Sea History 014 - Summer 1979

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Completed in 1870, Atlantic Basin held up to 130 seagoing vessels, come to pick up Midwest grain and flour brought in by rhe Erie Canal. Courtesy N Y Dock Railway.

New Life for Atlantic Docks By Paul F. Van Wicklen Brookl yn was known as th e "Walled Ci ty " during th e late 1800s, when an almost solid line o f warehouses lined it s East Ri ver waterfront, fro m the Na vy Yard a rea of Wallabout Basi n, so uthward to the Atlantic Basin / Red Ho o k Point area. The three miles of storage buildings were a n excellent barometer of th e City of Brooklyn 's prosperit y. As repositories for ship loads of imports-coffee, tobacco, molasses, suga r, hid es, wool and various ge neral ca rgo - the warehouses were a perfect co mplement to a n eq ua lly lo ng line of piers an d quays in front of th em, As a major city in its own ri ght prior to becoming part o f the C ity of New York in 1898, Brooklyn had a thri vin g industri a l base of over 10,000 factories. The output of these pla nts helped fill th e holds of vessels clearing th e Brook lyn docks. Grain from the Midwest also held th ese ships deep in th e water as th ey cleared New York Harbor, gra in that had traversed the Erie Ca nal a nd Hudso n Ri ver before rend ezvousin g a t Brooklyn terminals such as At lantic Basin . The Atlanti c Basin and adj ace nt Red Hook / Gowanu s area handled most o f New York 's fabulous gra in trade of th e 1800s, a trade that a mounted to so me 157 milli o n bushels in 1898. Atlantic Bas in had nin e " first class" stea m elevators to tran sfer 30

gra in from ca na l boa ts int o ocea n-go in g vessels or to its warehouses during th e 1870s . Each of th ese elevators co uld unload a ca na l boat in three hours, a nd a well built Atlantic Basin warehouse co uld store two million bu she ls at one time. Flour, too , was accommodated in prodi gious qu a ntiti es prior to ex port. And the number o f ships berthing there a century ago is a lmost unbelieva ble by current standards. Record s sho w that as ma ny as 130 sea-goin g vessels were ti ed up there at one tim e. On another occasion som e 600 ca nal boats and 50 ocean-goin g ships so mehow fo und berthing space within th e basin. Atlantic Bas in was created, litera ll y carved out o f that so uth ern ex tremit y of th e East Ri ve r known as Butt erm ilk Channel, by Daniel Ri chards, a successful entrepreneur from upstat e New York who moved to New York C it y abo ut 1830. To escape th e "cholera seaso n" there, he moved to Broo kl yn during 1832. Envisioning the growth potenti a l of Brooklyn , he almost immediately began acquirin g real estate in South Brooklyn and planning the future Atlantic Bas in . Atlantic Dock Compa ny was formed in 1840, much to th e chagrin of dock interes ts in Manh a tta n, where th e piers were owned by th e municipalit y a nd by

so me acco unt s not in th e bes t o r shape. But in spite of opposition from Manhattan interests in th e state legislature , Rich a rd s' plans for th e Atlantic Dock s we nt a head. They called for 40 ac res of water to be surrounded by wharves on all sides with a 200-foot-wide inlet from Buttermilk C hann el. Warehouses were to cover a ll sides o f the "C-shaped" basin. Steam-powered dredges were used to do the la rge amo unt of excavation required that would provide a 20-foot depth at low tid e a nd suffi cient space fo r I00 " large vesse ls." Ri chards borrowed his plan from one used in th e development of the Li ve rp ool Docks in Engla nd, with th e exception of a lock that was needed in Liverpoo l to prese rve suffici ent water depth at low tide. All of th e dredged material was used in com bin a ti o n with la rge sto nes to form th e foundations of th e warehouses. James S. T. Stranah a n was placed in charge of th e warehouse co nstruction by Richard s, a nd from th e time th e fir st warehouse was completed in 1844 until 1870, when the entire A tl a nti c Basin was fini shed a nd called " th e epitome of what private enterprise ca n d o," Stranaha n did an o ut sta nding job. Thanks to him a nd Da ni el Rich a rd s the Atlantic Docks performed with di stin cti o n durin g th e C ivil War when it was a SEA HI STORY, SUM M E R 1979