The South Street Seaport Museum, near the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan, will be celebrating its first 50 years on Saturday, April 29, 2017, as New York City’s iconic maritime museum of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The event is from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the ringing of the 1907 lightship Ambrose bell at 1 p.m. The museum, founded by Peter and Norma Stanford, serves as a reminder to visitors of the important role shipping played in shaping America.
Prior to the 20th century, ships provided the only way to cross oceans. South Street was, at one time, called the Street of Ships because of the number of ships docked on any given day from foreign and U.S. ports. Bowsprits stretched over the street as if forming a canopy and the masts of clipper ships towered above everything else. Vessels carried passengers and goods such as tea, porcelain, furniture, and rice, with either New York as a final destination or continued travel to other parts of the country.
Financial transactions and storage of the arriving goods were handled at Schermerhorn Row–a block of warehouses completed in 1812 by New York merchant and ship owner, Peter Schermerhorn. This row of buildings was constructed on landfill after he acquired the rights to a water lot. The landfill had not completely settled before construction began which meant that the floors were not always level.
The seaport was at its busiest during the mid to late 19th century. The nearest hotel was in part of Schermerhorn Row; saloons were nearby. Area business boomed during this time by way of land and water. Sailing ships were eventually replaced by larger steam ships which signaled a change at South Street. The newer ships needed to dock in deeper water, thus favoring the Hudson River piers of Manhattan’s West Side and Hoboken, New Jersey. The first half of the 20th century saw a very different South Street Seaport—one where the Fulton Fish Market was still flourishing but the various piers were shadows of a bygone era.
Preservation would prevent the visible evidence of the seaport’s history from being swept away. The Stanfords set about creating a museum for that purpose. They formed the Friends of South Street Seaport to help raise money and awareness about the area’s history. Not only were the old buildings preserved, but historic ships from other ports were purchased to become part of the museum fleet. The museum opened in 1967.
Through the years, the museum has faced both fair winds and storm-tossed seas. Ship restoration, sail training aboard 19th-century vessels, educational programs for school children, rotating exhibits relating to maritime life and types of goods imported are all very positive experiences. The museum has also been through the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Sandy, and fending off various developers. Today, she is back, proving that she is a survivor. Under the leadership of Capt. Jonathan Boulware, Executive Director, South Street Seaport Museum is stronger than ever.
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