The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 21, 2007

Review: Henry R. Stiles on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Basin

Filed under: Archetypes,Reviews — by WWG @ 10:15 am

I’ve been reading around in a history of Brooklyn by Henry R. Stiles.* Volume III of his 1870 book describes the contemporary city. My current interest is the waterfront, covered in Part III of Chapter XII, “Docks and Commerce.” This is a book I happened on somewhere, and I notice it is not in the bibliography at the back of George Matteson’s book on New York tugboats. It may, thus, provide somewhat of a supplement to that book’s coverage of the Manhattan tug scene.

Early on, Stiles makes two points that seem contradictory. On the one hand, he reports that “no city in the union, possessing the natural facilities and extent of waterfront, is so poorly provided with public docks as Brooklyn” (573). On the other, just a page later, Stiles emphasizes that “a comparison between the docks and warehouses of New York and those of Brooklyn is highly favorable to the latter” (574). (New York and Brooklyn were still separate cities in 1870, so by “New York” he means Manhattan.) New York’s waterfront was owned by the city, and had become dilapidated and antiquated; there was no protection from the weather nor a way to recapture the inevitable leakages of cargo. It was, furthermore, he notes, “exposed to the depredations of dock-thieves” (573). Finallly, the routes leading away from the docks were in sorry shape, and goods, once landed, took many more days to arrive at their destinations.

In Brooklyn, to the contrary, the waterfront had been in private hands since the early days, when the city failed to act on an offer from the owners of the shore land to sell it because of one negative vote by one Joseph Moser. “Since that time, private parties have been allowed to take possession of every foot of available waterfront” (374). It was, then, in public wharves that Brooklyn was lacking. Astonishingly, “along its thirteen miles of waterfront,” Stiles reported, “there are scarcely a dozen pubic docks” (574), all small and inconvenient. The story of the Brooklyn docks is a story of private enterprise making the best of a fortuitous situation.

The Brooklyn docks were elevated above the waterline and not swamped, as happened in NY. They were in excellent repair and clean, “so that every pound of sweepings and leakages can be saved” (574). In Brooklyn, the warehouses were right on the docks, saving the cost and time of transportation that was so arduous in NY, and out-shipment was much easier because the ships could load right from the warehouses. Stiles notes, that at the “overcrowded docks of New York, . . . work, not infrequently, has to cease at noon, because the pier is covered and the men have fairly blocked themselves in” (575).

I am interested in the Atlantic basin because Capt. James’s tug laid up there according to several maritime reports, and, of course, it was there the tug was docked when it sank. The Atlantic basin was in the twelfth ward. Stiles notes, “through the whole lower portion of the 12th ward, streets are rapidly being extended and graded, sunken lots and disease-breeding pools of stagnant water are being filled in . . . The sheds and shanties of squatter pioneers are rapidly disappearing before the advance of new buildings of brick and stones, and imposing churches, school-houses, factories, warehouses and dwellings have already been erected. . . . The hum of machinery and the evidence of industry and activity are unceasing, and this section of city already possesses sufficient material in population, property, manufactures, schools, churches and other requisites to constitute a tolerable municipality by itself” (582).

Stiles elaborates the history of the Atlantic dock in a footnote extending across several pages—a format which often puts the juice of a matter in a subsidiary position to his main-text cataloguing of the components of his contemporary Brooklyn.

The Atlantic wharves, he says, were planned to resemble the Liverpool docks. The basin itself was shallow at low-tide and the area surrounding it, in 1841, so rural that cows would stand in the water to cool themselves. Viewed from downtown Brooklyn, it appeared that the cows had waded across Buttermilk Channel to Governor’s Island, which is close offshore from the basin, and that they did so was an urban myth of the time. To make the basin useful, it had to be excavated “by steam dredging machinery, a tedious and expensive process, which has been going on from the commencement of the work until this time” (576), progressively increasing the size of the ships that could use the docks. In Stiles’s day, “over a hundred large vessels drawing twenty feet of water at low tide can lie with ease and comfort within the secure walls of this dock” (576).

In fact, the basin was an astonishing construction: “The access to the basin is midway through a line of warehouses half a mile in extent, by an entrance two hundred feet wide, passable at all stages of the tide by any class of vessels; differing in this respect from the Liverpool docks which are accessible at high tide only, and then closed by gates to retain the water to keep the vessels afloust during the ebb tide, the fall of water in the river Mersey leaving the docks inland when the tide is out” (576).

We think of ourselves as modern, but we have as a people, a civilization, been “modern” and technological for a very long time now. Stiles describes the warehouses ringing the basin as built on secure foundations, of granite and brick to four stories, with nine “first-class” steam-powered grain elevators, “some of which exceed anything of kind in this or any other country”{ (576). He explains, “These elevators will, under ordinary operation, discharge a canal boat loaded with eight thousand bushels of grain in three hours, elevating, cleaning, weighing, and distributing, to a point four hundred feet from whence it took it, by one process of machinery” (576).

He notes that as many as 130 sea-going vessels have fit in the basin at one time, and at another, over 600 canal boats loaded with grain alongside 50 sea-going ships (576-7). The basin was, he says, “the commercial point of the city of Brooklyn” (577).

These wharves were at the outer reaches of swampy low-lands, Stiles reports, and quickly speculators bought up the land and filled it in, flattened the hills, and built several thousand houses. This is the area now called Red Hook, I think. I notice on the map that the streets where my family mariners lived, Sackett, President, and Degraw, are only a few blocks away from the basin.

Stiles details the specifics of how the Atlantic docks were built, from the incorporation of the Atlantic Dock company, through a petition to the state legislature, in 1840, through the application to the legislature for a bill to permit altering the official waterline set down in 1836, the contracting for the work, the completion of the first docks in 1844, to the decision and contracting to erect the first steam elevator in the NY metro area in 1846-47. Some have a halcyon view of the nineteenth century, as a time when actions were more direct and free enterprise was truly “free,” but Stiles’ narrative shows that the web of business regulation, government oversight, and the law of contracts was very much part of the economic scene then as now.

The Atlantic Basin was, it seems, only the beginning of massive development of the Brooklyn waterfront. In the 1850s, planning began for the Erie and Brooklyn basins, erected ‘round the bend of Red Hook, and at the time of Stiles’s publication, still in progress.

The Atlantic basin, then, by the 1880s and later, was the old docks, smaller (at 40 acres of water, compared to 60 for the Erie), less commodious, and less modern. Just the place for a one-tug company to lay up its ageing boat.

* Stiles, Henry R. History of the City of Brooklyn N.Y., Volume III. “Published by Subscription,” 1870. Facsimile Reprint. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1993. Paper.

The picture here is of the John H. Cordts in New York Harbor; it’s dated 1909, and its provenance is unknown. It’s not from Stiles’s book; it’s an old photo in my collection. The writing on the cabin says Shortland . . . Harbour Transportion Co.

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2 Comments »

  1. I am interested to learn more about your waterfront photo collection as PortSide NewYork is working on creating the first maritime heritage trail in NYC, in Red Hook. see http://www.portsidenewyork.org and http://www.portsidetanker@blogspot.com

    Comment by Carolina Salguero — February 21, 2007 @ 9:42 pm |Reply

  2. Maybe using the word “collection” was a bit excessive. I’ve got a few vintage photos and postcards of the various places and occupations of my ancestors. Your project looks awesome, and I hope it goes well!

    Comment by washergenes — February 22, 2007 @ 10:33 am |Reply


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