Images of the bright orange Staten Island ferries play a starring role during a test of morality and nerve in the Batman movie The Dark Knight. But most of the time these ferries serve a less dramatic role, transporting 19-million passengers a year across the 5.2 miles of Upper New York Harbor between Staten Island and Manhattan. The three newest ships in the fleet are huge, with a capacity of 4,000 passengers each. Though the majority of riders are commuters, the 25-minute ride is also one of the greatest tourist attractions in the city. And it's free. • First, the ride offers the best view of the ever-changing Manhattan skyline. Whether you recall the World Trade Center or your memory predates those towers, as you depart from the Whitehall Terminal at the tip of the city near Battery Park, stay on the back of the boat, maybe on the top deck, and watch the most famous city in the world recede from view. • Then look to your left for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the right you'll find Governor's Island. Bring along a sweater because it can be cool and breezy on deck.
The poetry of memory
Edna St. Vincent Millay immortalized the Staten Island Ferry in her poem Recuerdo, which means "memory," written in 1919. The first two lines of her poem are printed in large letters on the wall of the Whitehall Terminal, which opened in 2005:
We were very tired, we were very merry —
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
These days you have to get off at each end and re-board the ferry, though you could still keep crossing all night — and all day. When I rode this summer, the wonderful diversity of the fellow passengers reminded me even more of Walt Whitman's poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (1856) from Leaves of Grass: "Crowds of Men and Women attired in the usual costumes! How curious you are to me."
Clusters of Scandinavian teens photographed each other with their digital cameras. Families posed with the Statue of Liberty over their shoulders. Next to us, a woman in hijab giggled along with her two young sons as they shared images they'd taken, the excitement of the crossing visible in all their faces.
A land's changing face
When I was a child I lived near the ferry on Staten Island. In those days the passengers were mostly white. Elderly Italian men made the rounds on the deck, legs bowed and backs stooped, carrying their shoeshine stools and polish. I remember traveling with my fourth grade class from P.S. 16 to the city on our way to the Hayden Planetarium. One girl had never been on the ferry or off Staten Island. I recall the bitter smell of burning coffee filling the air near the concession stand. Now it's Starbucks, but the stand still sells hot dogs and huge salted pretzels.
Staten Island, increasingly African-American, is now also home to many Hispanic, South Asian, African and Middle Eastern immigrants. It struck me as we passed Ellis Island this summer that the Staten Island Ferry had become the ride that epitomizes the ongoing history of New York as a point of assimilation for new waves of immigration.
People have been traveling to Staten Island by some sort of boat for centuries. In 1609 Henry Hudson, the explorer, named it Staaten Eyelandt, in honor of the Dutch Parliament. The American Indian population on the island resisted settlement attempts in three battles: the Pig War, over accusations that Raritan Indians had stolen settlers' pigs; the Whiskey War, over a distillery; and the Peach War that erupted when a woman from the Aquehongan tribe allegedly stole a settler's peach. Though the indigenous peoples didn't believe in owning land, they would soon enough be edged out by the Dutch and then the English.
Launch of a landmark
The first regular ferry service was a sailing ship set up by 16-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1810. He eventually built a transportation empire worth $100-million. By 1816, steam ferry service was available, but because the fare was 12½ cents each way, it was mainly used by wealthy Staten Islanders. Staten Island became a borough of New York City in 1898, and then, in 1905, the city took control of the ferry.
Though the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, completed in 1964, connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, the ferry remains the only link to Manhattan. It used to carry cars, too, but that service was discontinued after 9/11.
The city is promoting the ferry these days. A green market recently opened at the Whitehall Terminal. The new St. George Terminal on the Staten Island side has a huge fish tank. A publicity campaign encourages tourists to leave the St. George Terminal and explore the island. There's an information kiosk with cheerful attendants to assist you, but when I was there, few inquiries. The Yankees do have a minor league field next to the St. George Terminal and a 9/11 memorial lies beyond the left field fence.
And, all aboard . . .!
For me the ferry itself is the real adventure. I love being in the throng waiting for the doors to open, watching the huge clock that announces the time of the next ferry. No one needs a ticket or has an assigned seat. Then to get that first heady whiff of the harbor water and salty air as all of us pour up the ramp to the ship, each with a distinct idea of the best place to be — seated inside or standing on the upper deck.
It is a ride imbued with all the possibilities New York represents to people. Put it on your "to-do" list when you visit.
Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she also edits fiction for the Tampa Review.