A ferry informative exhibition is coming to the Brooklyn Historical Society this weekend.
“Full Steam Ahead: 200 Years of Ferries in Brooklyn” opens on May 10, showcasing the borough’s tradition of maritime commuting and commemorating the bicentennial of Brooklyn’s first steam-powered ferry. Historians say the boats were a big part of Kings County’s buoyancy.
“The ferry played a major role in transforming Brooklyn from a sleepy agricultural town into the third largest city in the country,” said Julie Golia, the exhibition’s curator and a society historian.
Robert Fulton launched his steam ferry in 1814, with a dock near present-day Fulton Landing. At the time, most people traveled between Brooklyn and Manhattan using row- and sail-boats, which made the trip difficult and dangerous during bad weather. Those crossing were often farmers, not commuters.
“Brooklyn was more like the country then,” said Golia.
Fulton died a year after the ferry bearing his name launched, but by then a new form of inter-borough travel was solidly afloat.
The steam-powered people-movers remained popular even after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, enabling Brooklynites to travel to Manhattan without the risk of getting wet. It was the underground rail that did them in.
“The subway was the mass transit system that really killed the ferries,” said Golia.
But things are coming full circle, as new ferry lines have begun to carry people along the city’s vast shore.
The Brooklyn Historical Society’s exhibition will include paintings of the old ferry fleets, examples of tickets and business records, and letters written by angry early straphangers.
Golia says that the concerns of Brooklyn’s first class of commuters mimic the gripes we have about subways today.
“They were worried about overcrowding, the fares, and safety,” Golia said.