Many Rms, No Vu

As I’m looking for more cool pictrues to comment on, a weird aspect of the old infrastructure of the port of New York jumped out at me: you couldn’t see the water anyplace there were modern piers.

The older piers, the nineteenth-century version, were finger piers (that is, with the axis of the pier and the ships perpendicular to the shore) with small head houses facing the street. (The phrase used for pier-side extended width of South Street on the East River, and West Street and Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues on the Hudson was the “marginal way,” sometimes written on maps as if it were the name of a street. In the picture above, the west, pier-side edge of West Street is marked by a series of light posts between the darker cobblestones of the street and the lighter macadam of the marginal way.) Ship sizes kept on increasing, and the introduction of 800 to 900-foot liners after 1900 meant a new set of piers were needed. Even the freight piers had to increase in size. Big new piers were built repeatedly, but the new piers after 1900 had an interesting design change: the head houses got wider and taller. The street-to-street spacing that defines a New York block was a good spacing for piers, so a lot of the piers line up with the adjacent cross streets; the new head houses were a block wide so that there was a continuous wall of building on the water side of the street.

The first picture shows the docks for smaller passenger lines and freight along West Street downtown. This is labelled at the Library of Congress as 1900 to 1910, which sounds right. The second picture shows new, enlarged docks south of 23rd Street built for the new generation of liners that included the Mauritania (and its unfortunate sister ship the Lusitania) and the Olympic (and its unfortunate sister ship the Titanic.) Some of these piers have survived as “the Chelsea Piers,” a mixed use sports and entertainment center, some have been demolished. The steel frames of the head houses of some of the demolished piers survive as a kind of sculpture. The second picture is labelled as between 1910 and 1920, which again sounds about right.

At the older, downtown piers, the headhouses are about half the height of the piers themselves, so the layout is readable from the street, even though nearly all sight of the river is blocked. There are some small gaps between the headhouses. At the Chelsea piers, the continuous headhouse is the height of the eaves of the piers, so the piers are marked by the gable-end wall and nothing else. This was a tall continuous wall that doesn’t just block the sight of the river, it blocks the sight of the ships. You could see the masts and funnels (smokestacks) if you were far enough away to the east, but that’s it. The new piers effectively separated New York from its working port, which seems odd to me.

On a side note, I understand where the name comes from, but you still couldn’t get me to eat at the cafe at the Terminal Hotel.

Scroll to Top