Harold Goldstein recalls, as a small boy, being taken on a walking tour of New York City’s waterfront. He describes something that astonished and delighted him: “a number of small harbors, inlets from the East River, rectangular in shape and about the size of a city block, in which rusty freighters and even a few sailing ships were anchored. Men trudged off them and into nearby warehouses, carrying on their backs bags of coffee beans, sacks of spices and bunches of green bananas.” He places this in the early 1920’s. He goes on to admit that some time between 1825 and 1857, all but one of the slips had been filled in, the last one disappearing before the end of the century. “My vivid recollections as a nine year old in the 1920’s was an illusion, but it did reflect an earlier reality. Possibly I had seen a drawing of the scene and remembered it as if I had really seen it.”
These early slips were indeed tiny inlets of the harbor reaching back into the island, but they were, from their earliest existence, never dug out. They emerged by filling in the earth around them.
While the Dutch still had claim on York Island (now Manhattan), the land to the southeast of the lower island along the East River was swampy wet lands. What is now known as Front, Water and South Streets were covered by high tides. The Dutch were cognizant that the land facing the Hudson to the west was a poor choice for docking vessels because of the rocky shore and strong winds and waves so they looked to the shallow, marshy mud flats along the much calmer East River.
Instead of trying to dredge the mud to allow ships to anchor close to land, they ingeniously began to fill the area in. Manhattan was laced with hills, small and large, of which some traces remain today that are not leveled by skyscrapers. The earth to fill these salt marshes came from leveling some of the smaller hills. They built up the land into the river which left rectangular shaped arms of water on either side that seemed to reach inland. Within these inlets, ships could ‘slip’ between the arms and tie up alongside. The new land was wide enough to accommodate the construction of warehouses and even taverns that catered to the sailor’s veracious desire for strong spirits.
The construction of slips along the East River carried on right through the eighteenth century. Recently arrived immigrants found work as cartmen and diggers building new slips and enlarging others. Many of these laborers found residence cheaply across town on land leased from Trinity Church. The modest homes sprawled out over an old Bowery, (Dutch for farm), that was still owned by the church and became the Holy Ground, notorious for disorderly houses and prostitution.
The sights, sounds and smells must have been magnetic. Ship’s masts towered over land and water, their rigging helping to raise and lower the tightly packed goods in and out of the holds. Men shouted and labored under the strain of offloading sea bearing vessels to the clink of metal and the running of lines. The smells had to be a wondrous mélange: roasted coffee mingled with rich sensuous spices, fragrant fruits and ripening vegetables strewn with the stench of rotting fish and fetid sludge of open sewers.
The following list of slips are dated at about the time of the American Revolution and stretched from Fort George, running along the East River, and ending at the shipyards which bordered the extensive Rutgers Estate.
- Whitehall Slip next to Battery at the base of Whitehall St.
- Exchange Slip at the bottom of Broad Street.
- Coenties Slip, at Coenties Alley near Broad Street.
- Old Slip, at the bottom of William Street.
- Coffee House Slip, at the bottom of Wall Street.
- Fly Market Slip, at the base of Maiden Lane.
- Burling Slip, at the bottom of John Street.
- Peck Slip, at the base of Ferry Street.
- James Slip, at the end of James Street.
- Market Slip at the bottom of Market Street.
- Pike Slip at the bottom of Pike St.
- Rutgers Slip, at the end of Rutgers Street.
Some of the slips got their names from early residents like Coenties Slip, for a Dutch couple who had a residence there; Coent and Anties. Others were derived from their principal trade: Coffee Slip near Wall Street, for example and Market Slip and Fly Market Slip for the marketplace that extended up the center of the streets leading to the slips.
Over time, steam ships became larger and developed into freighters, so wharfs were built further out into the River which made the slips obsolete. However, many of the streets in modern New York still retain the old names, (Old Slip, Catherine Slip, Market Slip), and some even retain the old stanchions to which ships were once tied, like the lone sentries on the square at Peck’s Slip.
Cumming, W. P. The Montresor-Ratzer-Sauthier Sequence Maps of New York City, 1766-1776. Imago Mundi, Vol 31 (1979), pp. 55-65
Goldstein, Harold Slips of Old New York http://jondreyer.org/hal/slipsofoldnewyork.html
Watson, John Fanning Of New York City and State in the Olden Time. 1846 Applewood Books, Carlisle, MA.