By Deborah Harley
With summer approaching, I’m looking forward to taking a nice relaxing ferry ride on one of the new ferry routes around NYC. Last year my husband and I cycled over to the Rockaways and afterwards ferried home -- sipping a beer and watching the scenery go by—all for the price of a subway ride, but a whole lot more fun. Ferries have become the trendy new alternative for getting around New York. The city has even added a new commuter ferry to Astoria, Queens. Which brings to mind a story that Robert Caro tells in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Power Broker, about the incorrigible Robert Moses, and a time when ferry service to Astoria wasn’t so prized.
During the early twentieth century, a municipal ferry house stood at 92nd Street and York Avenue in Manhattan. The ferry, named the Rockaway, carried commuters between Manhattan and Astoria. In 1936, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia arranged to end the city-operated ferry and transfer the land to the Triborough Authority to build a new approach to the Triborough Bridge. La Guardia finalized the plans for the turnover on July 15 but gave the ferry an additional sixty days to wind down operations while ferry riders found alternative ways across the East River. However, Robert Moses, who headed the Triborough Authority, didn’t want to wait that long.
Robert Moses, for those who don’t know, was for many decades the most powerful man in New York City and New York State. Arguably, he was even more powerful than Franklin Roosevelt, who was then President of the United States. Caro maintains that Moses was singularly responsible for the physical direction that the entire country took during the first half of the twentieth century. He influenced a generation of young urban engineers who went on to design and build the national landscape that we live in today.
Moses was a man who was used to getting what he wanted. Not willing to wait for LaGuardia’s sixty days to pass, Moses took action to raze the ferry terminal immediately. On July 21, after the Rockaway had pulled away from the terminal for an early afternoon run, Moses directed his contractor to block access to the terminal both by land and by sea and to yank the slip apart. When Plants and Structures Commissioner Frederick Kracke heard what was happening, he frantically tried contacting La Guardia while he dispatched Deputy Commissioner Andrew Hudson to halt the destruction.
Arriving at the scene, Hudson could not believe what was happening. The Rockaway was already on its return trip to Manhattan and would not be able to dock. Worse yet, in a few hours hundreds of commuters would suddenly find themselves stranded and unable to make it back across the river to their homes in Queens. Hudson argued with the contractors, whom Moses had instructed to stop at nothing, even as the dock was being torn to bits.
La Guardia, meanwhile, was livid. He contacted Moses, begged him to stop the destruction, and promised to shorten the waiting period. When that didn’t work, he ordered the police to intervene. But the contractors knew who their boss was—and it wasn’t the mayor or the police. It was Moses. Rush hour came, and a steady stream of commuters stood on York Avenue watching helplessly as the ferry dock was being carted away.
La Guardia pushed harder, and the police were finally able to stop the contractors from destroying the rest of the dock. That night, the city hastily rebuilt the damaged dock and ferry house. By morning, the Rockaway was back in service.
In the end, Moses won the battle. La Guardia waited about a week for the story to play out in the papers and then quietly allowed the demolition to begin in earnest. Late on the night of July 31, the Rockaway pulled away from the terminal for the last time, and the ferry house was torn down.