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Secrets of New York

The ultimate insider's guide to the best-kept secrets of NYC's must-see places and buzzed-about people.

The Staten Island Ferry travels past some of

The Staten Island Ferry travels past some of NYC's most iconic locations, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. (Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett)


Secrets of the Staten Island Ferry

1 Bay Street, Staten Island, NY 10301

The Staten Island Ferry transports an estimated 65,000 passengers each day between Manhattan and Staten Island. The ferry travels past some of NYC's most iconic locations, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, making it a favorite of tourists as well as commuters.

But how much do even the most regular ferry riders know about it? With the help of the Staten Island Museum, which has a permanent exhibit dedicated to the ferry, we take a look at its hidden treasures.

On Oct. 15, 2003, the Andrew J. Barberi

Credit: Getty Images / AFP / Mike Hvozda

One of the deadliest accidents on the ferry was in 2003

On Oct. 15, 2003, the Andrew J. Barberi ferry crashed into the pier, killing 11 and injuring more than 100 others. It was the deadliest accident in the ferry's 100 year history, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg calling it a "tragic accident" as still terrorism-scarred New Yorkers watched in horror.

It was determined later that the ship's pilot, Richard Smith, had lost consciousness just prior to the crash, when the ferry had been traveling at an unusually high speed. Witnesses told The New York Times immediately following the crash that the captain appeared to get the boat back on course before it crashed into the concrete maintenance pier, which sliced through the boat's side. Passengers compared the scene to Titanic. "If you didn't keep running, you were dead," said passenger Robert Carroll to the Times.

The ship's pilot escaped the boat and attempted suicide, slitting his wrists and then shooting himself twice with a pellet gun. He survived both attempts and later pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Perhaps because of its iconic route, the ferry

Credit: YouTube / Carly Simon

The ferry is a prime film backdrop

Perhaps because of its iconic route, the ferry is a frequent backdrop in films. It has been featured in at least six films, including the 1987 Mike Nichols' film "Working Girl." 2008's "The Dark Knight" featured replicas of the Staten Island ferry. And on television, it's been featured on "Sex and the City," "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

In the 19th century, passengers could take their

Credit: Getty Images / Mario Tama

The ferry wasn't always exclusively for humans

In the 19th century, passengers could take their horses aboard the ferry. By the end of the 20th century, you could drive on the ferry. Even after the walk-on fare was abolished in 1995, cars still paid a $3 fare to drive on. But NYC banned cars for good after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when officials didn't want cars to drive into lower Manhattan.

This photo was taken from the passenger deck days after Sept. 11, 2001, when smoke could still be seen over Lower Manhattan.

In the early days of the ferry, men

Credit: Courtesy of the Staten Island Museum

Men and women once had separate cabins

In the early days of the ferry, men and women were separated on the ferry. There was a men's cabin and a women's cabin, separated on the lower level by the stairs leading to the upper saloon (which both sexes could sit in) on the the 1930s boat, the Tompkinsville.

Men and women were given the option to sit apart so men had a place to smoke -- and to give single women a break (were manspreaders around then?) -- according to the Staten Island Museum.

To make sure passengers didn't walk into the wrong cabin, there were two signs indicating what cabin you were entering: One that read "Women's Cabin" and another that pointed to it and read "Read this sign."

The Staten Island Ferry is considered one of

Credit: Caroline Linton

The ferry wasn't always free

The Staten Island Ferry is considered one of the best free tourist attractions in New York City, and certainly commuters know it's a great deal. But it wasn't always that way.

The fare was originally a nickel, but it gradually increased to a 50-cent exit fare over the years.

In 1997, Mayor Rudy Giuliani abolished the fare as part of the turnover to all-electronic MetroCards. At that time, cars could still drive on the ferry, and the fare was $3 to take a car aboard.

Before New York City incorporated the four boroughs

Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

Before the MTA came the Vanderbilts -- and destruction

Before New York City incorporated the four boroughs in 1898, the Staten Island Ferry was operated by a number of private companies. The ferry was first commissioned by Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins (Tompkinsville's namesake) in the early 19th century. Cornelius Vanderbilt's brother-in-law, Captain John De Forest, commanded the first mechanically-powered ferries of the Richmond Turnpike Company, which was later bought by Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilt family continued to control the ferry and eventually the Staten Island Railway's precursor. Jacob Vanderbilt was arrested for murder after a boiler exploded aboard one of the ships, the Westfield, and killed at least 85 people in 1871, but he was not convicted.

The new five-borough City of New York seized control over the ferry system after a devastating fire aboard one of the ships in 1901. Ferry service resumed in 1905, and the fare was a nickel. The boats were named after each of the new boroughs.

One of the sights along the ferry route

Credit: Caroline Linton

This lighthouse was home to the first female lighthouse keeper

One of the sights along the ferry route is the Robbins Reef Lighthouse, which might seem like a tiny blip on the radar after passing the Statue of Liberty. But the lighthouse has its own history that's worth learning.

The lighthouse was home to Katherine Walker, the first woman lighthouse keeper in U.S. history. She became the keeper after her husband died, reportedly his last words being "Mind the lights, Katie."

She applied for the position, but the Coast Guard at first worried that she couldn't handle it, since she was only 4'10" and 100 pounds, and they offered the position to several men first. She stayed on when they all rejected it, and they finally offered the position in 1895.

