My novel, The Unicorn Tree, opens on a pier filled with people who have gathered to celebrate a restored clipper setting sail on a commemorative transatlantic voyage. Jugglers, musicians, and food vendors, scattered throughout the crowd, add to the festivities. Families, friends, and visitors watch as the ship floats gently out into the harbor. Her speed increases as her sails are unfurled, urging her on toward the open sea. This scene could be from any port where tall ships once docked, but much of this was inspired by my experiences at South Street Seaport in New York.
South Street was once known as the Street of Ships, so named because tall ships used to line the waterfront of lower Manhattan with their bowsprits extending high over the street. Majestic clippers, towering several stories above other vessels, came from around the world carrying passengers and supplies to and from this well-known port. The surrounding neighborhood included counting houses, warehouses, taverns, hotels, and the Fulton Fish Market. Passengers, seamen, fishmongers, and merchants were but some of the people who frequented the area.
Even though modern times have brought changes to South Street Seaport, it is possible to still get a sense of the busy port during the days of tall ships. Several organizations have spent years, even several decades, actively preserving old buildings along the waterfront and the tall ships that frequented New York Harbor. Some groups have focused on the history of sailing and seamanship, while others have documented their research on customs and items from long ago such as styles of clothing, furniture, and food.
What is it about a place called South Street Seaport that continues to hold people’s interest? For me, it’s the sound of the water lapping against the pier and the stillness before the stores and restaurants open. It’s a place that changes with the times, yet stays constant to its maritime history. The tall ships and exhibits, comprising South Street Seaport Museum, give visitors a sense of long ago while modern tour boats and water taxis bring us back to present day.
The museum’s fleet of ships include two nineteenth-century schooners, Pioneer (1885), used for public and educational harbor sails, and Lettie G. Howard (1893), used as a training ship. The tallest ship, Peking (1911), is visible for blocks before reaching the pier. Her seventeen-story masts rise above the rooftops as a beacon signaling shelter. She survived rounding Cape Horn and now is used as part of the museum’s education programs and special events.
To learn more about South Street Seaport, please visit South Street Seaport Museum’s website.