Numismatic Musing on the Staten Island Ferry

The half-hour that I spend every workday morning and evening on the ferry traversing the five miles of the Upper Bay of New York harbor from my home in Staten Island to Manhattan and back again affords plenty of time to enjoy the views, catch up on reading, or simply ponder the history of the City and its port. The Staten Island Ferry remains the best public transportation option around: free to all passengers and plenty of space to socially distance on the 300 foot-long, multi-decked vessels (fig. 1).

Figure 1. ANS Chief Curator Peter van Alfen on his way into Manhattan onboard his favorite Staten Island ferryboat, John F. Kennedy, launched in 1965.

Long before the consolidation of Greater New York City in 1898, Richmond County, as Staten Island is officially named, was home to farmers, oystermen, and wealthy Manhattanites who built hill-top estates as getaways. John Anthon bought such an estate in 1838 atop Grymes Hill. There he entertained friends and family including former New York mayor Philip Hone, who recounted in his famed diary an enjoyable day (July 8, 1839) spent with the Anthons. John’s son Charles (fig. 2), who was ANS President 1867–1870 and 1873–1883, also became enamored with Staten Island spending a great deal of his time exploring its hills, valleys, shores, and villages compiling notes for a history he intended to publish. He never did, but even after his father sold the estate, he still regularly took a ferry back to the island to continue his historical research. Charles Anthon’s historical notes now are in the collection of the Staten Island Museum.

Figure 2. The Charles Edward Anthon medal (1884) struck by the ANS in honor of its former President. ANS 0000.999.3361.

A mile or so to the north of Anthon’s place, but down on the waterfront, was the estate of John Quentin Jones, president of The Chemical Bank from 1844 to 1878, who wiled away a good number of hours in his Manhattan office signing bank notes (fig. 3). His Staten Island garden received praise in the September 1856 issue (p. 402) of the influential Horticulturist, a journal of rural art and taste founded by the father of American landscape design, Alexander Jackson Downing.

Figure 3. Fig. 3: 1859 dollar bank note issued by The Chemical Bank signed by John Quentin Jones. ANS 0000.999.12795.

Throughout the 19th century, the ferry service between Staten Island and lower Manhattan that Anthon and Jones regularly used lay in the hands of private companies, each of which generally serviced just one part of Staten Island. Before Robert Fulton’s launch of the steamboat Clermont in 1807, ferry service around the harbor moved at a snail’s pace entirely at the whim of wind and current, or the endurance of men rowing or poling the boats. In the best of circumstances a trip from Manhattan to Staten Island might have taken an hour or two; in the worst the better part of a day. Staten Islander Cornelius Vanderbilt (fig. 4) initiated his sailing ferry service on the east shore facing Manhattan in 1810 at the age of sixteen, but as quickly as his fortunes and the Robert Fulton-Robert Livingston monopolies on steam ferry service would allow, he switched over to paddlewheel ferries that could reliably make the trip in 30 minutes. The origins of Vanderbilt’s enormous fortune lay in this ferry service, which was lucrative enough to attract competition. Former New York governor and US Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins (d. 1825) was one such competitor; he owned a great deal of land in Staten Island including what is today Tompkinsville where he built a ferry landing a mile or two from Vanderbilt’s for the paddlewheel ferryboat Nautilus he partially owned. 

Figure 4. 1865 medal issued by the US Congress to honor Cornelius Vanderbilt for his 1862 gift of the steamship Vanderbilt to the Union Navy. ANS 0000.999.18300.

By the 1850s, as Vanderbilt moved on to other pursuits, George Law became a central figure offering an east shore ferry service using both Vanderbilt’s and Tompkins’ old landings through his New York and Staten Island Steam Ferry Co. (fig. 5), and was also buying up tracts of land formerly owned by Tompkins elsewhere along the eastern waterfront.

Figure 5. The Josephine launched in 1852 for service with the New York and Staten Island Steam Ferry Co. Drawing by Samuel Ward Staton, a Staten Island-based marine artist, who lost his life in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

Law had other interests as well that lay well beyond Staten Island. With two other financiers he founded the U.S. Mail Steamship Co. in 1848, which transported passengers and cargo from New York to Aspinwall (today Colón), Panama, where they crossed the isthmus to board the San Francisco-bound ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., founded by William Henry Aspinwall, who incidentally also owned an estate on Staten Island. In 1852, U.S. Mail launched the sidewheel steamship S.S. George Law, which five years later was renamed the S.S. Central America. On a return trip to New York in 1857, S.S. Central America foundered in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina. The loss of the ship and its cargo of tons of Californian gold spurred the financial Panic of 1857. Since the shipwreck’s discovery in 1988 the legal battles over the recovery of the gold, including coins, have been endless (fig. 6).

