Inwood’s Dyckman Street Ferry

by Cole Thompson

On June 17, 1915 a procession of more than fifty automobiles gathered in Inwood to mark an historic occasion—the inauguration of the new Dyckman Street ferry, which would make its maiden voyage across the Hudson River, to the popular recreation sites along the New Jersey Palisades, later that afternoon.

Dyckman Street Ferry opens, The Sun June 18, 1915.

Dyckman Street Ferry opens, The Sun June 18, 1915.

The procession, marshaled by Mr. Thomas Leonard, started at 2 P.M. from 207th Street and Sherman Avenue, and went by way of Broadway, Nagle, Avenue, Dyckman Street, Post Avenue, Academy Street, 10th Avenue, Broadway and Dyckman Street to the ferry.  At the latter point the exercises were held on a temporary platform.” (Source: Annual Report on American Scenic and Historic Preservation, Volume 21)

Dyckman Street ferry launched, 1915.

Dyckman Street ferry launched, 1915.

Members of the Inwood Business Men’s Association were particularly active in the parade. The Englewood Board of Trade was well represented.  The only walkers were the suffragists of the Twenty-third Assembly district and the Mothers’ Club of Public School 52.  The Suffragists reached the reviewing stand ahead of the rest of the parade and took a conspicuous place near it.” (The Sun, June 18, 1915)

George Waldbridge Perkins,Sr (Source:Library of Congress)

George Waldbridge Perkins,Sr (Source:Library of Congress)

Presiding over the festivities was George W. Perkins, president of the Interstate Park Commission.

After a brief prayer by Reverend George Shipman Payson, pastor of Inwood’s Mount Washington Presbyterian Church, ten-year-old Estelle Loeb, stole the show with a song titled, “We Take Our Hats Off to You, Mr. Perkins.”

Initially, the ferry, a joint project overseen by The Board of Trade of Englewood, New Jersey and the newly organized Dyckman Street Board of Trade, planned to run boats across the river at twenty minute intervals on weekdays and every five minutes on Sundays when a rush of picnickers and hikers was expected. The East River Ferry Company was under contract to provide additional boats if necessary.

Dyckman Ferry, 1936.

Dyckman Ferry, 1936.

On that Thursday afternoon thousands of New Yorkers made the crossing to explore new park system and gaze back across the Hudson from this exciting new vantage point.  The trip across the water was likely equally exciting.

Dyckman Street Ferry ad, The Evening World, May 28, 1921.

Dyckman Street Ferry ad, The Evening World, May 28, 1921.

Initially the toll was a mere three cents, but the fare was quickly rounded up to a nickel.

The "America" ferry and Dyckman Street slip in 1926.  Note the Jewish Memorial Hospital in the background.

The “America” ferry and Dyckman Street slip in 1926. Note the Jewish Memorial Hospital in the background.

The ferry was of particular interest to the new-fangled automobilists, and the fresh roaming grounds now easily accessible for the first time—decades before the construction of the George Washington Bridge.

Dyckman Street ferry, New York Sun, October 20, 1927.

Dyckman Street ferry, New York Sun, October 20, 1927.

According to Sanford Gaster, who compiled oral histories of older Inwood residents in the 1980’s,  “It is interesting to note that so many recreationists would leave Inwood, or pass through it, in order to reach a wooded, waterside place.  While this attests to how much open land Inwood had lost, it also suggests the new popularity of mass recreation, which required modern facilities.” (Source: Public Places of Childhood, 1915-1930, Sanford Gaster)

Dyckman Ferry canoe diving, The Buffalo Evening News, September 22, 1926.

Dyckman Ferry canoe diving, The Buffalo Evening News, September 22, 1926.

Riding the wake of a ferryboat in a canoe, Scientific American, August 16, 1919.

Riding the wake of a ferryboat in a canoe, Scientific American, August 16, 1919.

