• Weehawken Ferries in the Fog

  • Discussion relating to the NYC and subsidiaries, up to 1968. Visit the NYCS Historical Society for more information.
Discussion relating to the NYC and subsidiaries, up to 1968. Visit the NYCS Historical Society for more information.

Moderator: Otto Vondrak

  by ExCon90
Back when the CNJ still ran to Jersey City, when weather conditions in New York Harbor required the ferry operation to be suspended, CNJ conductors on the Raritan trains issued a Fog Ticket to each New York passenger, good for passage on the PRR from Elizabeth to New York. The New York passengers would all bail out at Elizabeth and go upstairs to the PRR station to board PRR trains to Newark and Penn Station (I assume the PRR must have put on passenger extras -- there's no way scheduled trains could have handled that number of additional passengers). The PRR conductors (assuming they could get through the train) would lift the Fog Tickets and turn them in to the PRR ticket receiver to be sent to the CNJ for reimbursement. If the Weehawken ferries were socked in, did the NYC have a specific emergency plan for dealing with passengers pouring off the trains in Weehawken, no similar transfer arrangement with another railroad being possible? Erie and DL&W passengers could just use the H&M, but there was no good way for large numbers of passengers to get from either the CNJ or the West Shore to Manhattan. Was there anything the NYC could do in those circumstances?
  by Allen Hazen
Interesting question-- I don't know the answer.
The CNJ ferries would have had to cross the river in a fairly busy part of New York Harbor, I think-- the New York Central's Weehawken ferries, if they were where I think I remember there were ferries in the early 1950s, would have been a bit further upriver, in an area with less intensive water traffic: I suppose it is possible that at that location it was deemed safe to cross-- maybe a bit slower than usual, and blowing the fog horn continuously-- in conditions worse than the CNJ ferries would dare.
But that is total, groundless, speculation on my part.
Umm. I'm assuming that the Weehawken ferries were the ones whose New York terminal was at about 125th Street?
  by edbear
The Weehawken ferries had two terminals on Manhattan, West 42nd Street, which had service for all trains and Cortlandt Street which probably from the early 1940s was 6 days, peak hours only, later cut to 5 day service.
  by Allen Hazen
Ed Bear--
Thank you, very much, for correcting my misapprehension! I take back my speculation about the New York Central's ferries operating in a less trafficed part of the river. (There WAS a ferry that went to 125th street, or thereabouts, but I don't know who ran it, or whether it had any affiliation to a railroad.)

Apologies for any confusion my confused post may have caused!
  by ExCon90
Just to tie it up, the 125th St. Ferry connected with a Public Service trolley line to Paterson which quit in the late 1930's, although there was a bus operation after that which continued to reach the ferry terminal (I don't know who operated the ferry).
  by granton junction
Yes, this is an interesting question. I scanned thru some West Shore employee tts that are pre-WW2. There was ferry service to Cortland St and and 42nd St. The ferries ended in March 1959 and then the trains in December 1959. In the tts there was no mention of alternatives or contingencies when there was fog. I agree that since the WS terminal was further up-river, there would have been somewhat less river traffic. I think that in the case of the CNJ the Elizabeth option provided an existing available alternative. But I wonder how often commuters were forced to use this. I am guessing only very infrequently. Since the WS terminal in Weehawken was relatively isolated with only the PS trolley going up the hill, I doubt that the NYC ever cancelled the ferry service completely even in severe weather. But today we are talking about rail and ferry service many years ago so it is almost impossible to get a definitive answer. Still an interesting question!
  by ExCon90
When I used the word fog in the title I was thinking of any weather conditions, particularly high water or high winds -- anything that might prevent a ferry from berthing safely. Even in calm weather it's an experience to be on board a Staten Island ferry berthing at South Ferry -- the boat can head in facing well to the right of the slip, and you stand there and watch as the boat slides laterally to the left (because that's how the water is pushing it) and meets the slip exactly. I believe suspensions of CNJ service occurred only rarely (those fog tickets have got to be one of the rarest collectibles around), but suspension of car floating between Greenville and Bay Ridge for periods of 8 hours and more easily happened once a month or so. Meanwhile, the Erie would be getting through Maybrook just fine.
  by Allen Hazen
Thanks for detail on the 125th St Ferry! My family moved to an apartment on Riverside Drive when I was 3, in 1950, and I think I remember seeing that ferry from our living-room windows. (Lots of river activity for a small child to watch in those days. The Day Line still ran excursion steamboats-- yes steam: I think there may have been five still in service when we first lived on RSD, and one even had a walking-beam on the roof-- up the river; there was a pier at 125th street so some of them could load additional passengers, saving Harlem excursionists the trip to their midtown (maybe about 40th Street?) terminus.

