On This Day in History, January 12: Rough Winters On the Ferry

January 12, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Although this winter has proven a mild one so far, for many a winter season in the past, freezing weather really wreaked havoc on life in New York, making travel difficult, if not impossible at times. 


We are a bit more shielded from the elements than the Brooklynites of yore, who had to board ferryboats to get to Manhattan and were faced with fog, ice and cold winds out on the river. These trips could sometimes be quite perilous. In fact, it was the enormous ice floes that often clogged the East River that inspired the idea for a “great bridge” to cross it, which the Brooklyn Bridge accomplished when it opened in 1883. Ferries remained a part of the New York commuter’s morning into the 1920s, however. 

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The Jan. 12, 1898, Brooklyn Eagle reported on a ferry boat collision in the East River: “A dense fog enveloped the city this morning, making navigation on the river and traffic on the land difficult and perilous. It was possible to see objects only a few feet ahead and, as a consequence, fog bells and whistles kept up a continuous din on the river. Even the best of river pilots lost their bearings and what might have been a serious accident took place early in the day.


“The ferryboat Winona of the south ferry line collided shortly before 7 O’Clock this morning with the Wall Street ferryboat Columbia in the East River. The boats came together with terrific force and small-sized panics ensued on both boats. The Winona was badly crippled and was taken off as soon as she reached the dock at the foot of Atlantic Avenue, South Brooklyn.


“The fog was intense when the Columbia crawled out of her slip at the foot of Montague Street, Brooklyn. About the same time the Winona left the foot of Whitehall Street, New York. Both boats were crowded with men and women on their way to work. The usual courses of the boats are widely separated, but it is thought that the strong tide must have carried the Atlantic Avenue boat out of her course. The tide and fog and continuous screeching of whistles confused the pilots on both boats.


“Both the Winona and Columbia were running at quarter speed and blowing a warning whistle every few seconds. In midstream the vessels came together with a crash. There was an ominous grinding sound as the vessels held together for a few seconds, and the passengers on both boats made a mad rush for the stern of the boats. Women screamed and men hastily provided themselves with life preservers…”



Ice Bridges Bedevil River Traffic


During the 19th century, the East River was regularly rife with enormous chunks of ice that jammed up ferry traffic, leaving freezing passengers stuck out in the middle of the harbor for hours on end. 


“No better evidence of the inadequacy of ferryboat transportation between Brooklyn and New York is required than that furnished yesterday,” sniped a Brooklyn Eagle article after a particularly rough day in the harbor on Jan. 18, 1875, which was before any bridge offered an alternative to ferry travel.


“The ferryboats all along the river from South Ferry to Hunter’s Point gave up the attempt to run on scheduled time,” the article continued. “Even when it was possible for the boats to make passage, not only tedious delay but absolute peril was to be apprehended. The constant collisions with heavy, thick cakes of ice detached from the floe threatened the rudder, paddle wheels and hull itself. More than once the fearful crash and shock, causing a sudden stoppage, conveyed the impression to terrified passengers that a hole had been knocked in the bottom of the boat.”


Sometimes, the river was so packed with ice that an ice bridge would form and people could walk between Manhattan and Brooklyn over it. But this didn’t always work out so well. 

The following is an excerpt from an Eagle article of March 13, 1888, reporting on the first ice bridge to have formed on the river since 1875:


“Hundreds, too impatient to wait, deserted the ferryhouse and repaired to the dock adjoining the ferry, and then proceeded to Jewell’s Wharf and Martin’s Stores, a short distance from the ferry on Furman Street, where they were aided in their descent to the ice by means of ropes and ladders. Passage across the river had every appearance of safety. Hundreds who were less courageous stood upon the shore and cheered most lustily those who had the temerity to attempt the passage. For over an hour this mode of crossing the river continued.”


Then, “the tide assumed greater velocity under its icy covering … the ice began to crack and groan. It swayed from side to side, it heaved restlessly up and down upon the bosom of the river. Suddenly the unmistakable sound of cracking ice was heard and it was seen to separate. A blood-chilling cry went up, ‘The ice is cracking!’ Everyone stood aghast.


“Those upon the ice made a mad dash for the shore, and those upon the shore hurried to and from for such accessible means as would assist in landing them safely. A large number of people were carried quite a little distance on a large detachment of the ice floe, but managed to make good their escape, by getting on the main body of the ice when they were subsequently taken aboard the tugboats or clambered up the docks. Fortunately no casualties are reported, but there were many blanched faces. Numerous resolutions were expressed never to again attempt a like passage…It is asserted that fully 3,000 people crossed on the ice, among whom were many women.”


As bad as our current winter storms can get, the East River never ices over anymore. Most likely, it was doing so around 150 years ago because of a phenomenon that climatologists call the “Little Ice Age,” a modest cooling of the Northern Hemisphere that brought colder winters to parts of Europe and North America for a period roughly extending from the 16th century to the 19th century.


— P. Neidl

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