Slips on the East River

Ships sailing toward New Amsterdam from the East River.
New Amsterdam, 1700. Slips extending from the mainland.
Source: NYPL Digital Collections

During the early days of New Amsterdam, when a ship arrived, it anchored off the East River. Small boats which could handle the shallow river’s muddy edge conveyed the cargo and passengers to shore.

They needed a better option.

Why Slips?

The Dutch did not build wharves on the East River because of its shallow depth, which was impossible for merchant vessels. It also had the tendency to flood area marshes at high tide, making it less than ideal for warehouses and other businesses that relied on shipping. The government offered citizens an incentive by the government to buy up waterfront lots on the East River on the condition that they fill in the shallow water with landfill to make a “‘wharf or street’ of a specified width at the outer edge, but the remainder of the filled land would become theirs to build on.”1 None of the slips were dug out from the riverbed.

Basic map of New York showing the slips along the East River.
Map of the “made and swampland of New York,” 1856. Source: Boston Public Library

Land-making accomplished two goals. First, it extended the shoreline beyond the shallow water near the natural shore so that ships could dock at landside wharves instead of anchoring far out in the East River. Second, the waterfront’s close proximity to the trade ships led to the construction of markets, storefronts, warehouses, and other commercial structures which were conveniently close to landings where farmers could moor their boats and unload livestock and produce for sale. In this way, land-making had a crucial impact on the development of New York’s burgeoning economy.

Archaeological Study of Rutgers Slip, 2009

Construction

Diggers leveled some of Manhattan’s hills, and carters brought the fill to the river’s edge. Log cribbing was used to hold back the fill. Developers brought in Pine and Hemlock from the Hudson Valley. 

The timbers were stacked horizontally, one on top of another, and notched together in a manner similar to how the walls of a log house are built. This technique was a typical way of building wharves in North America from the early 18th through the late 19th centuries.

Archeological Discovery at Burling Slip, 2011
Black and white photograph with warehouses in the background and a slip in the foreground. South Street from Maiden Lane to Burling Slip, New York City, February 23, 1891
Burling Slip, 1891. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The inlets created by the landfill were long arms reaching from the land, creating “alleyways of water.” [NYT] These slips were about two blocks long and about as wide. In this way, larger ships could easily tie up close to the warehouses constructed for this very purpose. 

Some of the cargo brought in during the 18th century was coffee, spices, foods like green bananas, and both necessary and luxury items enjoyed by the colonists. 

The Twelve Slips

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the inhabitants of Manhattan built out twelve slips. Some names for the slips reflected those who owned the land, but others reflected the trade that took place in the markets set up on or near the slips.

View of Market Slip taken from the corner of Cherry St. 1859
View of Market Slip, 1859. Source: NYPL Digital Collections
  1. Whitehall Slip next to Battery at the base of Whitehall St.
    • When the American Revolution ended, George Washington boarded a barge at Whitehall Slip that carried him across to New Jersey. This was the first leg of his farewell procession, taking him home to Mount Vernon in 1783. Along the way, he formally resigned his commission as commander-in-chief.
  2. Exchange Slip at the bottom of Broad Street.
  3. Coenties Slip, at Coenties Alley near Broad Street.
    • Conraet Ten Eyck, a tanner and shoemaker, was an early Dutch landowner. He was nicknamed Coentje, or “Coonchy” to the British. The nickname and spelling stuck.
  4. Old Slip, at the bottom of William Street.
    • Old Slip goes back at least as far as its first appearance on a map in 1691. Its most famous moment in American history came a hundred years later when, in 1792, the 90-ton merchant brig Betsy sailed out of Old Slip to become the first ship to carry the American flag around the world.2
  5. Coffee House Slip, at the bottom of Wall Street. 
    • In 1774, Manhattan held a Tea Party which did not rival Boston’s. The Nancy, loaded with tea, was refused to dock. The captain rowed to shore and stayed at a tavern for two days, then took his ship back to England. And that is why you rarely hear about this event.
  6. Fly Market Slip, at the base of Maiden Lane.
  7. Burling Slip, at the bottom of John Street. (Once known as Rodman’s Slip)
  8. Peck Slip, at the base of Ferry Street.
    • Market boats full of produce and livestock sailed from Long Island, where they were farmed, to Peck Slip. These items were sold at a public market built nearby. There were also warehouses and brick residences for market-men and ship owners.
  9. James Slip, at the end of James Street.
  10. Market Slip at the bottom of Market Street.
  11. Pike Slip at the bottom of Pike St.
  12. Rutgers Slip, at the end of Rutgers Street.
    • This slip was named for Henry Rutgers (1745-1830), whose father owned most of the Lower East Side in the early colonial era. He was an organizer for the Sons of Liberty and fought in the American Revolution.

The End of the Slips

Why wasn’t the Hudson River used as a port in colonial New York?

It wasn’t an ideal choice for sailing ships. Not only was the shore rocky, but it was also too windy and the currents too strong in places. A few wharves existed on the Hudson in the 18th century [Montrésor’s map, 1775], but it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the advent of the steamship, that the Hudson became a busy landing.

At the same time, Manhattan needed more buildable land as its needs expanded. The city began to fill in the slips on the East River. The last slip ended its run in 1900.

Today, the only part of the slips to still exist are their names on street signs.

Street Signs: Coenties Slip and Pearl Street in the Fraunces Tavern Block Historic District.
Source: Forgotten New York

Sources:

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The Manhattan Bridge and The East River, Not a River

When my daughter was in fourth grade, I drove a gaggle of girls to the American Girl Store in Rockefeller Center for her birthday. On the way home, I took a wrong turn and ended up in Brooklyn.

It happens. More than I’d like to admit.

Continue reading “The Manhattan Bridge and The East River, Not a River”