I'm afraid I didn't get to see as much railroad activity though: we lived a bit south of 125th, and the New York Central's West Side freight line was under ground where it passed our house.
  by RedbirdR33
It would be interesting to know what time period the the fog tickets were issued in. I say this because the railroad ferries like most of the other ferries in New York Harbor ran in foggy and snow as well. The used fog horns and stop watches and while their were some fender benders from time to time by and large it was a safe operation.

Larry, RedbirdR33
  by ExCon90
I don't know how often the weather stopped the ferries; a co-worker of mine in 1964-65 who commuted from Cranford was the one who told me about them. I would think it would have to be a real pea-souper to stop traffic in New York Harbor, considering how much traffic there was back in the day. Perhaps a "perfect storm" event combining high winds and high tides would have done it, but suspension of carfloat operations from Greenville to Bay Ridge was common enough to be a recurring nuisance.
  by Noel Weaver
I believe some of the RR Ferries were equipped with radar and with radar the problems were much less. I think the CNJ fog tickets lasted right up until the Jersey City Station was closed and the trains moved to PRR at Newark. As for the River Division passenger trains the New York Central and the New York, Susquehanna and Western used the same station at Ridgefield Park so I suppose a transfer there could take place but I don't have anything to indicate that such a transfer ever happened at least not on paper. This would have been the logical move in the event that the Weehawken Ferries were not able to operate as the Susquehanna still ran to Jersey City at that time where connection to New York was available via the Hudson Tubes (this predates PATH). Both railroads used the same station at Ridgefield Park.
Noel Weaver
  by Tommy Meehan
In their book Railroad Ferries of the Hudson (Raymond Baxter and Arthur Adams), Ray Baxter described how the boats operated in fog back in the 1940s and 1950s when he worked for the Erie. Baxter loved the marine operations and knew crews on other railroads and even rode with them at times, including the West Shore.

Baxter said that the boats operated in the fog and only the CNJ boats got radar and not until the 1950s. Until the 1950s many of the boats didn't even have radios. Like the railroad train crews, they communicated with the crew and with other vessels by whistle signals. Baxter said all the boats sounded slightly different from one another and after a while he could identify a boat by the sound of its whistle. During fog the U.S. Coast Guard required ferries (and all vessels) to sound the whistle (or fog horn) once-a-minute for a duration of 4-to-6 seconds. (Baxter said the West Shore boats had deep-sounding whistles.) Baxter said this not only served to warn other vessels, it would aid the Captain in navigation. The sound would bounce off objects such as other boats and docks, so by counting the seconds until they heard the echo they could determine where they were or if another vessel was getting close.

Precautions the crews took to operate in fog included operating at half-speed. For that reason roughly every other trip was annulled during foggy days. The ferries would station a deckhand on the bow to keep watch. In especially thick fog a second deckhand would be stationed on the bow of the cabin deck.

Another aid to navigation on foggy days were shore-mounted fog horns. Baxter mentioned that on Erie's Dock 4 in Jersey City the road maintained a loud air whistle or horn that sounded during periods of fog. Baxter said the West Shore ferries running to Cortlandt Street during fog, used this fog whistle as an aid.
"The West Shore boats coming down from Weehawken would come down along the Jersey shore and they knew if they kept our horn to starboard and forward they were okay." Raymond Baxter, Stories of a Deckhand page 192
  by Tommy Meehan
RedbirdR33 wrote:...The used fog horns and stop watches and while their were some fender benders from time to time by and large it was a safe operation.
Larry you appear to know of what you speak! :-)

Apparently the boats did keep operating if at all possible and there were a few collisions but usually with only minor damage and no injuries.

