When Circle Line Couldn’t Circle

September 19, 2008 at 3:50 pm Leave a comment

The comedian Whoopi Goldberg christened the Circle Line Manhattan, the newest boat to be added to the fleet of sightseeing vessels.

Circle Line inaugurated a new boat on Wednesday to its sightseeing fleet, which to this point was mostly made up of World War II vessels. This offered City Room a perfect opportunity to appreciate 100 years of maritime tourism in New York.

There was a time when Circle Line would not have been able to circle Manhattan, as can be seen in this 1811 map. So we appreciate the fact that Manhattan even has a Circle Line (or two, actually. There are two companies, Circle Line Downtown and the Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises out of Midtown, which is confusing but at least they have agreed to share this Web site).
Manhattan may be an island, but it wasn’t circumnavigable for ships until the Spuyten Duyvil Creek and the Harlem River were widened and joined as the Harlem River Ship Canal, linking the East and Hudson Rivers in 1895. Before then, crossing it would have required the vessels themselves for part of the narrow journey.
At that time, New York Harbor was responsible for 69 percent of foreign trade. And the Harlem River Ship Canal provided an important transportation link, essentially functioning as the Cross Bronx Expressway of its day (of course, without the displacement of neighborhoods). The canal, incidentally, is why Marble Hill was severed from the rest of the island and became a 52-square-acre enclave that eventually became connected to the Bronx through infilling.
The Harlem River Ship Canal was discussed for nearly a century before it became a reality, with New York making pleas to Congress for support. As early as 1827, a company had been incorporated to construct a canal connecting the Harlem with the Hudson at Spuyten Duyvil. The 1895 June opening [pdf] was marked with pomp — a naval parade, speeches and half a million spectators. And politicians were proud to note that “Not a single life has been lost, and but a few men injured, though flood, tempest, and other untoward circumstances have surrounded the enterprise.”
This allowed for boats, trade and tourist, to circumnavigate the island. In his book, “Around Manhattan Island and Other Maritime Tales of New York: And Other Tales of Maritime New York,” Brian J. Cudahy tells an incredibly detailed history of maritime tourism around Manhattan. A man named John P. Roberts is believed to have offered the first cruises around Manhattan around 1905. The modest steamboat, Herman S. Caswell, was re-branded a “Seeing New York Yacht.” (Mr. Roberts eventually died on a New York City subway.)
A number of boat competitors eventually emerged, though World War II (and its fuel rationing) put a damper on maritime tourism across the board. After the war, a partnership was formed in 1945, which eventually gave birth to the Circle Line. The first boat the company bought was originally a yacht, which turned into a fishing boat, which turned into a patrol vessel during World War II.
Seven of the Circle Line vessels in Midtown were originally intended to transport troops to enemy beaches during World War II. Over time, the Circle Line was criticized for its quaint but aging fleet.
While the new boat — called Circle Line Manhattan — is newly constructed and made entirely of steel. It is supposed to look like the traditional boats. Nostalgia.

By Jennifer 8. Lee, City Room
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Manhattan. Tags: , , , .

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