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New York Harbor

“City of hurried and sparkling waters! City of spires and masts!”

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That’s how the great 19th century poet Walt Whitman described New York and its busy harbor. This 110-year-old scene on the East River looking toward Manhattan, with its ships, skyline and hustling tugboat, could have been Whitman’s inspiration.

New York was a special port. It’s said that the old ships’ captains never lost the thrill of rounding the Verrazano Narrows to see the harbor open up before them, the Statue of Liberty, the ferries and tugs, the square-riggers and steamers, all framed by Whitman’s “spires.”

There were the Hudson River piers, the Fulton Fish Market and South Street on the East River and the Atlantic Docks in Brooklyn — all bastions of a bustling international trade. Newtown Creek, running between Queens and Brooklyn, carried more freight at one point than the Mississippi River. Herman Melville, in a wonderful simile, likened Manhattan to a coral island, with commerce surrounding it like surf.

The tug was the workhorse of the harbor. Wooden-hulled and steam-propelled, most ran on enormous 2-cylinder compound steam engines that could deliver as much as 850 hp to a slow-turning 10-foot propeller. That’s what it took to push around or tow one of those big square-riggers.

Life doesn’t stand still. In less than a generation, the scene would change. Although Whitman’s spires would rise ever higher, the masts would disappear, the sailing ship and steam tug giving way to the coming generation of diesel freighters, ocean liners and tugboats.

Still part of an important harbor complex that includes ports in New Jersey, the Big Apple celebrates its maritime heritage at South Street Seaport Museum and neighboring Pier 17, as well as with a yearly tug-and-barge festival. The highlight is a visit by the restored 1907 New York Harbor tugboat Pegasus, which plied these waters for many years.

April 2013 issue