In 1865, after four years of service to New York City, the steamboat Mary Powell decided to move to a new pier. Previously docking at the Jay Street pier, the influx of freight vessels loading and offloading from the same pier made it difficult and sometimes dangerous for passengers to get to and from the Mary Powell.
Nearly every street along the Manhattan waterfront throughout the 19th century used to end in a pier. As an island with no bridges until the completion in 1883 of the Brooklyn Bridge, water was the main method of transportation for people, animals, and freight, so these piers became incredibly important. As trains and automobiles overtook boats and ships as the primary mode of moving people and goods, the piers became less and less important. The map pictured below was created in 1867 and illustrates the importance of piers to the “business portion” of lower Manhattan.
On April 1, 1865, The World (NYC) published this short article:
“In consequence of the immense freighting business which has accumulated at the Jay street pier, rendering it almost impassable and certainly unsafe for any one, especially ladies, to pass along the same on their way to or from steamers, Captain A. L. Anderson, of the steamer Mary Powell, has made arrangements to arrive and depart from the fine new pier No. 40 North River, foot of Debrosses street, built for the day line of Albany steamers Daniel Drew and C. Vibbard, where the nuisances and dangers are not tolerated. Ladies can there step from carriages and passing railroad cars upon a substantial and smooth plank walk, without fear of injury to their persons or damage to their dresses. A great reform is needed in the construction of our piers, by which passengers can be protected from the risks and annoyances they now encounter.”
The Jay Street pier was named after the street that connected Hudson Street and West Street and continued out toward Pier 32. All that is left of Jay Street today is a stretch of street one block long between Hudson and Greenwich Streets. Where Pier 32 once lay is today partially filled in and open water just to the north of Stuyvesant High School. The park area between West Street and the river as well as the land on which Stuyvesant High School now stands did not exist in the 1860s. It has been completely filled in, likely right on top of the old piers that once lined the Manhattan waterfront.
Period newspapers lamented the state of the city piers in the 1860s. On April 13, 1865, the New-York Daily Tribune published “Our Piers, Reform Is Needed,” transcribed below:
“Something ought to be done by our city authorities in the way of affording better arrangements for the accommodation of the thousands of passengers who daily arrive in and leave the city by steam vessels. Most of the piers and approaches thereto, are in a most filthy condition, while others are so incumbered by freight of every description, carts, wagons, &c., that it is oftentimes, almost unsafe for a man to steer his way among the vehicles, boxes, barrels, &c.; while ladies, in order to avoid being left behind, the ruin of their dresses, or personal injury are left the only alternative of hiring a carriage at exorbitant rates to convey them a few hundred yards. It is contended by many Captains of steamers which ply to and from tis port, that in consideration of the high rates they pay for dock privileges, they ought to have better accommodations provided them. This could be done by the construction of piers with flat coverings or roofs, upon which persons could pass to and from the steamers by means of stairs at convenient points. The subject is at least certainly worthy the consideration of our City Fathers. The annoyances are [sic; "and"] serious inconveniences to which passengers are subjected, have done much toward driving the People's Line, the Albany day line, and the Norwich and Worcester line of steamers up-town, and now it is understood that Capt. A. L. Anderson of the steamer Mary Powell has resolved to follow suit, and accordingly made arrangements for the season to land at and depart from pier No. 40 N. R., foot of Debrosses st., which has been planked by the leasees, and will be kept free from incumbrances of every kind, so that ladies, while on their way to or from the steamer need not feel any apprehension as regards their personal safety or ruin of their dresses.”
The Desbrosses Street pier would remain Mary Powell’s Manhattan landing site for the rest of her career. In the 1900s, the Hudson River Day Line company headquarters also operated out of the Debrosses Street Pier for several decades. Today, the Desbrosses Street Pier is no more.
This article was written by Sarah Wassberg Johson, Director of Exhibits & Outreach for the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Many thanks to museum researcher and volunteer George A. Thompson for finding and transcribing these two historic newspaper articles.
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