Looking at a Proquest news archive of the New York Times, the winter of 1926-27 seems to have been one of the foggiest. On Nov. 30, 1926 the West Shore ferry Albany collided with the CNJ boat Cranford as they arrived at adjacent slips at the Cortlandt Street and Liberty Street ferryhouses. There was heavy fog and the current swung Albany into the Cranford. Most of the damage was to the Cranford, some broken railings and some splintered wood. The collision's impact pushed the Albany into the Cortlandt Street slip's timbers (or 'fenders') but there was no damage and no injuries, just a very rough ride!

On Dec. 11, 1926 West Shore ferries -- despite an extremely heavy fog -- were running with delays. Heavy fog descended on the harbor in January and lasted intermittently for three days. Reportedly it was heaviest on January 22nd. On that day West Shore boats on the 42nd Street run were reported to be averaging a fifteen minute delay. That means they were really crawling as the trip normally took about five minutes. Cortlandt Street service was cancelled. In February there was another extremely heavy fog and this was one of the few times that all West Shore ferry operations were cancelled, although only for a few hours in the morning. In mid-March there was another period of heavy fog, intermittently over several days. The Times reported that "unlike in earlier fogs," the Cortlandt Street service was not suspended. On the afternoon of March 12th ferries were delayed by the fog and it was reported that westbound trains were delayed at Weehawken when they were held for late running ferries.

Arthur Adams commuted on the West Shore boats from Englewood for a year or two in the late 1940s and his father had been a West Shore commuter for many years. He wrote in Railroad Ferries of the Hudson, it was seldom that the 42nd Street boats stopped running. "Foggy days were scary," he wrote. The 42nd Street boats intersected the path of the big liners that docked along the West Side of Manhattan north of 42nd Street so passengers were always a bit on edge when the boat was slowly picking its way through a real pea-souper.

However, this was all before today's 'Nanny era' and people accepted some risk, it was viewed as part of life. How did Adams get to Manhattan when the boats weren't running? I don't think he said, I don't think he had it happen.
  by RedbirdR33
Larry you appear to know of what you speak!

Tommy: Thank you for your kind words . I have long been a fan of passenger - carrying watercraft but unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any boat-topic related bulltin boards.

I rode the New York Central ferry Stony Point when I was young but have very good memories of riding the Erie-Lackawanna Hoboken Ferry and the Jersey Central Communipaw Ferry. In fact my first trip on both those roads wasn't on a train it was on a ferryboat.

Mr Adams book is very good and filled with some great memories. There are some small errors in the text but not enough to diminish his work in any meaningful way.

Another good book is "Over and Back, The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor" by Mr Brian J Cudahy. While it deals with all the ferry ferry operations he does devote a significant amount of space to the railroad run ferry operations and rightly so. At one time the railroad operated ferries were the primary carriers of Trans-Hudson passengers and vehicles.

In 1910 the Hudson River railroad ferries carried over 97 million passengers . Even as late as 1955 the annual passenger count was 21 million.

If you ever need information about a particular boat or line that is not railroad related you can always e-mail me and I'll be glad to help if I can.

Larry, Redbirdr33
  by Tommy Meehan
Thanks Larry. I hope you and some of the others might enjoy seeing some images I found of West Shore ferry operations. (None are copyrighted.)

A bird's eye view of the Weehawken Terminal in 1911:


The steps leading from the terminal area to the bluffs above circa 1885 when the West Shore began service:


Viewed about fifty years later the area is dramatically built up. The concrete street on the left is Pershing Rd which led from Boulevard East on top of the Palisades down to River Rd and the West Shore Terminal. The latter day steps are visible on the extreme left. I know people who traversed those steps in 1959 -- after the ferryboats stopped running -- in order to get one last ride on the West Shore.


There were three Public Service streetcar lines serving the terminal: the 19 and 21 lines from Hoboken (via Bergenline Avenue I think) and the 23 from Ft. Lee. All were gone by the 1950s.

Finally a view east from the heights overlooking the Weehawken terminal and station area. This probably dates to the late 1940s but that's just a guess. I'm not sure which (if any) landmark one could use to date it more accurately.