In 1814, Brooklyn was a small village on the Western tip of Long Island, across the East River from bustling New York City. At the time, the only way over the river was via commercial sailboat ferry, service of which had been in place since the 1630s, running from the foot of Joralemon Street in Brooklyn to Broad Street in Manhattan. Both landings were later moved, the Brooklyn side to what was then called Ferry Road. It was from here that George Washington’s Continental Army escaped the British to Manhattan during the Battle of Brooklyn.
The sailboat ferries were not so reliable, as they were at the mercy of the winds, and thus were sometimes delayed by calm and sometimes blown way off course by blusters and gales. Everything changed in the crucial year 1814. That’s when, on May 8th, Robert Fulton, who since 1807 had been operating a steamboat in the North River (today commonly called the Hudson), launched his East River ferry service. The trip took less than twelve minutes, and suddenly it was fun rather than uncertain to take the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Manhattan became wide open to Brooklyn and Long Island residents and commerce, and Brooklyn was open to Manhattanites who wanted to get away from the hubbub of the city.
Eventually the landings and the roadways leading to them on both sides of the river were renamed to honor Fulton and his achievement. (Both boroughs also have nearby Nassau Streets, named after Fulton’s first East River ferryboat. And, Fulton’s North River boat, the Clermont, could have as its namesake the eponymous street in Fort Greene.)
Fulton died the year after the ferry began, but the Fulton Ferry Company was a successful enterprise for more than one hundred years. The few competitors that sprung up were bullied or bought out of existence; bullied via drastic price cutting that only the Fulton Ferry Company could survive, or bought through mergers or acquisitions, one of which changed the name of the company to the New York and Brooklyn Union Ferry Company, popularly called Union Ferry.
The company’s fortunes began to wane with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. People could now drive or walk across the river, or, beginning in 1898, take a trolley. Though its business slowed, Union Ferry remained profitable for another forty years, finally closing in 1924.
Through the years, the ferry landing area was industrial, being a dock not just for ferry service but busy with commercial vessels from all over the world. The area to the north, today known as DUMBO, was a thriving enclave of warehousing and manufacturing, as well as a center of coffee roasting for national distribution.
The waterfront from the Navy Yard to Red Hook was a solid line of piers full of ocean-going ships loading and unloading massive amounts of grain, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa, all of which were shipped in large sacks that were stored in the nearby warehouses. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century shipping methods changed from using sacks to containers, and that heavily impacted the Brooklyn side of New York Harbor. The tight confines of Brooklyn’s downtown area couldn’t accept containers, and so much of what used to come to Brooklyn transferred over to the more wide-open ports of New Jersey. In the early 1980s, the Port Authority shut down all activity north of Atlantic Avenue.
By the time the piers closed, the landing’s future could already be envisioned. In 1977 both the River Café and Bargemusic began their separate operations at the foot of Old Fulton Street by the Brooklyn Bridge, and both continue to attract visitors hungry for good food and music today. From the eighties through the nineties and beyond, the somewhat bleak Empire-Fulton Ferry state park under the bridge was a site for summer sculpture installations and for TV shoots where the body or abandoned car was found. But not much else was going on, at least publicly.
Behind the scenes, planners were envisioning a new strategy for using the site, and today the Fulton Ferry Landing area has been transformed into a destination for fun and frolic. Brooklyn Bridge Park opened in sections beginning in 2010 and has since grown to its full size and potential. Covering 85 acres along more than a mile of waterfront from Jay Street at the north end south to Atlantic Avenue, the park straddles the landing itself, and the piers that remain are now covered in grass or artificial turf, with landscaped pathways and gardens, and include a carousel; picnic area; beaches; basketball, soccer, and roller skating open-air arenas; and much, much more.
Restored to a new glory, the Fulton Ferry Landing is abuzz with activity again.
How to get there: Access to the Fulton Ferry Landing area is via the F train at York Street station in DUMBO or the A or C trains at High Street station and 2/3 trains at Clark Street station, both in Brooklyn Heights. All are an easy walk from the landing.