Building the City > Expanding the Harbor
In 1879, the steamers of the Red Cross Line – operating between New York and Newcastle – carried goods and passengers across the Atlantic in a profusion that would have astounded the merchants of a previous generation: three-quarters of a million bushels of grain, 36,000 sacks of flour, 15,000 boxes of cheese, nearly a thousand live cattle. The company’s newest ship, the Titania, was 275 feet long, weighed nearly 2,000 tons, and drew more than 23 feet of water when fully loaded.
By the late-nineteenth century, these dimensions were thoroughly unremarkable. The Red Cross Line’s vessels operated anonymously amid the passenger ferries, the ocean liners, “the floating palaces from Long Island Sound, the fruit steamers from Jamaica and central America, the Brazilian coffee and rubber carriers,” and the rest of the variegated traffic of the harbor.
In 1914, New York exported more than $900,000,000 in merchandise. This teeming commerce overtaxed the slips and piers, so that many ships had to wait in the roads for more than a week for an empty dock. But, rather than their number, it was the size of the vessels that presented the greatest challenge for the City’s merchants. As with so many other things in industrializing America, ships were growing beyond all previously conceivable limits. “In former years,” a shipping agent reminisced, “steamers of 3,000 or 4,000 tons were considered large.” Now, 700-foot-long vessels of 10,000 tons and more were commonplace. Big ships had deeper draughts and required better channels, leading to a “general demand for more water.”
All that commercial traffic – and the millions in dollars that it represented – depended on the quality of the harbor. As the waterways became overcrowded and inadequate, shipping lines began taking their business to other ports. The apparent busyness of the wharves masked an alarming diminution of trade relative to such rivals as Philadelphia, Boston, and Norfolk. “The character of the harbor," a commentator noted, "and the fact that the merchant marine must traverse a dangerous and tortuous route in coming to and leaving New-York has been looked upon by many people as the chief cause of the decline.”
The Chamber of Commerce’s compass was perennially fixed on the problems of the harbor. The members commissioned detailed surveys and maps, petitioning government at every level to dredge and straighten the approaches to the Bay. To accommodate the largest ships afloat, a year-round channel at least two-thousand-feet wide and forty-feet deep was necessary, and New York had nothing like this. Until the situation was ameliorated, the port would continue to risk losing business to its rivals.
And it seemed like the City was doing everything it could to turn this potential catastrophe into an accomplished fact.
Since at least the 1870s, the Chamber had concerned itself with the problem of dumping the City’s refuse in the harbor. Members recommended cremating the trash, or using it as fertilizer, but year after year the Street Cleaning Department continued to dump it in the waters around Manhattan. Each year, in the 1890s, one and a half million cubic yards more of “bureaus, book-cases, beds, bedding, mattresses, broken crates,” as well as “garbage, ashes and paper in large quantity” were piled up on the bottom. A giant mud bank formed off the Battery; “new lumps and mounds obstructing navigation” were discovered so often that mariners’ maps became obsolete from year to year. By 1900, two million cubic yards were being deposited every twelve months.
In 1903, the Chamber’s Committee on the Harbor and Shipping reported on “the practice of dumping the City’s refuse into the sea adjacent to the Harbor.” Municipal crews constantly flouted the regulations, which were unenforceable anyway, “it is often impossible [to dump in prescribed areas] on account of storms,” the committeemen wrote, “and then is often evaded by surreptitious and premature emptying of scows.” One solution was to sort the refuse, selling anything valuable, and burning the rest to make it “perfectly sanitary and thus most desirable for ‘filling in’ wherever required.”
On Riker’s Island, site of the City’s dumps, the Commissioner of Street Cleaning was putting these “very advanced and progressive measures” into practice. When he came to speak to the Chamber of Commerce, the merchants greeted him with applause. In Astoria, Queens – downwind from the trash – he was greeted with something else. More than a thousand residents gathered in August, 1903, claiming that the nuisance of the landfills had made their neighborhood “almost impossible to live in.” The stench was inescapable. Garbage constantly washed up on the beaches. Investigations showed that the Riker’s Island operation had only six barrels of disinfectant on hand, “and that amount was of as much use as it would be for a man to try and dry up the East River with a spoon.”