The Staten Island ferry, on a fine afternoon in summer, is one of the pleasantest scenes which New York affords. The Island, seven miles distant from the city, forms one of the sides of the Narrows, through which the commerce of the city and the emigrant ships enter the magnificent bay that so worthily announces the grandeur of the New World. The ferry-boat, starting from the extremity of Manhattan Island, first gives its passengers a view of the East River, all alive with every description of craft; then, gliding round past Governor’s Island, dotted with camps and crowned with barracks, with the national flag floating above all, it affords a view of the lofty bluffs which rise on one side of the Hudson and the long line of the mast-fringed city on the other; then, rounding Governor’s Island, the steamer pushes its way towards the Narrows, disclosing to view Fort Lafayette, so celebrated of late, the giant defensive works opposite to it, the umbrageous and lofty sides of Staten Island, covered with villas, and, beyond all, the Ocean, lighted up by Coney Island’s belt of snowy sand, glistening in the sun.
Change the scene to fifty-five years ago: New York was then a town of eighty thousand people, and Staten Island was inhabited only by farmers, gardeners, and fishermen, who lived by supplying the city with provisions. No elegant seats, no picturesque villas adorned the hillsides, and pleasure-seekers found a nearer resort in Hoboken. The ferry then, if ferry it could be called, consisted of a few sail-boats, which left the island in the morning loaded with vegetables and fish, and returned, if wind and tide permitted, at night. If a pleasure party occasionally visited Staten Island, they considered themselves in the light of bold adventurers, who had gone far beyond the ordinary limits of an excursion. There was only one thing in common between the ferry at that day and this: the boats started from the same spot. Where the ferry-house now stands at Whitehall was then the beach to which the boatmen brought their freight, and where they remained waiting for a return cargo. That was, also, the general boat-stand of the city. Whoever wanted a boat, for business or pleasure, repaired to Whitehall, and it was a matter of indifference to the boatmen from Staten Island, whether they returned home with a load, or shared in the general business of the port.
It is to one of those Whitehall boatmen of 1810, that we have to direct the reader’s attention. He was distinguished from his comrades on the stand in several ways. Though master of a Staten Island boat that would carry twenty passengers, he was but sixteen years of age, and he was one of the handsomest, the most agile and athletic, young fellows that either Island could show. Young as he was, there was that in his face and bearing which gave assurance that he was abundantly competent to his work. He was always at his post betimes, and on the alert for a job. He always performed what he undertook. This summer of 1810 was his first season, but he had already an ample share of the best of the business of the harbor.