History of Harlem and The River Ferries

When the original Dutch settlers began to flock to the hills and valleys of Harlem, the first thing they did was to look around for a suitable name. Immediately a great dissension arose, each stout burgher insisting that the spot should be called after his own native town in old Holland. Finally they decided upon a most happy expedient; they resolved to style the place “Harlaem,” for the simple reason that none of them had come from that village, and as a result, no one could object. Such, we learn, is the origin of the name which for a long time appeared on the steam railroad cars. “New York and Harlaem Railroad.”

In the year 1666, when the sleepy residents of Harlaem were comfortably settled and enjoying life around their immense fireplaces, with long-stemmed pipes in their mouths, and all accustomed to going to bed at four o’clock every afternoon. Someone made the startling announcement that beyond the broad river that flowed past their doors was to be found the most beautiful farming land imaginable, just the site for their favorite “boueries”. This was enough, for once they hastily rose to the occasion. They must have a ferry at once to carry them across to those fair shores where their “boueries” were to be.

The site selected was about 126th street and the East River, where the old “Harlaem Road” terminated. The peculiarly slanting and irregular boundary lines, which even to-day are found in this section of Harlem and which are so at variance with all existing streets and avenues, and form such a bete-noir alike to title-searchers and surveyors, is lasting evidence of the former existence of this early highway.

A ferry meant a ferryman, and in 1667 Johannes Verveelen was duly installed, along with an African American man by the name of “Matthys”. He was allowed to furnish food, drink and lodgings to the weary wayfarers he ferried across, but not a drop to the indians.

Here are some of the curious rates that he charged for carrying travelers from Harlaem to the Bronx shore:

“For every passenger, 2 pence silver or six pence wampum; for every ox or cow that shall be brought into his ferry-boat, 8 pence or 24 stivers; and cattle that swim along over pay but 1/2 price.

“He is to take for diet, every man for his meal, 8 pence or 24 stivers wampum; every man for his lodging, 2 pence a man or 6 stivers wampum; every man for his horse shall pay 4 pence for his night’s hay or grass, or 12 stivers wampum.”

“Signed, THO: DE LAVALL, Mayor.” “Dated July 3rd 1667”