New York Harbor

Manhattan, New York City, across the harbor from Liberty State Park
Upper New York Bay at the mouth of the Hudson River (left)
Sandy Hook and Rockaway Point across from each other at the place where the Lower New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet (lower left)

New York Harbor refers to the waterways of the estuary near the mouth of the Hudson River that empty into New York Bay. It is one of the largest natural harbors in the world.[1] Although the U.S. Board of Geographic Names does not use the term, New York Harbor has important historical, governmental, commercial, and ecological usages. Originally used to refer to the Upper New York Bay, the term is also used to describe the Port of New York and New Jersey,[2] the port district for New York-Newark metropolitan area, under the jurisdiction of the Port Authority.


Colonial era

Nieuw Amsterdam, Lower Manhattan: Early East River docks along left bottom; protective wall against the British on right. West is at top. (Castello Plan, 1660)

The aboriginal population of the 16th century New York Harbor, the Lenape, used the waterways for fishing and travel. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano anchored in what is now called The Narrows, the strait between Staten Island and Long Island that connects the Upper and Lower New York Bay, where he received a canoe party of Lenape. A party of his sailors may have taken on fresh water at a spring called "the watering place" on Staten Island — a monument stands in a tiny park on the corner of Bay Street and Victory Boulevard at the approximate spot — but Verrazzano's descriptions of the geography of the area are a bit ambiguous. It is fairly firmly held by historians that his ship anchored at the approximate location where the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge touches down in Brooklyn today. He also observed what he believed to be a large freshwater lake to the north (apparently Upper New York Bay). He apparently did not travel north to observe the existence of the Hudson River. In 1609 Henry Hudson entered the Harbor and explored a stretch of the river that now bears his name. His journey prompted others to explore the region and engage in trade with the local population.

In 1624 the first permanent European settlement was started on Governors Island, and eight years later in Brooklyn; soon these were connected by ferry operation.[3] The colonial Dutch Director-General of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant, ordered construction of the first wharf on the Manhattan bank of the lower East River sheltered from winds and ice, which was completed late in 1648 and called Schreyers Hook Dock (near what is now Pearl and Broad Streets). This prepared New York as a leading port for the British colonies and then within the newly independent United States.[4] In 1686 the British colonial officials gave the municipality control over the waterfront.


In 1824 the first American drydock was completed on the East River. Because of its location and depth, the Port grew rapidly with the introduction of steamships; and then with the completion in 1825 of the Erie Canal New York became the most important transshipping port between the American interior and Europe as well as coastwise[5] destinations. By about 1840, more passengers and a greater tonnage of cargo came through the port of New York than all other major harbors in the country combined and by 1900 it was one of the great international ports.[6] The Morris Canal, carrying anthracite and freight from Pennsylvania through New Jersey to its terminus at the mouth of the Hudson in Jersey City. Portions in the harbor are now part of Liberty State Park.

Railroad terminals

A U.S sailor's album snapshot of a railroad car float in the Harbor, 1919.

In 1870 the city established the Department of Docks to systematize waterfront development, with George B. McClellan as the first engineer in chief.

By the turn of the century numerous railroad terminals lined the western banks of the North River (Hudson River) in Hudson County, transporting passengers as well as freight from all over the United States. The freight was ferried across by the competing railroads with small fleets of towboats, barges, and 323 car floats, specially designed barges with rails so cars could be rolled on.[7] New York subsidized this service which undercut rival ports.[8] Major road improvements allowing for trucking and containerization diminished the need.


The Statue of Liberty National Monument recalls the period of massive immigration to the United States at the turn of the century. The main port of entry at Ellis Island processed 12 million arrivals from 1892 to 1954.[9] While many stayed in the region, others spread across America, with more than 10 million leaving from the nearby Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal.[10]

World War II

Convoy out of Brooklyn, February 1942, probably bound for Belfast Photograph from a blimp from NAS Lakehurst.

After the United States entered World War II, Operation Drumbeat set the top U-Boat aces loose against the merchant fleet in U.S. territorial waters in January 1942, starting the Second happy time. The U-Boat captains were able to silhouette target ships against the glow of city lights, and attacked with relative impunity, in spite of U.S. Naval concentrations within the Harbor. Casualties included the tankers Coimbria off Sandy Hook and Norness off Long Island. New York Harbor, as the major convoy embarkation point for the U.S., was effectively a staging area in the Second Battle of the Atlantic, with the U.S. Merchant Marine losses of 1 of 26 exceeding those of the other U.S. forces.[11]

Bright city lights made it easier for German U-boats to spot targets at night, but local officials resisted suggestions that they follow London's lead and blackout the lights of coastal cities. However, some lights were darkened, including those of the amusement parks in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and the Coney Island Light, and Sandy Hook Lighthouse.

