Before bridges, subways and roadways – not to mention photography, movies, television and the Internet – the iconic image most people had of Brooklyn was this view up Fulton Street, proceeding south from the ferry landing along what was once known only as the Ferry Road.
Brooklyn itself began here in the early 1600s, and remained for over two centuries the primary egress not only for people, but for the endless stream of horse-drawn carts bound for New York City from Long Island farms. Even Brooklyn’s one-time reputation as “the city of churches” would have been encouraged by this perspective from just a block further, as a goodly number of the holy edifices were suitably situated at the top of the elevation just a few blocks on, looming like beacons to those walking or riding the omnibus up the avenue. The two most prominent of these, St. Ann’s and St. John’s, would be demolished for the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Ferry service began as needed in 1642, but did not become regular until Robert Fulton’s steam-powered ferryboat was introduced in 1814. The increasing trade pollinated local manufacturing to supplement the export of grain and produce at the river, and wealthy New York merchants and professional men had started eyeing the verdant land on the western bluff, which become known as Brooklyn Heights. Consequently, Fulton Street became something of a dividing line between classes in Brooklyn, and even if it was more theoretical than actual (there was a solid contingent of working class to the west of Fulton, and plenty of wealth to the east), the political makeup of the city reflected this geography quite closely.
Landfill was used to improve mooring areas around the landing and to provide more warehouse space. Coal yards, hotels, oyster houses, an iron foundry, a marble yard, a wood yard, a flour mill, an ice house, banks and distilleries provided the ancillary businesses to make the Fulton Landing one of the most thriving ports on the eastern seaboard before the Civil War. The brick Empire Stores, today among the most picturesque aspects of the cinematic Dumbo neighborhood, grew after the war for storage of tobacco and coffee. Completion of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges sharply diminished passenger ferry traffic until the Fulton Ferry finally ceased regular service in 1924, nearly three-hundred years after the first commercial crossings.
Whitman would have known this view like the back of his hand, not only because of his well-known penchant for the ferry crossing itself, but because the Daily Eagle offices were located on this block; first on the east side (probably the sixth building from the left, now gone), then later across the street. The move occurred during Whitman’s tenure as editor; the Eagle Warehouse condominiums now stand where the publication offices were.
FLOOD-TIDE of the river, flow on! I watch you, face to face,
Clouds of the west! sun half an hour high! I see you also
face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes,
how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross
are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more
to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose…
Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west,
and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small
from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856)
This view today:
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