The Rise and Fall of Manhattan’s South Street Seaport

Creators
Valerie Baloga and Denise Chavez

Did you know that Lower Manhattan’s South Street was at one time completely underwater? The island was largely uninhabited until Dutch settlers arrived in the Seventeenth Century. They recognized the potential of the magnificent harbor surrounding the territory, and they set to work using landfill to expand the island’s coastline. The Dutch were skilled shipbuilders and sailors. They built docks, and soon ferries were transporting passengers between what is now Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey. The water around the island was deep enough to accommodate the larger ships of that time, which made this an ideal location for world trade.

Later in the century when English settlers took control of the colony, New York Harbor became the busiest in the nation. It survived pirates, wars, and embargoes. Trade and commerce fluctuated throughout the centuries and peaked during the Nineteenth Century. The South Street area’s proximity to the harbor made it ideal for businesses, such as a variety of merchants, ship chandlers, sail makers, figurehead carvers, boarding houses, saloons, and even brothels.

The seaport’s first counting houses were built beginning at the end of the Eighteenth Century. A “counting house” is what we recognize today as an office, shop, or warehouse. Prior to the counting house, business was conducted from within a person’s home. The fireproof counting houses built at the South Street Seaport were constructed of brick. When we think of Manhattan today, we think of its largest skyscrapers. In the early Nineteenth Century, Manhattan’s largest buildings were built out, not up.

Schermerhorn Row, extending from Front Street to South Street on Fulton Street’s south side was one of Manhattan’s largest structures at its completion in 1812. This row of twelve brick warehouses has withstood the test of time and still exists among Lower Manhattan’s historically significant landmarks. Inevitably the size of ships increased, and the South Street Seaport could not accommodate these larger vessels and their new technologies. The area had gone into decline by the start of the Twentieth Century. The water was too shallow for the larger ships, and by the 1930s shipping had moved further up Manhattan’s West Side.

Plans in 1966 to create a maritime museum inside Schermerhorn Row evolved into the formation of the South Street Seaport Museum in 1967, whose efforts have resulted in the historic district presently occupying the entire seaport area. Its purpose is to remind people of New York’s important maritime history. Many restorative projects as well as new development have contributed to the revitalization of the South Street Seaport, and while it is no longer the great port it once was, it is abuzz with shopping, restaurants, and of course, traces of its history.

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Inspiration
p. 23-24 “The biggest ocean-going ships on the North Atlantic arrived and departed. I didn’t notice them and neither did most other New Yorkers. I am told this is the greatest seaport in the world, with six hundred and fifty miles of waterfront, and ships calling here from many exotic lands, but the only boat I’ve happened to notice was a small sloop tacking out of the East River night before last on the ebb tide when I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge…”

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One comment

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