The Only Way To Cross

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About a century ago, someone in the Singer Building on Manhattan’s West Side took a moment from his workday to point a camera out the window. He captured what seemed fairly ordinary back then: a “four-stacker” ocean liner cruising up the Hudson River with a fleet of harbor craft darting and dodging around her.

The ship was the newly launched Lusitania, which, along with her sister ship Mauretania, was the pride of the British White Star Line. Perhaps that’s why the picture was taken: to mark the arrival of a new ocean liner to the greatest port in the world.

For those crossing the Atlantic, there was no place quite like New York Harbor, the “greatest and gaudiest of the Atlantic ports,” John

Maxtone-Graham writes in his book The Only Way to Cross. All sea roads led to Ambrose Light.

New York back then was lined with piers and ships bearing the names of the great lines of the day: Cunard, White Star, Compagnie General Transatlantique, Hamburg-Amerika. There might be a half-dozen of the great liners and a fleet of lesser ships in port at one time. Arriving passengers came to rest in the heart of one of the world’s great cities — “suddenly involved with an astonishing metropolis.”

The American poet Rupert Brook described his arrival in New York on a 1913 voyage:

There was beauty in the view that morning. New York lay asleep in a queer, pearly, hourless light. A thin mist softened the further outlines. Our boat moved up the harbour and along the Hudson River with a superb and courteous stateliness. Round her snorted and scuttled and puffed the multitudinous strange denizens of the harbour. Tugs, steamers, queer-shaped ferry-boats, long rafts carrying great lines of trucks from railway to railway, dredgers, motor-boats, even a sailing-boat or two. Among them, with that majesty that only a liner entering a harbour has, she went. A goddess entering fairyland.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.