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Remembering 20 Years Ago – March 22, 1987
A New York Harbor Cruise Aboard the Seaport Line’s De Witt Clinton

Photos and Text by Theodore W. Scull

In the 1980’s the South Street Seaport Museum operated two replica excursion boats from East River Pier 16 under the Seaport Line banner. The Andrew Fletcher was a sidewheeler and the De Witt Clinton a screw propeller boat. The latter was much faster and able to undertake longer trips into the North River such as the one described here.

The following photos were taken on March 22, 1987, a sunny early spring day.

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1) The Seaport Line’s De Witt Clinton with her straight stem, tall black stack, graceful sheer and angular superstructure was designed to recall earlier American steamboats. She was named after De Witt Clinton, New York State legislator, U.S. senator and governor and the mayor of New York City. Clinton also promoted the building of the Erie Canal that led to New York becoming the number one port on the East Coast, eclipsing Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

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2) A close up view of forward superstructure, pilothouse and stack. The Clinton first went into service in June 1986.

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3) The De Witt Clinton reverses into the East River with the Brooklyn Bridge tower to the left and to the right the illuminated WATCHTOWER sign marks the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters at Columbia Heights, Brooklyn.

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4) The view is to back to South Street Seaport’s Pier 17, a restaurant and shopping mall, the Brooklyn Bridge’s Manhattan tower and the brick Gov. Alfred E. Smith Houses, a subsidized apartment complex.

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5) A Grancolombiana cargo container ship works at the Red Hook Container Terminal located to the right of Brooklyn Heights. The tall building rising above the ship’s bow is the St. George Hotel, once the city’s largest, and to the left a new financial headquarters is under construction just outside the Brooklyn Heights Historic District.

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6) The U.S. Coast Guard ferry Governor is at its Battery Maritime Building slip in Lower Manhattan prior to making the short run over to Governor’s Island. The ferry originally came from Seattle and its ends (spoons) had to be rebuilt to fit the slips.

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7) The Staten Island Ferry Alice Austen was relatively new when this photo was taken at the Whitehall Terminal in Manhattan. Alice Austen was one of New York City’s most famous photographers, and she resided for most of her life at Clear Comfort, a tiny Victorian cottage located on the Staten Island shore facing the Upper Bay. The curved structure under construction above the ferry terminal is an office building (Emery Roth & Sons) on the 17 State Street site of the former Seamen’s Church Institute, the latter moving to a new location on Water Street.

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8) The fireboat John D. McKean belongs to Marine Company No. 1, Fire Department, City of New York, located at Pier A at the Battery. The pier, dating from 1886 with additions, was originally built for the Dept. of Docks. The light-colored building in the background is One Broadway, the former United States Lines’ headquarters and now occupied by Citibank. Above Pier A is the Whitehall Building, 17 Battery Place, housing offices for the shipping industry.

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9) The Empire State Building rises behind the Gansvoort Street Pier that provides docking space for the New York City fireboat John J. Harvey, when built in 1931, the world’s most powerful. The adjacent pier is 54, once hosting Cunard and Cunard-White Star liners as part of the Chelsea Pier complex.

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10) The four very large United States Lines’ container vessels are in layup at Pier 40. In order, they are the American Kentucky, American Nebraska, American Maine and American Virginia, grossing 57,000 tons and with a length of 950 feet. Built in South Korea in 1983-84, they were at the time the largest container vessels in the world able to carry 4250 tues (20-foot container measurement). They had a rather slow speed of 18 knots to save fuel and were placed in around-the-world service. By 1986, US Lines declared bankruptcy and the ships were laid up here and in Brooklyn. The structure to the right is a ventilation shaft for the Holland Tunnel.

Ship data courtesy John McFarlane)

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11) Streamlined Art Deco Pier 57 at West 15th Street was rebuilt in the 1930s for the Grace Line’s Santas in service to the West Indies and South America. Prior to that the pier had served the French Line.

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12) The World Financial Center to the left of the World Trade Center is nearing completion. The Woolworth Building, in shadow, peers between the twin towers and Battery Park City, a residential complex, rises to the right where shipping piers use to be.