History of The NYC Harbor

The bay and harbor of New York are noted the world over for their beauty. When the discoverer, Henry Hudson, first gazed upon the glorious scene, he gave vent to the impulsive assertion that it was “a very good land to fall in with, and a pleasant land to see,” and there are few who will venture to differ from him.

To enjoy the wonderful beauty of the bay, one should enter it from the ocean; and it is from the blue water that we propose to begin our exploration.

Nineteen miles from the City of New York, on the western side of the bay, is a low, narrow, and crooked neck of sand, covered in some places with a dense growth of pine and other hardy trees. This neck is called Sandy Hook, and its curve encloses a pretty little bay, known as the Cove. On the extreme end of the point, which commands the main ship channel, the General Government is erecting a powerful fort, under the guns of which every vessel entering the bay must pass. There is also a lighthouse near the fort, and within the last few years a railway depot has been built on the shore of the Cove. Passengers from New York for Long Branch are transferred from the steamer to the cars at this place, the road running along the sea-shore to Long Branch. To the westward of Sandy Hook, on the Jersey shore, are the finely wooded and picturesque Highlands of Nevesink, and at their feet the Shrewsbury River flows into the bay, while some miles to the eastward are the shining sands and white houses of Rockaway Beach and Fire Island. Seven miles out at sea, tosses the Sandy Hook Light Ship, marking the point from which vessels must take their course in entering the bay.

Leaving Sandy Hook, our course is a little to the northwest. The New Jersey shore is on our left, and we can see the dim outlines of Port Monmouth and Perth Amboy and South Amboy in the far distance, while to the right Coney Island and its hotels are in full sight. Back of these lie the low shores of Long Island, dotted with pretty suburban villas and villages. A few miles above Sandy Hook we pass the Quarantine station in the Lower Bay, with the fleet of detained vessels clustering about the hospital ships.



Straight ahead, on our left, is a bold headland, sloping away from east to west, towards the Jersey coast. This is Staten Island, a favorite resort for New Yorkers, and taken up mainly with their handsome country seats. The bay here narrows rapidly, and the shores of Staten and Long Islands are scarcely a mile apart. This passage is famous the world over as The Narrows, and connects the Inner and Lower Bays. The shores are high on either side, but the Staten Island side is a bold headland, the summit of which is over one hundred feet above the water. These high shores constitute the protection which the Inner Bay enjoys from the storms that howl along the coast. It is to them also that New York must look for protection in the event of a foreign war. Here are the principal fortifications of the city, and whichever way we turn the shores bristle with guns. On the Long Island shore is Fort Hamilton, an old but powerful work, begun in 1824, and completed in 1832, at a cost of $550,000. The main work mounts eighty heavy guns; but since the Civil War, additional batteries, some of them armed with Rodman guns, have been erected. A little above Fort Hamilton, and a few hundred yards from the shore, is Fort Lafayette, built on a shoal known as Hendricks’ Reef. It was begun during the war of 1812, cost $350,000, and was armed with seventy-three guns. It was used during the Civil War as a jail for political prisoners. In December, 1868, it was destroyed by fire, and the Government is now rebuilding it upon a more formidable scale. The Staten Island shore is lined with guns. At the water’s edge is a powerful casemated battery, known as Fort Tompkins, mounting forty heavy guns. The bluff above is crowned with a large and formidable looking work, also of granite, known as Fort Richmond, mounting one hundred and forty guns. To the right and left of the fort, are Batteries Hudson, Morton, North Cliff, and South Cliff; mounting about eighty guns of heavy calibre. It is stated that the new work on Sandy Hook will be armed with two hundred guns, which will make the defensive armament of the Lower Bay and Narrows over six hundred and thirteen guns, which, together with the fleet of war vessels that could be assembled for the protection of the city, would render the capture of New York by an enemy’s fleet a hazardous, if not impracticable, undertaking.

Passing through The Narrows, we enter the Inner Bay. New York, Brooklyn and Jersey City are in full sight to the northward, with the Hudson stretching away in the distance. The bay is crowded with shipping of all kinds, from the fussy little tug-boat to the large, grim-looking man-of-war. As we sail on, the scene becomes more animated. On the left are the picturesque heights of Staten Island, dotted thickly with country-seats, cottages, and pretty towns, and on the left the heavily-wooded shores of Long Island abound with handsome villas.

Soon Staten Island is passed, and we see the white lighthouse standing out in the water, which marks the entrance to the Kill Van Kull, or Staten Island Sound; and, far to the westward, we can faintly discern the shipping at Elizabethport. We are now fairly in the harbor of New York, with the great city directly in front of us, Brooklyn on our right, and Jersey City on our left. To the northward, the line of the Hudson melts away in the distant blue sky, and to the right the East River is lost in the shipping and houses of the two cities it separates. The scene is gay and brilliant. The breeze is fresh and delightful; the sky as clear and blue as that of Italy, and the bay as bright and beautiful as that of Naples, and even more majestic. As far as the eye can reach on either side of the Hudson extend the long lines of shipping, while the East River is a perfect forest of masts. Here are steamboats and steamships, sailing vessels, barges, and canal boats—every sort of craft known to navigation. The harbor is gay with the flags of all nations. Dozens of ferry boats are crossing and recrossing from New York to the opposite shores. Ships are constantly entering and leaving port, and the whole scene bears the impress of the energy and activity that have made New York the metropolis of America.

At night the scene is indescribably beautiful. The myriad stars in the sky above are reflected in the dark bosom of the harbor. The dim outlines of the shores are made more distinct by the countless rows of lights that line them, and the many colored lamps of the ferry-boats, as they dart back and forth over the waters, give to the scene a sort of gala appearance.

There are several islands in the harbor, which have been entirely given up to the United States Government for military purposes. The largest of these is Governor’s Island, formerly the property of the redoubtable Wouter Van Twiller, and still called after him. It lies midway between New York and Brooklyn, at the mouth of the East River. It embraces an area of seventy-two acres, and is one of the principal military posts in the harbor. Fort Columbus, in the centre of the island, is the principal work. Castle William, on the west end, is a semi-circular work, with three tiers of guns. Two strong batteries defend the passage known as Buttermilk Channel, between the island and Brooklyn. In the early days of the Dutch colony, this passage could be forded by cattle; now it is passable by ships of war. These works are armed with upwards of 200 heavy guns. Ellis Island, 2050 yards southwest from the Battery Light-House, contains Fort Gibson, mounting about twenty guns. Bedloe’s Island, 2950 yards southwest of the Battery Light-House, contains Fort Wood, which is armed with eighty guns.

The best point from which to view the Inner Bay is the Battery Park, from the sea-wall of which an uninterrupted view of the bay and both rivers may be obtained.


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