She is credited with saving as many as 50 people, many of whom were fishermen who blew off the reefs. She tended the lighthouse until her retirement in 1919 at the age of 73. She died at the age of 84 in 1930.

New York City officials debated where to put

Credit: Caroline Linton

The Whitehall Terminal had a twin

New York City officials debated where to put the the ferry terminal in Manhattan for an entire year, before finally settling on the Whitehall location.

The giant wood terminal that opened in 1905 was considered a twin of the nearby Governor's Island ferry terminal. But the front of the Whitehall Terminal burned in a fire in 1919, and the building fell into disrepair.

In 1953, the Marine and Aviation announced a $3 million renovation, and the architectural marvel opened in 1956. But a fire devastated that terminal in 1991, forcing it to shut down. A temporary terminal opened in 1992, and the current terminal opened to the public in 2005.

In New York City, mass transit is a

Credit: Courtesy of the Staten Island Museum

There's an artistic tradition on the ferry

In New York City, mass transit is a great place to explore your creative side. The ferry, being not underground, could be one of the best free places for this--and Staten Island artist Cecil Bell knew this. Bell, originally from Seattle, moved to New York City in 1930 and Staten Island until 1942, and he frequently painted on the ferry. This painting is one of many at the Staten Island Museum, which has a collection of his work.

In addition to Cecil Bell, the ferry itself honors its artistic tradition with two of its boats being named after artists. The Alice Austen is named after the famous photographer whose house is now a museum in St. George and the John Noble is named after the marine artist who was born and raised on Staten Island.

St. George had historically been the location of

Credit: Caroline Linton

The St. George terminal was once as majestic as Grand Central Terminal

St. George had historically been the location of the ferry terminal, and although the city debated moving it after taking over in 1901, Borough President George Cromwell intervened to keep it there. A grand terminal was built on the location, designed by architects Carrere & Hastings, who also designed the main branch of the New York Public Library and Staten Island's Borough Hall. The stately terminal more closely resembled Grand Central Terminal than today's functional-looking terminal. The original terminal had high ceilings, vaulted ironwork interior and sit-down lunch counters.

A nine-alarm fire destroyed the original terminal beyond repair in 1946. A new terminal opened in 1951 at the cost of $23 million. The terminal underwent extensive renovations in the early 2000s, and re-opened with an adjacent waiting area in 2005.

Brooklyn and Staten Island are now connected by

Credit: Caroline Linton

There were once Brooklyn ferries

Brooklyn and Staten Island are now connected by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, built in 1964 and overseen by Robert Moses. Prior to the bridge, though, it was the ferry that connected Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Starting in 1906, NYC operated a ferry from the St. George Terminal to 39th Street in Bay Ridge. In 1924, the Brooklyn & Richmond Ferry Company began running ferries between St. George and 69th Street in Bay Ridge, and Electric Ferries began operating that line in 1939. There was also a private ferry line that ran between St. George and Brooklyn. The 39th Street ferry closed in 1946, after the St. George terminal fire destroyed the Manhattan slips, forcing those boats to now leave from the Brooklyn slips in that terminal. Ferry service to 69th St. ended in 1964, when the bridge opened.

Contrary to the belief popularized in a


You are not actually stranded if you miss the midnight ferry

Contrary to the belief popularized in a "Sex and the City" episode that you are stranded if you miss the midnight ferry, there are actually late night ferry options. If you miss the midnight ferry, there are still ferries every hour at the top of the hour departing from Staten Island.

From the Whitehall Terminal, ferries run every hour at half past starting at 12:30 a.m. A 5:30 a.m. ferry leaves from St. George, and then the rush hour schedule kicks off at 6 a.m. See a full schedule at

The overnight ferries are the John Nobel and the Alice Austen, both of which look like big vessels but are only about a sixth the size of the Samuel Irving Newhouse, one of the daytime boats.

The Alice Austen and the John Noble--both named after Staten Island artists--are each about 500 tons and can hold 1,2800 passengers. The Samuel Irving Newhouse and the Andrew J. Barberi are the largest of the boats, at 3,335 tons with 6,000 passenger capacities.

The Whitehall ferry terminal is located just blocks

Credit: YouTube / Boatlift

The ferries were Sept. 11 heroes

The Whitehall ferry terminal is located just blocks from the World Trade Center, and hundreds of Staten Islanders were among those killed in the terrorist attack. On Sept. 11, 2001, as subways and roads closed, people in Lower Manhattan ran toward the water to escape. "There was one guy who ran from the apron and jumped on the boat," Staten Island ferry Captain James Parese recalled in the documentary "Boatlife: An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resistance." "He grabbed onto the metal, climbed up ... so I'm going out there to say something to him. He slides down the next deck, so the deckhand's got him, 'so what are you doing?' He goes, 'I'm jumping for my life.'"

Given the chaos, the Coast Guard made a call for all available boats to report to Governor's Island to evacuate Lower Manhattan. "When we came out of that dust cloud ... I had never seen so many tug boats all at once," Parese said. Half a million people were evacuated from Lower Manhattan by boat on Sept. 11, 2001 as the boats-- including the ferries-- went back and forth from Manhattan to rescue people who were lined up along the sea wall.

"They didn't know what was going on," Parese said. "They seen the building getting hit with these two planes. As far as they were concerned, we were being bombed. I was just wondering, are they going to be on the boat? If there were people who had bombs, if they were going to be on, we're a big orange target in the middle of the water. My job is to keep the boat safe, my passengers safe, my crew safe."


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