How can an attraction be both renowned and a hidden gem? The Staten Island Ferry fits this description perfectly. While locals have relied on it for years, many of New York City’s residents and tourists are yet to fully appreciate this exceptional waterway service. The fleet, comprising nine vessels, transports 22 million passengers annually, which is only about one-third of NYC’s total population and visitors.
Offering 117 daily trips with stunning vistas of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, the ferry is more than just a mode of transport; it’s an experience in itself. Plus, it’s absolutely free.
Beginnings of the Staten Island Ferry
Let’s dive into a brief history of the Staten Island Ferry.
In the early 19th century, before the advent of bridges and tunnels, people moved between boroughs on private sailboats known as periaugers. In 1810, a 16-year-old entrepreneur from Staten Island named Cornelius Vanderbilt (yes, of the Vanderbilt family) used his birthday money to buy a periauger for cargo transportation during the War of 1812. Later, he would finance the construction of Grand Central Terminal and Vanderbilt University, but this was his humble beginning.
In 1817, the Richmond Turnpike Company launched the first motorized ferry service connecting Manhattan and Staten Island. Eventually, Vanderbilt himself took ownership of the company until the City of New York took control in 1905. By then, several private firms had been operating ferry routes between Staten Island, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, including the renowned Tompkins & Staples Ferry and the New York & Staten Island Ferry Company. However, due to the rise of automobiles in the early 20th century, ferry use declined, and all routes from Brooklyn ceased by the mid-1960s.
By 1967, almost all NYC ferries had shut down, succumbing to competition from car traffic. But one exception held promise for New York’s ferry future.
The Modern Staten Island Ferry
The enduring ferry line is the one from St. George Terminal in Staten Island to Whitehall in Manhattan, which continues to operate today. While Staten Island is connected to the mainland via the Goethals Bridge through New Jersey and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge through Brooklyn, the ferry remains the quickest and most direct route to Manhattan.
Operating 24/7, the Staten Island Ferry runs every 30 minutes during the half hour and every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each ferry can accommodate about 5,000 passengers, with daily ridership often exceeding 70,000 people.
The ferry also played a vital role in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The emergency responders made use of ferries to evacuate individuals from the World Trade Center and downtown Manhattan. Following the tragedy, the Staten Island Ferry resumed service after just one week, albeit with restrictions on vehicle traffic for safety reasons.
Sights to Enjoy Aboard the Staten Island Ferry
If you’re new to the Staten Island Ferry, you might need some guidance to fully appreciate the sights. As you depart from Manhattan, the first breathtaking views can be found on the port side towards Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge takes center stage, providing a stunning backdrop for the DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods.
Around five minutes into the journey, the ferry moves far enough from Manhattan for One World Trade Center (also known as Freedom Tower) to make a striking entrance, with the Hudson River lining Manhattan’s west side. Head to the starboard side for impressive views of New Jersey across the river. Be patient and hold onto your spot, as the ferry sails past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, offering one of the best vistas in NYC.
Pro tip: The excitement doesn’t end after passing the statue. Keep an eye out for the bustling shipyards in New Jersey, as you never know what interesting freighter might sail by.
Additionally, from the Brooklyn side, you can catch a glimpse of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, one of the world’s longest suspension bridges and part of the NYC Marathon route.
Remember that New York Harbor is a saltwater harbor and a bustling port. You’ll often see naval ships and renowned ocean liners gracing the bay. While the seagulls above are hard to miss, don’t forget to observe the waters below. Sightings of dolphins are not uncommon, and there have even been instances of blue whales venturing as far as the Hudson River.
Common Questions About the Staten Island Ferry
It’s clear why the ferry might be considered a “best-kept secret” for visitors. While people are aware of its existence, many tourists (and even locals) don’t see it as an attraction. But it truly is.
Below are some answers to frequently asked questions that we, as guides, often encounter:
The Reason Behind the Staten Island Ferry’s Free Service
This is indeed an interesting story with a rich history.
For the majority of its existence, the Staten Island Ferry charged a fare. In 1990, the cost was around $0.50 for a one-way trip. This understandably upset Staten Island resident, as they had to pay for the ferry as well as additional subway or bus fares upon reaching Manhattan. The situation escalated, and Staten Island even threatened to secede from New York City. Surprisingly, the proposal made it all the way to Albany, the state capital, where it was nearly passed into law.
Fortunately, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani intervened. In 1997, as part of the MTA’s “one-city, one-fare” transfer initiative, Giuliani announced that Staten Island transit riders could pay a single fare on a Staten Island bus or train and receive a free transfer to a Manhattan bus or train via the ferry at no extra cost, and vice versa. As a result, rival ferry services went bankrupt, and the Staten Island Ferry established itself as the clear and uncontested leader.
Taking a Round-Trip on the Staten Island Ferry
Yes and no. When leaving Manhattan, the journey to Staten Island takes approximately 25-30 minutes. Upon arriving at the St. George Terminal, the ferry docks, and all passengers must disembark, so you cannot stay onboard.
To complete a full round-trip, all you need to do is walk through the terminal to the departure gates on the Staten Island end and then board the next ferry heading back to Manhattan. With a bit of skill and luck, you might time it just right and avoid a layover. However, sometimes factors outside your control may cause delays, so allocate an extra 30 minutes to be safe.
Layovers aren’t all bad—the Staten Island terminal features concession stands, restrooms, and often live entertainment from local performers. However, it’s advisable to avoid drinking from the water fountains, as they are popular among New York’s pigeon population.
Exploring the New York Harbor by Ferry
Today, the Staten Island Ferry holds the title of the busiest ferry route in the United States and the busiest passenger-only ferry system globally. Its significance to the city is immense, making it an unmissable part of any New York tour.
Over the years, officials have proposed various alternatives, including bridges, express ferries, and an unbuilt tunnel connecting Staten Island to Manhattan. Nevertheless, the Staten Island Ferry continues to be the quickest, most dependable, and arguably the most scenic mode of transportation to travel between the two boroughs. From carrying cargo during the War of 1812 to aiding in rescue efforts during one of the nation’s most devastating events, the ferry has proudly served for over a century. New York simply wouldn’t be the same without it.