Old Streets of New York
Wharves, Piers and SlipsThe entries in this guide include several kinds of waterfront structures: wharves, piers, slips, docks, basins and bridges. The meanings of some of these terms have shifted over time. More often, popular usage did not keep up with physical reality. The best example of this is Crane Wharf, which was called a wharf long after it had become a pier, and continued to be called a wharf long after flanking landfill had turned the pier into a city street.
A wharf is normally a structure built parallel to the shore. Another word for wharf is key, from the French quay. In colonial times the meanings of the word bridge included what most Americans would now call a dock or a pier. It was generally a timber structure supported by wooden piles. A pier was originally a type of structural support, usually of masonry or stone and rectangular in cross section. One or more piers might be sunk in the water to support a strong platform, usually perpendicular to the shore, that ships could moor alongside. Around 1800 the word pier started to be used for the entire platform rather than just the support.
A dock was a sheltered mooring place, enclosed by breakwaters or other structures except for a narrow entrance. If its entrance could be sealed and the dock pumped out, it was called a dry dock. Otherwise it was a wet dock. By the end of the 18th Century a wet dock started to be called a basin, while dock has come to mean either the sheltered water area between piers or the pier itself.
All ships arriving in early New Amsterdam originally had to anchor in the East River. Their cargo and passengers were transferred to small boats to be rowed to the beach. The city's first wharf, providing a hard edge at which ships could anchor and offload, was built by Peter Stuyvesant near Whitehall Street in about 1648. Later on shoreline landowners along Pearl Street were given incentives to fill in the shallows in front of their properties. They had to leave a "wharf or street" of a specified width at the outer edge, but the remainder of the filled land would become theirs to build on.
In a maritime city, a wharf could be a prestigious business address. Wharves were customarily named after the adjacent owner. Names changed fairly often as properties were bought and sold. More confusingly, an entrepreneur might have two or more wharves named after him at the same time.
The line of wharves was broken by gaps, called slips, to allow access to the shoreline by small craft such as ferries and farmers' market boats. There were markets at most of the slips at one time or another.
As wharves were built out into deeper water, they could accommodate larger ships. But wharves alone could not provide sufficient space for the city's growing port traffic. Piers were therefore built perpendicular to the wharves. But often a wharf continued to be called a wharf even after it had become a pier.
About 1796 the city decided that South Street and West Street, both of which were then in the planning stage, would be the permanent exterior streets along the East River and Hudson River waterfronts. No buildings would be allowed beyond them. In 1801 the city ordered construction of a series of 200-foot-long piers to be built out from the new bulkhead at South Street. The city also mandated a system of pier numbering to replace the confusion of pier and wharf names. But names apparently continued to be used, since the order had to be repeated in 1815. By 1850 all of the slips below Corlears Hook, with the exception of Coenties Slip, had been closed and filled in to permit the completion of South Street. Although they are now city streets or squares, most of these filled-in areas are still called slips.
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© 2005 by Gilbert Tauber