there any way you can squeeze one more person in the Newtown Creek trek this Saturday?

    I have been meaning to do it for a while, and would love to join. But the web site says full.

    Many thanks. And I understand if no can do. Regards Mark

    On Wed, Apr 11, 2018, 11:00 AM The Newtown Pentacle wrote:

    > Mitch Waxman posted: “If only I could be laconic, if. – photo by Mitch > Waxman Sunday last, I conducted a tour for the NY Transit Museum onboard an > NYC Ferry. The narrative was governed by the history of ferries in NYC, > with a general historical overlay of the East Ri” >

    Mark Winther

    April 11, 2018 at 10:00 pm

    • best bet is this form – ask Will to put you on the cancellation list. Don’t worry, we will likely do it again sometime this autumn as well.

      Mitch Waxman

      April 11, 2018 at 10:08 pm


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