Among those Gaster interviewed was longtime Inwood resident Rose Creel who fondly recalled the beautiful park facilities across the Hudson:

Bathing beach in the new park on the New Jersey Palisades, circa 1915. (Source:njpalisades.org)

Bathing beach in the new park on the New Jersey Palisades, circa 1915. (Source:njpalisades.org)

Here were pavilions with tables and benches for picnickers.  Many people of different nationalities came with exotic smelling food, radios and sometimes musical instruments to make their music for singing and dancing. It was a place clean enough to go diving and swimming.  Fishermen sat on the rocks with their crab baskets and many a good catch they had.  In the spring the shad boats came and the fishing was good.” (Source: Public Places of Childhood, 1915-1930, Sanford Gaster)

From its beginning the ferry was a riotous success. On hot summer evening’s passengers would often take the ferry back and forth as they gossiped and sang—the cool river breezes refreshing both body and spirit.  Musicians, who paid a concession fee to perform on the boats, did much to enliven the mood.

Dyckman Street at Hudson River, 1925.

Dyckman Street at Hudson River, 1925.

In those early days motorcars were pushed on and off the ferries to prevent a backfiring engine from spooking the horses, which were still a popular mode of transportation.

By 1923, with the automobile becoming increasingly popular, the need for expansion became evident. A new ferry slip, capable of handling an additional 125 to 150 cars an hour, was constructed.

According to a schedule published in the New York Times,  “The first boat will leave the New York end at 6am and on the New Jersey side the service will start at 6:15 am.  The regular daily service will be at 10 minute intervals, the last boat leaving Dyckman Street at 11 o’clock at night, and from the Englewood side at 11:10 pm.  On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, when the motor car traffic is especially heavy, the boats will continue until midnight or later if necessary.”

Of course not everyone in Inwood cheered the ferry’s success.  Some felt the terminal carried with it a host of problems, namely noise, crowds and traffic.

Dyckman Street near Henshaw, 1928.

Dyckman Street near Henshaw, 1928.

Long-time Dyckman Street residents, gathered on their front porches, watched in horror as their bucolic little hideaway from the cacophony of downtown suddenly became one of the most congested streets in all Manhattan.

According to a 1924 New York Times article titled “Inwood, the Wild: “There are old houses on Dyckman Street; they have cupolas, some of them, and lace frills done in woodwork, and they look down somewhat disapprovingly on the knickered hikers scurrying to the Palisades ferry at what once was (and may still be on some legal document) Tubby Hook.”

Theses ominous changes reached all the way east to Broadway:

The increasing popularity of the Dyckman Street Ferry for motorists and its use by thousands of young people from all parts of the city during the warm weather to reach the open spaces of the Interstate Palisades Park on the New Jersey shore make Dyckman Street one of the live uptown thoroughfares. The junction of Broadway and Dyckman Street is also the terminus of the northern extremity of Riverside Drive, and is one of the most congested traffic points in the city on Saturdays and Sundays, although traffic is always heavy there every day in the week.” (“Upper Manhattan,” 1926, p. 16)

1930 photo of Dyckman Street ferry terminal.

1930 photo of Dyckman Street ferry terminal.

In the year 1930 the line carried 1,286,177 vehicles and 965,000 pedestrians. (Source: The Hudson River Through the Years, Arthur G. Adams)

And while the ire of a handful of Dyckman Street residents was understandable, most New Yorkers simply loved the ferry.

In one published account, former passenger Arthur G. Adams describes the ferry as an affordable treat for the common man and his family:

“…During the war years of gas rationing, a frequent outing would be to drive to the Hudson River shoreline at Englewood or Alpine and watch the steamboats passing by in the evening.  Maybe your father would spring for a round trip across on the ferryboat to Dyckman Street or Yonkers in the cool of the evening, with the itinerant accordionist and violin players offering a serenade and passing the cup. It certainly was not sophisticated, but you did see the great steamboats passing by. The ferryboat was a window on the greater world.” (Railroad Ferries of the Hudson by Raymond J. Baxter and Arthur G. Adams, 1953)

While initially built to serve a recreational, mainly summertime crowd, an increasing number of New Jersey based business professionals began to rely on the ferry to transport them to higher paying jobs in Manhattan.

But the harsh winters of the day often made river traffic impractical if not impossible.  Many years ferry service was discontinued for months at a time as ice floes covered the surface of the Hudson.

