In 1817, the Richmond Turnpike Company began operating the first mechanically powered steam ferry between New York and Staten Island. It operated for several years with only the occasional disaster, but in 1901, an upsetting incident involving the Northfield Ferry, a Jersey Central Ferry and 995 passengers finally led the City of New York to seize control of the fleet’s operations. The Department of Docks and Ferries has been running operations ever since, and aside from just the occasional crash, sinking, or machete-wielding lunatic, things have been going swimmingly. If you fancy your chances, the ferry operates, largely without incident, on a 24/7, 365 days a year basis, without even a break for the holidays. Schedules do sometimes change, so make sure to check the Staten Island Ferry’s website before setting off on an adventure in New York City.
1. There’s no onboard commentary
Before anything else, the Staten Island Ferry is a passenger ferry – yes, tourists may enjoy its facilities and can even grab a hotdog and some beer while they enjoy the view, but if you’re expecting an onboard commentary to talk you through the sites, you’re out of the luck. If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you’ll be best off booking a guided tour of NYC or Lower Manhattan that includes a round trip journey on the ferry.
2. It offers some of the best views around
Take a trip on the Staten Island Ferry and you’ll be greeted with some of the most stunning vistas you’ll likely enjoy anywhere in New York. Panoramic views of Lower Manhattan, along with the majestic Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Governors Island, compete with those of hilly Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights. Squint hard enough and you might even be able to make out Brooklyn Bridge in the distance.
3. It has amazing photo opportunities
To get the best views in the house (or boat, as the case may be), head starboard after you board and make your way to the outdoor deck. Stand as far at the back of the ferry as you can to secure the best possible position to snap some photos of Lady of Liberty as you head out to Staten Island. On your way back, take in the view from the other direction by staking out a position on the starboard upstairs deck. If you want to grab some photos of Lower Manhattan, position yourself at the back of the ferry on the journey over to Staten Island and at the front on the return trip.
4. It operates 24/7
There may be no rest for the wicked, but there’s not much time for napping for the Staten Island Ferry, either. The fleet runs 24/7, 365 days a year. During the rush hours of 6am -9.30am and 3.30-8pm, the ferry runs every 15 or 20 minutes, with it then reverting to a 30-minute schedule. On weekends and holidays, the ferry departs every 30 minutes. The ferry is known for running strictly to time: anything over 6 minutes from the expected departure time is considered a “late depart”.
5. It’s witnessed some dramatic events
Over the years, the Staten Island Ferry has dealt with as much turbulence from its passengers as it has from the seas. On July 7th, 1986, one of its passengers, Juan Gonzalez, killed two and injured nine others in a frenzied machete attack that would see him serve out the next several decades at Bronx Psychiatric Center after being declared innocent by insanity.
6. It’s not always a smooth ride
The Staten Island Ferry operates 24/7, 365 days a year, and 99.9% of the time, its journeys are incident free. It does, however, run into the occasional spot of bother. In June 1901, the ferry was leaving Whitehall when it was hit by a Jersey Central Ferry. It sank immediately, but fortunately, the quick actions of the crew saved the day: of the 995 passengers aboard, only 5 ended up missing, presumed drowned. While the incident could have ended much more tragically than it did, it was still one of the key motivators for the City of New York taking control of the running of the fleet, and for the era of private operations to end.
7. It’s offered a helping hand in times of crisis
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Staten Island Ferry proved its worth to the city when it pulled thousands of its residents to safety on Staten Island. Because of the smoke and debris filling the air from the collapse of the towers, the captains were forced to deal with incredibly difficult conditions and zero visibility. In the days that followed, the fleet continued to be of service by transporting emergency personnel and equipment to and from the city.
8. It was bombed in the 1960s
In the 1960s, New York City suffered a series of bombings, starting with an explosion in Time Square on October 2, 1960, and ending with an explosion on the A train at the 125th Street Station. The Staten Island Ferry didn’t get away unscathed: on the 23rd of October, a device blew up on the Knickerbocker. Dozens of people were injured in the bombings, which police later found were orchestrated by Walter Long, a 29 years old Staten Islander who had recently escaped from a mental institution.
9. It's changed color
In 1926, the fleet’s original white color scheme was abandoned in favor of reddish marron, which again changed a few years later to a municipal orange. The idea behind the change was to make the fleet more visible in heavy fog and snow, which, while great in principle, hasn’t always worked in practice. Over the years, the fleet’s suffered several incidents as a result of weather conditions: during heavy fog on February 8, 1958, the ferry was hit by the Norwegian tanker Tynefield, and on May 16, 1981, it was rammed again by yet another Norwegian tanker unable to see through the heavy fog.
10. It hasn’t always been a free ride
The Staten Island Ferry may be dolling out rides for free these days, but it’s not always been so generous. When it first started commuting passengers back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island, it charged 5 cents for the privilege. In 1972, this increased to 10 cents, and 3 years later, it jumped to 25 cents. August 1990 saw the fare increase another 25 cents to take it to a flat 50. Fortunately for cash-strapped New Yorkers, July 4, 1997, saw an end to the price hikes (and indeed to the fare itself) when NYC eliminated the charge for foot passengers.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker