Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction New York Connected The Oak Port Traffic
6: The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s

Port Traffic

New York Harbor has long been one of the busiest in the world. In 1920, oceangoing steamers entered or left the port about every 20 minutes. Coastal freighters, harbor tugs, river steamers, and other ships shared the water and the piers that lined Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the New Jersey banks of the Hudson River. These ship models represent vessels that were part of New York’s busy harbor traffic in the 1920s.

New York City skyline and the Hudson River piers, about 1911
New York City skyline and the Hudson River piers, about 1911
The schooner R.R. Govin, 1933
The schooner R.R. Govin, 1933
Schooner C.C. Mengel Jr., 1916
Schooner C.C. Mengel Jr., 1916

Schooners

Large wooden schooners were the primary carriers of bulk cargos—coal, lumber, stone, ice—at the end of the 19th century. By the 1920s, steamers had taken over most of this trade. Among the schooners still working was the C.C. Mengel Jr., which operated out of New York between 1919 and 1921. With a crew of eight, it carried lumber, clay, pilings, gypsum, barrel staves, and asphalt among ports from Nova Scotia to Ireland to the West Indies. It was wrecked in 1922.

Passenger Liners

New York was connected to California by water as well as by railroad. The California was the first passenger ship specifically built to sail between the East and West Coasts through the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914. In a leisurely 13 days, the California and its crew of 351 carried 751 passengers from New York to San Francisco, calling at Havana, Cuba; Balboa, Panama; San Diego; and Los Angeles.

The California steaming through the Panama Canal, about 1930
The California steaming through the Panama Canal, about 1930
Intercoastal passenger liner California, 1928
Intercoastal passenger liner California, 1928
Tugboat in the East River, about 1915
Tugboat in the East River, about 1915
Harbor tugboat Brooklyn
Harbor tugboat Brooklyn

Tugboats

New York’s tugboats maneuvered large oceangoing vessels through the hazards of confined docks, and towed barges and scows across the harbor. The railroads owned dozens, boats like the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Brooklyn, which shepherded floats of boxcars from New Jersey rail yards to freight terminals in Manhattan.

Lighters and Barges

Huge amounts of cargo flowed through the Port of New York. Small lighters and barges frequently moved it from ship to shore. The lighter Mauch Chunk, equipped with its lifting derrick, connected waiting freighters to the waterfront freight yards of the Central Railroad of New Jersey.

Central Railroad of New Jersey No. 30 moving crated automobiles at a waterfront railroad spur.
Central Railroad of New Jersey No. 30 moving crated automobiles at a waterfront railroad spur.
Harbor lighter Mauch Chunk, 1912
Harbor lighter Mauch Chunk, 1912
Excursion steamer Hendrick Hudson, 1906
Excursion steamer Hendrick Hudson, 1906
Hendrick Hudson passing the Highlands of the Hudson River, about 1915
Hendrick Hudson passing the Highlands of the Hudson River, about 1915

Excursion Steamers

Passenger boats connected New York City to points across the ocean, along the East Coast, deep into New York State, and just across the harbor. The Hendrick Hudson ran pleasure excursions up the Hudson River to Albany between 1906 and 1948. In the early 1920s it carried as many as 5,500 leisure travelers on each of its 9-hour trips.

What Happened Next?

What Happened to New York?

America has been involved in global trade since colonial times. In the first half of the 19th century, the United States exported raw materials and imported manufactured goods. As the country industrialized, it became a major exporter of factory-produced items, from sewing machines to cars. In recent years, it has again imported manufactured goods, and exported agricultural products and financial and computer-related services. The United States has been a major player in international economy since the 1880s.

New York City has been central to the story of America’s international trade. In the 1920s, half of America’s imports and exports moved through the city. But New York’s role as a port began declining in the 1960s as containerships moved to terminals elsewhere in the area, and New York’s transportation problems made it harder to get trucks and trains from the ports out of the city. Ocean liners no longer carried millions of immigrants to New York. Manufacturers moved out of the city, looking for cheaper labor.

But New York reinvented itself as a new kind of global city. More than ever, it is a center of international finance, banking, art, culture, and professional services. The new New York is a city tied to the world economy not only by the goods it manufactures, buys, sells, and transports, but also by the ideas, culture, and financial and information services
it produces.

Aerial view of containership facilities at Port Newark/Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, early 1980s
Aerial view of containership facilities at Port Newark/Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, early 1980s
Next Section
National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | Buy the Book | E-mail Signup | Credits