By 1930, according to the New York Sun, ferry pilots had become adept at dodging ice floes in the treacherous icy waters:

“It was recently published,” said a resident of Inwood, just above Washington Heights, “that the Dyckman Street ferry, which takes persons over to Jersey and back, had not closed during the entire year of 1929.  This was news to old-time residents of the section who knew it used to be the custom to close the ferry when the ice became too thick in the Hudson for the boats to plow through it.

“In fact it used to be symbolic of real winter when folks in Inwood used to say to one another: ‘The Dyckman Street ferry is closed.”

“Naturally old timers go to wondering how the ferryboats now do what they do when they were one time unable to do and the reason has been lately discovered by a man who lived in Inwood since 1916. The answer is that the boats do not plow through the ice, they dodge around the large floes and do everything but cut through them.

“This old timer stood on Riverside Drive extension the other day when large floes were coming down the Hudson and watched a boat on its way to Jersey. When it left the slip it did not take a beeline course across the river because great masses of ice were running south.  But through the open spaces between the floes the boat steamed its way and it was out in the open in no time, although two or three blocks to the south of the site of the ferry house.

“It certainly was a nice piece of steering on the part of the pilot and must have been diverting to those on board.  And it solved a big mystery.”

Dyckman Street ferry terminal in 1934 with George Washington Bridge to the south.

Dyckman Street ferry terminal in 1934 with George Washington Bridge to the south.

Surprisingly, despite construction of the George Washington Bridge in 1931, ridership on the ferry continued unabated, though there were complaints that the boats had fallen into a state of severe disrepair.  Perhaps the owners realized the end was in sight and saw further investment as foolhardy.

Dyckman Ferry, 1936.

Dyckman Ferry, 1936.

In a letter to the New York Times, A. Burr wrote, “Last Sunday I made a trip on the Dyckman Street ferries across the Hudson and I was horrified by the condition of these boats.  They must be the oldest ferryboats in the United States, they are unsanitary and their old frames squeak. Life-preservers are placed high on the wall, and the hooks to tear the wooden shelf on which they are stored are even higher than the shelf itself.” (New York Times, June 21, 1935.)

The ferryboat "Florida" in 1939.

The ferryboat “Florida” in 1939.

Of course all good things must come to an end.

Dyckman Street ferry terminal in 1937.

Dyckman Street ferry terminal in 1937.

According to Arthur Adams’ history of the Hudson River, “The line operated until May 21, 1942, when the only remaining usable float-bridge at Dyckman Street collapsed, pinning the boat in the slip.  The Second World War discouraged any thoughts of restoring service immediately.”

Dyckman Street Ferry, lithograph by Raymond White Skofield,1937.

Dyckman Street Ferry, lithograph by Raymond White Skofield,1937.

But the story of the Dyckman Street ferry doesn’t quite end in 1942.

New York Times, July 4, 1949.

New York Times, July 4, 1949.

In 1949, an upper east-sider named Fred Kosnack applied for and was granted the ferry concession.

His sixty-foot boats, capable carrying 65 passengers, did a brisk business that summer.  New Yorkers have always been a nostalgic lot, and in a post-war environment, Kosnack’s little boats did much to boost people’s spirits.

According to the Times, “Mr. Kosnack, a river man for the last twenty years took his time in piloting his boat across the calm waters. “Let them inhale the cool air,’ he said. ‘The good Lord knows they will go back to the sweltering apartments at the end of the day.’” (New York Times, July 4, 1949)

On October 15, 1949, Kosnack’s concession expired and the Dyckman Street ferry became but a fond memory in the hearts of generations of New Yorkers.

Site of the old Dyckman Street ferry terminal on the Hudson River in 2013.  Currently home to "La Marina."

Site of the old Dyckman Street ferry terminal on the Hudson River in 2013. Currently home to “La Marina.”

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Tom June 12, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Wow its funny how residents of the day were up in arms about the additional automobile traffic that the ferry service attracted. The present “attraction” that occupies the old ferry space is a club/restaurant called La Marina. It too attracts alot of additional automobile traffic to the point that there is a gridlock situation from Broadway down to the Hudson River on Dyckman in both directions. Most weekends at night the police just shut Dyckman street down all together. Funny how nearly 100 years later the same spot is still a controversial issue in the community.

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