The blog “Going Coastal” has a wonderful post about the Staten Island ferry. Going Coastal is a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people and coastal resources by raising awareness of the immense value of the coastal environment. For those who have ridden the ferry without thinking much about its beautiful journey or for those considering taking the ferry to Staten Island and back to lower Manhattan, read this piece, which covers history:

“People have been traveling to Staten Island by some sort of boat for centuries. In 1609 Henry Hudson, the explorer, named it Staaten Eyelandt, in honor of the Dutch Parliament. The American Indian population on the island resisted settlement attempts in three battles: the Pig War, over accusations that Raritan Indians had stolen settlers’ pigs; the Whiskey War, over a distillery; and the Peach War that erupted when a woman from the Aquehongan tribe allegedly stole a settler’s peach. Though the indigenous peoples didn’t believe in owning land, they would soon enough be edged out by the Dutch and then the English.

Launch of a landmark

The first regular ferry service was a sailing ship set up by 16-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1810. He eventually built a transportation empire worth $100-million. By 1816, steam ferry service was available, but because the fare was 12½ cents each way, it was mainly used by wealthy Staten Islanders. Staten Island became a borough of New York City in 1898, and then, in 1905, the city took control of the ferry.

Though the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, completed in 1964, connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, the ferry remains the only link to Manhattan. It used to carry cars, too, but that service was discontinued after 9/11.”

Literary ties:

“The poetry of memory

Edna St. Vincent Millay immortalized the Staten Island Ferry in her poem Recuerdo, which means “memory,” written in 1919. The first two lines of her poem are printed in large letters on the wall of the Whitehall Terminal, which opened in 2005:

We were very tired, we were very merry

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.”

I grew up in Manhattan, but have two distinct memories of the Staten Island ferry. One was going to and from Catholic boarding school, which was on Staten Island. More often, my mother’s husband drove us over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I remember riding the ferry home in the middle of the week from school. The school called my mom to have her pick me up. Fortunately, she worked in lower Manhattan, so the ferry was a quick walk from her office. I’d come down with what was then called German measles, now better known as rubella. On the trip back to Manhattan, an elderly woman leaned her face into mine, which was covered with red spots. “Your kid has something wrong with her,” she said. My mother replied, “She’s contagious.” The woman pulled back quickly and said nothing more as she walked away. I missed about another week or two of school. When I returned to SJVA, several kids in my class were absent. They too had rubella. I had been the first.

I’m sad to find out that the ferry no longer allows cars and other motor vehicles. My other memory is of a happier time, two years later when I was enrolled in the Educational Alliance (Edgies) day camp. Every summer weekday, we’d board school buses, which were driven onto the ferry, on the Lower East Side. After our ferry ride, the buses drove–more like raced each other–through the island to Henry Kaufman Campground, where we spent the day. For lunch, I brought cream cheese and grape jelly sandwiches, which tasted so good after a morning of arts & crafts, games and other activities.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey or Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number (HAER NY,24-BROK,57-7)One of the enduring images for SJVA boarders was the tollbooth plaza of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We could see it from the back fence outside our dorm. Every Sunday afternoon, my mother’s husband drove his Impala through those booths. I sat in the backseat of the smoke-filled car, my stomach churning, the lump in my throat growing, with each landmark we passed. I felt so small back there—even tinier than I was then. At 7 years old, I weighed barely 35 pounds or so.

Every Sunday during the school year, our journey began in Ozone Park, Queens, where my mother and I lived in an apartment next to the elevated “A” train. I came home on Friday nights, always relieved to be back. By Saturday night, I was dreading the next day: my departure once again. Our route to school took us from Queens through Brooklyn to the Verrazano. The bridge was new, opened to traffic three years before, in 1964. Named after Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian explorer who was the first European to sail through the Narrows in 1524, the bridge is an imposing light grey span with 693-foot towers. Unlike New York City’s grander bridges, the Verrazano looked cold, a spare feat of engineering. A sum of bolts, steel and asphalt.

When we reached the bridge, I could feel my world—or what could be my world had I been like other kids, a day student, with two parents, maybe some just-baked cookies to greet me after school—shrink away behind me. Although the bridge connected two boroughs, I viewed it more as something that was a boundary—disconnected from home, from my mother. Cross that bridge, and I was deposited into the charge of Sr. Claire. She oversaw the boarders who were attending elementary school. At that moment, passing through the tollbooths, I felt abandoned and isolated. I was thrust into a place where I had even less control than any child could have.

I’d try my best not to cry. After my freshly washed uniforms, white blouses and gloves, knee socks and underwear with little white tags bearing my name sewn in at the waist by my mother, and my shoes were placed into my closet, and after my bed was re-made with clean linens, my mother and her boyfriend would leave. And I would run out to the back of the dorm, embraced only by the chilly autumn dusk,to glimpse their car passing through the tollbooth and watch until the Impala became too small to see.

I hope to start a conversation with women who were sent away to a Catholic boarding school, especially if you attended St. John Villa Academy in Staten Island, NY. Ours was a unique experience. I can still summon myriad feelings of isolation, abandonment, loneliness, fear, etc., even though I was a boarder back in the Sixties. My time there for two years (1967-1969) and at St. Mary’s Academy (1966-67) in Lakewood, NJ, have stayed with me always. I loved attending grammar school, but hated being a boarder. I long dreamed of the day I would become a day student, someone who could go return to a real home every day after school and be greeted with love, not a stern nun, strict regulations and more regimentation.