The Harbor reached its peak activity in March 1943, during World War II, with 543 ships at anchor, awaiting assignment to convoy or berthing (with as many as 425 seagoing vessel already at one of the 750 piers or docks). 1100 warehouses with nearly 1.5 square miles (3.9 km2) of enclosed space served freight along with 575 tugboats and 39 active shipyards (perhaps most importantly New York Naval Shipyard founded 1801). With a staggering inventory of heavy equipment, this made New York Harbor the busiest in the world.[12]

Waterfront Commission

Deterrence and investigation of criminal activity, especially relating to organized crime, is also the responsibility of the bi-state Waterfront Commission.[13] The Commission was set up in 1953 (a year before the movie On the Waterfront), to combat labor racketeering. It is held that the Gambino crime family controlled the New York waterfront and the Genovese crime family controlled the New Jersey side.[14] In 1984 the Teamsters local was put under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) trusteeship, and in 2005 a similar suit was brought against the International Longshoremen's Association local.[15]

Port Security controversy

In March 2006, the Port passenger facility was to be transferred to Dubai Ports World. There was considerable security controversy over the ownership by a foreign corporation, particularly Arabic, of a U.S. port operation, this in spite of the fact the current operator was the British based P&O Ports,[16] and the fact that Orient Overseas Investment Limited, a company dominated by a Chinese Communist official, has the operating contract for Howland Hook Marine Terminal.[17] An additional concern is the U.S. Customs "green lane" program, in which trusted shippers have fewer containers inspected, providing easier access for contraband material.[18]

Container shipping and air travel

Port Newark is seen in the foreground looking northeast across the Newark Bay

The Port of New York and New Jersey is the largest oil importing port and third largest container port in the nation.[19] The commercial activity of the port of New York City, including the waterfronts of the five boroughs and nearby cities in New Jersey, since 1921 has been formalized under a single bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.[20] Since the 1950s, the New York and Brooklyn commercial port has been almost completely eclipsed by the container ship facility at nearby Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal in Newark Bay, which is the largest such port on the Eastern Seaboard. The port has diminished in importance to passenger travel, but the Port Authority operates all three major airports in New York (La Guardia, 1939 and JFK/Idlewild, 1948) and Newark (1928).[21]

Ferries and cruise ships

The harbor is still serviced by several cruise lines, commuter ferries, and tourist excursion boats. Although most ferry service is private, the Staten Island Ferry is operated by the New York City Department of Transportation. Passenger ship facilities are New York Passenger Ship Terminal, the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal at Red Hook, and MOTBY at Bayonne

See also

Yacht foresail.svg Nautical portal
New York Harbor, oil painting by George McCord (1848–1909)


  1. ^ "How The Earth Was Made". © 1996-2011, A&E Television Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Retrieved 2011-09-19. 
  2. ^ of New York and New Jersey
  3. ^ The New York Waterfront: Evolution and Building Culture of the Port and Harbor, edited by Kevin Bone, The Monacelli Press, 1997. (ISBN 1-885254-54-7)
  4. ^ New York's Port, Beyond Dubai,Gotham Gazette March 2006.
  5. ^ see also Maritime geography#Brown water
  6. ^ The Erie Canal: A Brief History, New York State Canal Corporation (2001).
  7. ^ New York in the Forties, Andreas Feininger, Dover Books.(ISBN 0-486-23585-8)
  8. ^ Lighterage Controversy, Louis L. Jaffe, Mercer Beasley Law Review, v. 2, no. 2, p. 136–170, 1933.
  9. ^ Ellis Island History, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., 2000 (source NPS)
  10. ^ Jersey City Past and Present
  11. ^ U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II, U.S. Maritime Service Veterans, 1998–2006.
  12. ^ "Port in a Storm: The Port of New York in World War II", Joseph F. Meany Jr. & al.,NY State Museum, 1992–1998.
  13. ^ Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor (WCNYH).
  14. ^ Watching the Waterfront, The New Yorker, June 19, 2006. (synopsis).
  15. ^ The RICO Trusteeships after Twenty Years, 2004, ABA, republished by Laborers for JUSTICE. US v. Local 560, et al., Civil Action No. 82-689, US District of New Jersey, February 8, 1984.
  16. ^ Fact Sheet on Acquisition of P&O Ports by DP World, American Association of Port Authorities, 2006.
  17. ^ OOIL in Howland Hook NPR, March 1, 2006.
  18. ^ The Docks of New York, The New Yorker, June 19, 2006.
  19. ^ PANYNJ seaport facilities.
  20. ^ The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
  21. ^ Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and around New York City, Metropolitan Section, American Society of Engineers, 1997, available from ASCE Metropolitan Section.

Further reading
  • The Works: Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher, researcher Wendy Marech, designer Alexander Isley Inc. Penguin Press, New York, 2005. (ISBN 1-59420-071-8)
  • The Rise of New York Port (1815–1860), Robert G. Albion with the collaboration of Jennie Barnes Pope, Northeastern University Press, 1967. (ISBN 0-7153-5196-6)
  • South Street: A Maritime History of New York, Richard McKay, 1934 and 1971. (ISBN 0-8383-1280-2)
  • Maritime History of New York, WPA Writers Project, 1941; reissued by Going Coastal, Inc. 2004. (ISBN 0-9729803-1-8)
  • History of New York Shipyards, John H. Morrison, Wm. F. Sametz and Co., New York, 1909
  • On the Waterfront, Malcolm Johnson, ("Crime on the Waterfront," New York Sun in 24 parts, 1948; Pulitzer Prize, 1949); additional material, Budd Schulberg; introduction, Haynes Johnson; Chamberlain Bros. 2005. (ISBN 1-59609-013-8)
  • Great Ships in New York Harbor: 175 Historic Photographs, 1935–2005, William H. Miller, Jr.,Dover Books. (ISBN 0-486-44609-3)
  • Operation Drumbeat, Micheal Gannon, Harper and Row, 1991. (ISBN 0-06-092088-2)

External links

Coordinates: 40°40′06″N 74°02′44″W / 40.66833°N 74.04556°W / 40.66833; -74.04556

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