Figure 6. 1852 gold 5-dollar coin recovered from the wreck of the S.S. Central America. ANS 2000.1.3.4.

Yet another maritime tragedy haunted George Law. In 1871, his company’s ferryboat Westfield suffered a catastrophic boiler explosion that killed scores and injured hundreds as the boat was docking in Manhattan. This event dramatically underscored just how awful the service had become after the Civil War with its decrepit and unreliable boats, something Staten Islanders had already been grumbling about for years. Law sold his interest in the ferry in 1873.

Salvation for ferry costumers eventually came some years later, or so it seemed, with a Canadian named Erastus Wiman, who settled on Staten Island in a house a short distance from John Q. Jones’s old estate. Wiman sought his own fortune in a scheme to combine the east and north shore ferry services under the banner of the newly formed Staten Island Rapid Transit Co. (SIRT) and build a new landing half way between the east shore Tompkins and north shore New Brighton landings, which would also serve as a railroad terminal. The key to Wiman’s scheme was connecting SIRT’s terminal to a major railroad by bridging Arthur Kill, the narrow waterway between Staten Island and New Jersey, thus providing an alternative train-ferry service for travel between Manhattan and Philadelphia, which at the time the Pennsylvania Railroad all but monopolized. Wiman knew the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad was looking for a toehold in New York and so formulated a plan to realize his scheme with the help of two major players: George Law and Robert Garrett.

Law still owned the waterfront land that Wiman needed for his new ferry landing. He eventually convinced Law to sell by promising, among other things, to name the area, tucked in between Tompkinsville and New Brighton, St. George, the name it still has today. Garrett, on the other hand, was the new president of B&O, a position he held for only a few years after the death of his father in 1884. Robert’s brother Thomas Harrison was the well-known Baltimore-based collector. After T. Harrison’s untimely death in a boating accident in 1888, his coin collection, one of the largest and most significant of the time, was inherited by his teenage sons Robert (an 1896 Olympian) and John, a future U.S. ambassador and Trustee of the ANS. Most, but not all of this collection was serendipitously saved from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 since Robert the Olympian had previously arranged for its temporary loan to Princeton University (fig. 7). Following his brother John’s death in 1942, the collection was bequeathed to Johns Hopkins University, which eventually sold it in a series of noted auctions in the 1970s and 1980s, while many of John’s papers along with those of his father T. Harrison came to the ANS’s archives.

Figure 7. Peace Medals from the Garrett collection partially melted and fused in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. ANS 1923.154.1.

On December 16, 1885, Erastus Wiman feted T. Harrison’s brother Robert at a special dinner at the Pavillion Hotel, Staten Island’s finest located near the future ferry landing, to celebrate their partnership (fig. 8).

Figure 8. Menu cover from the dinner Erastus Wiman hosted for Robert Garrett on December 16, 1885 (New York Public Library).

By the time Robert stepped down as B&O president less than two years later, things were well underway: B&O held a majority stake in the SIRT, two new sophisticated steel-hulled ferry boats were being built in Baltimore, one named Robert Garrett (fig. 9), the other Erastus Wiman, and the Arthur Kill bridge was nearing completion.

Figure 9. Drawing by Samuel Ward Stanton of the ferryboat Robert Garrett, launched in 1888.

The success of the plan, however, lay in Wiman’s ability to generate passenger ticket sales. In order to attract riders to Staten Island he launched a new venture, the Staten Island Amusement Co., that built a large waterfront stadium in St. George next to the ferry landing for baseball games and large-scale spectacles. Imre Kiralfy’s spectacular The Fall of Babylon was presented there with over 1,000 performers.  Wiman also came to an agreement with William F. Cody (fig. 10) to set up his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show farther up the rail line closer to the Arthur Kill bridge at a spot that came to be known as Erastina, named after Wiman. Between 1886 and 1888 nearly two million people took the ferry to Staten Island to see the shows.

Figure 10. 1892 medal depicting William F. Cody (“Buffalo Bill”). ANS 0000.999.32332.

For a while Wiman’s plan was such a success that it drove off some of the wealthy Manhattanites who had long sought refuge on the island. Anson Phelps-Stokes, for example, whose family had since 1868 enjoyed their hilltop estate in New Brighton soon sought new refuge in tony Newport, Rhode Island. As Anson noted in his autobiographical Stokes Record (p. 240):

I found my wife had been disgusted with some conditions at Staten Island, where the opening of the Fall of Babylon show and cheap excursion places had caused the ferry-boats to be overcrowded and had brought a rough element…we never returned to live at Staten Island.

