Local News

May 23, 2010

Ferry tour of Manhattan a great deal

Pieter Minuit, director-general of New Netherland, got quite a deal when he paid the Lanape Indian tribe $24 for hilly, undeveloped Manhattan Island in 1626.

For just about the same price, one can circumnavigate Manhattan today by boat on the Circle Line. And it's still a bargain.

My wife, Marty, and I boarded at Pier 83, at the end of 42nd Street. Our tour along the island's 35-mile perimeter would pass a remarkable number of American icons.


Our guide, John Keatts — not quite a native of New York, as he moved there as a young adult — gave a spirited narration throughout the three-hour cruise. He began by spewing out a bit of geology, reminding us how the presence of bedrock determined where the tallest buildings could go. And he described changes in topography, such as the conjunction of shale and limestone underpinnings.

Most of those natural hills, some of which once separated, say, Chelsea from Greenwich Village, are gone in favor of a grid pattern of streets. Broadway's atypical course is the only thoroughfare still following those original contours. The only canyons left on Manhattan are formed by skyscrapers. Some areas, most notably Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, stand entirely on landfill.

Look across to Ellis Island, our guide urged, where the forebears of millions of Americans first entered the country. And there's the majestic Statue of Liberty, unique as a monument commemorating an ideal rather than a hero or an event. Even from a tour boat, one can imagine what immigrants felt upon seeing Lady Liberty, their first sight of a new country after a long and crowded ocean voyage.

A round brick building caught my eye. This turned out to be part of Governor's Island, where a young America built the largest fortress ever to guard New York City. Later, we would pass Roosevelt Island, formerly known as Welfare Island. In bygone days, a prison, an almshouse, a "lunatic asylum," an alcohol rehabilitation center and a smallpox hospital occupied the grounds. Now redevelopment is at hand.

We neared the Brooklyn Bridge, creation of engineer John Roebling and generally considered the handsomest of three spans crossing to Brooklyn. At its completion in 1882, it stretched twice the length of any other bridge in the world. Vents signified the Lincoln Tunnel, a six-lane highway beneath the waters of the Hudson River. The 59th Street Bridge, memorialized in song by Paul Simon, denotes where New York City Marathon runners first hit Manhattan.

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