Staten Island Ferry

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Twilight on the Staten Island Ferry

I like standing on the Staten Island Ferry’s deck. It’s my favorite way to get fresh air in New York. Between air conditioning, artificial heat, and subway tunnels, you’re always in one cocoon or another.

The ferry’s breeze soothes summer’s soggy swelter and winter’s crisp kiss colors crimson your cheeks: water, wind, sky, and you. Swirling water is a pleasant sound year-round.

Tourists chat in Japanese around me. They flirt in Portuguese, joke in Turkish, tease in Spanish, whisper in Hindi. A child asks, “Mama, when we leavin’?” in a Carolina low country drawl.

The unwritten code is followed: Locals inside, tourists outside. The gangplank creaks and clangs when lifted.  Metal chains rattle and slither in response. The horn toots. The motors get louder and the water churns faster. Manhattan’s glass and steel fade behind us.

This image shows artist Paul McGehee's rendering of the Staten Island Ferry passing in front of the Statue of Liberty on an overcast day. Although the painting is set in 1952, it has a timeless air to it. The sky is overcast contrasts with the ferry's orange paint.
© Paul McGehee, In his painting Staten Island Ferry, artist Paul McGehee depicts an ordinary, overcast New York Bay. The vehicles aboard the ferry are circa 1950s, emphasizing how Staten Islanders have commuted from their island to points all over NYC or generations.  (You can see more of Paul’s work here.)

15-Minute Voyage Across New York Bay Aboard the Staten Island Ferry

Everyone– Pop! Pop! click-click-click-flash-click-flash-click-Pop! Pop!– takes the Statue of Liberty’s picture when we’re close enough. The old Green Lady poses. She never blinks, never smiles and keeps her arm raised– a true professional.

Black smoke trails off a distant vessel. The sun sets. We are close. Staten Island’s yellowish lights no longer resemble sparkling glass on a dark sidewalk. We dock with a bump at Staten Island’s St. George Terminal. The motor snorts gently, the water hums a soft hymn to Neptune.

Before September 11th, you could remain on the ferry after it docked. Now you have to do the St. George 4-Step: 1. abandon ship 2. enter the terminal 3. wait on line again 4. re-board.

Returning to Manhattan Aboard the Staten Island Ferry

A new set of locals take their seats inside. The same tourists as before reclaim their positions outside. The unwritten code is honored yet again.

Friday night aromas flow freely: Hair spray, old leather, new leather, tobacco, cheap cologne, skin cream, Cabernet-tinged breath, flowery shampoo. We leave for Manhattan.

The Verrazano Bridge’s lights twinkle, twinkle like little stars. Lusty foghorns moan deeply into the night’s dark ear. The haze around the bridge makes our passage feel mysterious.

I think about the millions who passed through the Verrrazano Narrows long before the bridge was built. They, too, listened to this same water churning while pushing and straining to glimpse their new land.

They entered New York Harbor standing in puddles of fear, vomit and hope.  Excited chatter muffled by their rough wool coats scraping against each other. Their loud voices silencing the howl of their twisted, hungry stomachs. The laughter and clapping made toothaches disappear and their tight, full-of-holes shoes feel better.  Ellis Island: Spirits lifted, discomforts forgotten.

Voyage Back to Manhattan Aboard the Staten Island Ferry

rtist Paul McGehee's painting of old New York Harbor. This scene is set in 1908 and shows the variety of vessels that traveled New York's waters.
© Paul McGehee Between 1855 and 1890, immigrants at Castle Clinton (then called Castle Garden), seen in the foreground on the left. Those that arrived between 1892 and 1954 landed at Ellis Island, seen in the center of the background. In the background on the left is the Statue of Liberty. (Image courtesy of Paul McGehee.)


Passing by the Green Lady again, I remember a story a friend told me. His great-grandfather had arrived in New York from Europe. The woman he planned to marry arrived at Ellis Island and was detained. His grandfather had two choices: Wait a few days for her release or swim from New Jersey to Ellis Island every day to see her.

Which did he choose? Ahhhh, love.

Looking around New York Bay, I imagine the winters in the 1700s. The ice would freeze so deep that people walked between Manhattan and Staten Island. Walked! Right past the vessels trapped by ice. And people complain about New York’s winters now?

Manhattan’s lights reflect in the water. When twilight dies, the city’s buildings come to life. They seem bigger and more impressive at night. Still, it’s not the same without the World Trade Center looming.

How do you explain the Twin Towers to someone who never saw them?

See the Staten Island Ferry’s Schedule. It’s free to ride.

The red line in the map below shows the Staten Ferry’s route. For a larger view, click on the square in the map’s upper-right corner and click #7.

Liked this post? Then you may also like: Mythological Origins of Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade

The red line in the map below represents the Staten Island Ferry’s route between Manhattan’s southern tip and the St. George terminal in Staten Island.


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