Once re-settled, Phelps-Stokes, in the wake of the financial panic of 1893, wrote a popular book, Joint Metallism, the first edition appearing in 1894, that offered a solution to the gold vs. silver monetary standard problems then plaguing the economy and politics in the US, which came to a head in the 1896 Presidential elections.

By that time Wiman had been disgraced. The 1893 panic helped bankrupt him, but soon he was also charged with forgery; in October 1894 his namesake ferryboat was renamed Castleton as a damnatio memoriae. In 1899, B&O bought out the faltering SIRT, including its ferry operations. Sadly, however, B&O’s management also left a lot to be desired. When two B&O operated ferries collided during the evening rush of June 14, 1901, resulting in the Civil War-era ferryboat Northfield sinking with over 1,000 passengers on board, nearly all of whom were saved, Staten Islanders demanded change.

The solution ultimately was for the City to completely take over B&O’s ferry operations, instituting the City’s first, but not last, publicly owned and operated mass transit service. By 1905, the City had launched five new ferryboats, each named after the five boroughs of the recently consolidated Greater New York. The ferryboat Richmond was the only one of the five to be built in New York. Appropriately enough its keel was laid down on Staten Island at the Burlee Dry Dock Co., where it was launched on May 20, 1905 (fig. 11).

Figure 11. Souvenir medal commemorating the launch of the ferryboat Richmond, May 20, 1905. ANS 000.999.8240.

By October 25th all the new boats were ready and a celebration was held to officially initiate the new service, which was attended by Alderman Reginald S. Doull, a Tammany stalwart. Doull later donated the decoration he wore that day to the ANS (fig. 12).

Figure 12. Decoration worn by Reginald S. Doull for the October 25, 1905 celebration of the City’s new Staten Island ferry service. ANS 0000.999.8251.

A Davis Flight Medal in the ANS Collection

Recently I attended a Long Table hosted by ANS curator Jesse Kraft, who showed a fascinating coin he had come across while working with the Mexico trays in the vault. It was a silver eight real dated 1842, but what makes it interesting are the words inscribed on a silver band added along the circumference of the coin, especially those that say, “Taken from Jefferson Davis the time he was taken prisoner of war.” 

Davis Flight Medal fashioned from an 1842 Silver 8 real, Zacatecas (Mexico). 1939.184.1

Jefferson Davis was the president of the Southern States during the Civil War, and this coin caught my attention because we have a letter in the ANS Archives written by Davis on the same theme. In it he talks about having some valuables “stolen” from him after he was captured at the end of the war. The letter was sent to coin dealer John Walter Scott, who had written to Davis to find out more about the Confederate half dollar proof coins, of which there are four, the first of which surfaced in 1879. (That coin is in the ANS collection.) Davis told Scott that at the time of his capture he had “a Confederate coin” that was in his wife’s trunk, which was “rifled by the Federal Officers sent on board the prison ship on which she was detained.” The one said to be Davis’s was the third Confederate half dollar to surface (in 1936). 

Letter from Jefferson Davis written in response to John Walter Scott’s inquiries about Confederate half dollars.

This Mexican coin was new to me, however, and I wanted to find out more about it. There are other inscriptions on it, and these relate to the early owners of the coin. Along the top of the obverse it reads, “Presented by Mr. Park of Park & Tifford to Geo. Hartley 1864,” and along the bottom it says, “Mrs. Hartley to Daniel F. Myers 1890.” Some light internet searching revealed that Joseph Park (1823-1903) was associated with Park & Tilford, a grocery store founded at 35 Carmine St., Manhattan, in 1840. George Hartley and Daniel Myers proved more elusive. We do know that the coin was given to the ANS by H. C. Hines, but unfortunately, the accession record fails to shed any more light on the donation. A note with the coin says that it was Myers who added the silver band and inscriptions. It also identifies him as a New York jeweler and coin collector.

Davis Flight Medal from the John J. Ford Jr. collection, part 1, Stack’s, October 14, 2003

I did find some great information in the Stack’s auction catalog for part 1 of the John Ford collection (October 14, 2003, p. 239-243), which contains pieces similar to this coin, identifying them as “Davis Flight Medals.”  Some background information is included with the lot descriptions. As the South faced its final defeat, Davis fled with family, servants, and a military guard along with as much as $500,000 in British gold coins, U.S. double eagles, and other valuables—including Mexican eight reales. Like the ANS coin, the flight pieces often have inscriptions indicating how they were obtained—either seized or given by Davis as gifts. As the catalog states, “some are fairly crude engravings on Mexican silver coins, while others are skillfully executed.” 

I’d say the ANS’s coin falls into the “fairly crude” category, but it’s fascinating nonetheless, and I’m hoping to discover more about it.